Apr 07, 2009

Personas 2.0

In the web design world, we have a tool called personas—fictional characters that are stand-ins for our target user groups. Some designers love ‘em and some hate ‘em, but when we use personas at the right time in the right way, they can be a useful way to help think through tasks users need to complete, or content they need to answer their questions. (For more on this topic, download my Thinking Inside the Box UPA presentation which shows some examples of how to use personas to prioritize content and functionality.)

But the web, as you’ve probably noticed, is getting more complicated. Rather than simply designing a stand-alone site or application, we need to think about the web experience more holistically. How are people interacting with each other through blogs, micro-blogging tools, tags, and social networking applications? What motivates them to participate? What motivates people to interact with each other online?

What motivates people to interact with each other online. (Image from Second Life)
Image from Second Life

Which brings me to my recent conversation with Adrian Chan, a social interaction designer based in San Francisco.

Huh? What’s a social interaction designer?

That’s right, you heard me. I didn’t say interaction designer. I said social interaction designer. Adrian describes his role as “a niche specialization in the structuring and design of social media with an emphasis on social practices.” Another way to think about social interaction design (which I will now lovingly refer to as SxD, to use Adrian’s preferred acronym) is that it’s user centered design, but with a focus on psychology and what Adrian calls “personalities.”

Move over personas… Enter personalities

Adrian says that social media have brought out distinct behaviors that are inherent in all of us. He says that most of us fall into one of three categories: self-oriented, other-oriented, or relationship-oriented.

Self-oriented: These are, for lack of a more flattering term, the narcissists. Self-oriented people tend to be the first to get attention. They may be “pundits” or “experts.” In the world of social media, they tend to be the people who post a lot of information. They flood the Internet with their Facebook status updates and tweets. They love an audience.

Other-oriented: These are the people who get engaged through interaction with others. They are the first ones to give attention, rather than get attention. They may be the “master of ceremonies” in a forum or the “critic” who posts comments on other people’s blogs.

Relationship-oriented: These are the socialites, the people who feel a need to include others. They negotiate the flow of attention, and their sensibility lies in relationships between people, and where they stand in those relationships. They include the “mediators,” the “triangulators,” and the “harmonizers.” From the interviews I have been doing with community managers, I'd say a lot of them fall into this category.

Adrian says that social media tend to amplify these traits. Working with a small group of designers and psychologists, he is developing about a dozen or so distinct social media personalities. I asked which category he falls into. “I’m a moderator,” he says. “I observe other people and I don’t like to be on stage.”

What I like about Adrian’s concept of social media personalities is that it gives designers a better tool than personas for understanding human behavior in this brave new world unfolding before our eyes. Good SxD in this world will need to focus on satisfying the needs of all these personality types and facilitate the ways that they wish to interact with each other.

Look for more information about the mindsets of users in the social media world on Adrian’s blog.