Using Social Lenses To See Social Dimensions

October 31, 2013 by UX-RADIO


Want a more solid understanding of social interaction design to build great foundations and work through various social design needs as they arise? This podcast provides insight into social lenses to help see and understand the foundations of social media to design people their needs and for how humans are social. Many organizations and internet sites are adding social elements but find they are not getting much interaction with them. Social is much harder and more complicated and complex than many expect. This requires breaking things down into small components to help see the needs and interaction more clearly.

Here’s the full transcript:

Thomas: So relating to web and sort of social pieces, I have a background in communication, Theory and organizational communication for underground and sort of very in depth on how humans communicate, interact, and particularly through mediated interfaces, and what are the things to look out for but that also you know, how do people work in groups and interact with the different dynamics if you’re trying to work with a message or information how does it share, how does it get adopted and so that was sort of a foundation from underground. Worked for about five years, mostly around IT sort of space and wearing sort of an IT hat and this is late-80’s early-90’s in San Francisco, and then decided I was going to do a career shift because being tied to most things technology was just sort of one step above the janitorial service, and so I wanted to take a career change and head toward public policy. One of the things in grad school and public policy was social analytics and being able to look at situations, see what worked if you’re trying to, move a population either for better health or decreasing crime what are the variables that make sense? What are the things that work, how do you begin to look at a situation, understand what you’re capturing and what you’re missing, and how do you begin to capture that information and share it? When I got out in 1995, this whole web thing had started to take off, and my first job was, essentially taking care of, a trade association’s website, as well as doing a little bit of policy work for them as well as managing a private CompuServe for them for 3,000 attorneys which was highly entertaining because they have a various known practice of when something doesn’t go their way they threaten to sue or to take action. And so trying to sort out what is triggering this and quite often it’s that they don’t agree with somebody else and what somebody else said so if you don’t have them blocked or removed their content or what they’ve shared, then they are going to ask that you are removed from your job or other things.

Just trying to understand managing the web piece was rather straightforward and easy. I was able to use a lot of what I learned with communication undergrad and working from a Public Relations space as well as working within print media and getting some foundations in those for layout. Essentially you’re doing wireframing for print layout, figuring out where things are going, you’re trying to figure out audience, targeting the message to the audience, doing audience composites. Alan Cooper was working with an ad agency, a Bay Area agency in the ‘80s where they relied heavily on audience composites and he turned around and called those personas. They are almost identical to the audience composites from the ‘80s that at least Bay Area agencies were using heavily influenced by data, understanding who the consumers, who the target market was and being able to understand what terms they used, how the information was going to be used in their life, and they were quite often mocked up on mood boards and other things.

You understood who the persona was, what their background was, you gained empathy, and how what you were working on fit within their life and made a difference, whether that was buying a pair of jeans or whether that was buying a taco, whether it was giving to a cancer society. No matter what it was, it all fit within these audience composites or as Alan Cooper called it, personas. He was trying to use the personas to try to talk about technology but use the exact technique that was being done in the communication agencies, the ad agencies and PR firms for things that they were doing. Being able to take those and bring them to a digital practice in the early ‘90s and understanding who the users of the site were, the various constituencies, and taking all these things that I had learned from the non-digital and print world and then applying them.

By about 2000 I started running into other people online talking about this but there wasn’t sort of any group that I knew about. It turned into going to South by Southwest (SxSW) in 2001 and running into a group of folks that were called Adaptive Path and they were launching at SxSW. A lot of this is called “Information Architecture” and we have a meeting of folks that’s coming up soon and you should probably think about going to that conference as well. I started finding out about some of the blogs and other things and some of them I had been reading but not really understanding what things were called. I started going through the practices that people had and I was like “Wow! This maps very closely to what I had been doing.” I had been following Nathan Shedroff’s company, Vivid Design and Vivid Studios out of San Francisco for many years and a lot of things that I had been doing was reading what Nathan and others at Vivid were doing and it mapped almost directly to what I knew and they used some slightly different terms but their methodologies were almost ‘dead on’ from what existed before, that had been around before 40 or 50 years and honed and crafted.

It was sort of an easy step into this wireframes and understanding audience, understanding needs, and if you want to talk about something, what are the terms you use to connect to navigation and finding that information? So it was a natural fit for the stuff that I cared about and had learned.

Dealing with the CompuServe and that social platform I started using an awful lot of that social communication piece in organizational communication then also married with public policy and being able to say “What’s working?” and “What’s not working?” I spent an awful lot of time talking with the CompuServe folks and being able to walk through the initial five questions of: Is it the individual and a problem that an individual has or certain individuals? Is it how humans are social? And that started breaking down and realizing that there isn’t really a common narrative for how humans are social.

Then you start thinking well maybe it’s cultural and cultural influences and the different personality types that are driven to the different types of law where there is a differing interest. Is it the organization and it’s constraints by oversight and what they can talk about? Or is it the tool? And figuring out what that weave is of all five of those and which strings do you pull to tighten that weave and which strings do you pull so that it’s going to fall apart?

That was really fascinating and I sort of stayed close to it even when I moved on from that role. An awful lot of what I moved into was more telecommunications and understanding spectrum space. Every role that I went to I was wearing that geek hat; in managing the website, in managing internal internet, how things were shared internally and those same skill sets stayed and little by little would bounce in and out. My work changed and started being far more web development focused but UX and IA were the foundations. If you wanted to build anything successfully looking back to communication you need to figure out what people called it, how people thought about it, what their mental model was and figure out how to map the tools to adapt to that and understand how people needed that information in their life for their job.  Once you go beyond job and you start getting mobile devices and seeing that very early on in the late ‘90s with Palm devices and watching how people were putting information in their pockets and having those be connected wirelessly. And some of the windows phones it’s like “Wow! This mobile revolution is here.” Large chunks of people had either text message capability, they will search for something on the Internet and they go to a store and they forgot what they searched. Well, we have this nice little thing that we can, if you have SMS, talk to the site and it’s like “Oh, this is the washer and dryer that I’m looking for!” This is the model number; push it to my phone so that when I go to the store in the early 2000’s we had that. We started talking about the “Come to me web”.  This Come to me Web is here it’s no longer the “I go get web” we now need this information in our lives.

I had been working on mobile design and development and not realizing that not everyone had caught onto this. It wasn’t until iPhone came out that it was like “Wow, this mobile revolution is here. It’s been around but if you take a look at how people use information in their life and once you step away from the screen, and from what I hear there are people that are not geeks that don’t have a screen in front of their face everyday that need this information in their life. Something like 98% don’t live that way, odd.

Lara: Those “other” people.

Thomas: The broken ones. It’s about being able to see how things work and also how understanding the affordances when you don’t have a connection. One of the frustrations with more people getting this revolution is that they are eating up all this lovely bandwidth that’s floating around in the air that we can’t see. I can’t get my check in, I can’t figure out what’s going on, where am I supposed to be next, it’s in the cloud but it’s not cloudy it’s sunny. Darn it, it’s a nice day and I’m free to go do whatever. Taking that information use and watching the Web 2.0 thing happen and then being somewhat tangentially tied to the edges of it from friends that I met through South by Southwest in 2001 and 2002. They were building applications and services and a few of them got together and made this thing called Twitter. Others were building something called Flicker, a side project for a game that a bunch of us were playing. When the game development got stopped and they were waiting for things to return they built this Flicker thing. Somebody was working on a bookmarking tool that didn’t rely on just your browser and you could use it on any browser and it was always there on the web and you could tag it so it made sense and bring things within context and oh, by the way it’s openly shared and Delicious (formerly made sense.


There were a bunch of us in the IA forums and listserves that were talking about it and someone said “What do we call this tagging thing that’s happening?” and I just threw out the term “folksonomy”. I had been working on tagging systems back to early 1990’s with Lotus Magellan, which was this interesting piece of software that indexed all the words in your documents and whatever you fed it. It had a really nice search but one of the things you could do was add other terms that weren’t in the document. You could add your own context to it and glue things together.

I was working for a custom house brokerage firm. In all of our memos to our customers, all of our notes about data models for taking large companies imports and exports and production [were about] being able to map the data to a story that would help the companies get money back from US customs. All those notes and just having these different idiosyncrasies of different industries and how they dealt with things and how they worked around tariffs and different taxation rates for importing and exporting, being able to hold onto those notes so when you run across it again that worked for reconstructing those models and made all the stories really easy. I was like “Wow! This is really magic!” It was my second job out of undergrad. I was like “Wow, the modern ‘90s. This is how the modern world works.”

Then I went to grad school and started realizing in different jobs when I was in grad school that the world doesn’t work that way it would just happen to be that one guy with this one cool tool that made work really easy and made your job really easy. Once Delicious popped up I finally got my mind around what it was doing it was like “Wow! It’s that same sort of thing again.” Being able to understand what regular people call things rather than having to have everybody map about how they think about things to a taxonomy that doesn’t map to their mental model of the world and you call things. It started making sense but it didn’t necessarily mean that taxonomies had to go away but they could be updated and influenced greatly by what people were calling things.

The hard work of building taxonomies, paying attention to what people who couldn’t find things were actually calling things once they found them; that started making an awful lot of sense. Some of the hard work of tracking down what people called things all of the sudden became relatively easy. I head back into that social space again and people were saying “Hey, what are these other social components, how are they working since it had been something I had spent item with, I started running it through how I thought about things and I was able to see gaps and areas where I had experienced things that I had managed, designed and developed where the social components and the interactive components between people didn’t really work and I’m like “Hey, here are areas you might have a problem there . We know that gap exists let’s see if we can start solving it upfront and a little bit earlier.

Lara: What was one of those gaps?

Thomas: One of them is understanding what favoriting is and liking. I have presentations where I’ve talked about that pretty much exclusively and the intent for a lot of users is missing for what they are meaning by staring and favoriting things or liking things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people like them, but it’s a way to bookmark it and it’s a way to give kudos back to somebody. Like, “Hey, nicely done.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that I like it. Some people look at it as they have signed off; they’ve seen it, like it, approve of it. It could also be “Hey, I saw this, stop pestering me to see this, I’ve seen it, you can see that I have seen it.”  Sometimes, it actually does mean, “I do like this.” and favorite it and am willing to share that out. Other times it’s a trigger for other services to do something with it. You may want to come back later and pay attention to it but you have a service that will pick it up and with things like “If this, then that.” Someone will pay attention to a twitter favorite and go and grab it and pull it into Instapaper and also can push it out to Pinboard and bookmark it there. Pinboard will go out and if it has a link it will go grab the full text of whatever it’s linked to and so it’s fully searchable. The future me, I may not have fully read something, but it’s sort of “as if” had read and it’s within my repository of things that “Oh I remember seeing something.” And things that I hadn’t fully seen are still within that grasp and floated through my view and I have that within my reach. So that favoriting is a trigger for this other thing, it doesn’t mean I read it, it doesn’t mean I approved it, it doesn’t mean any of these other things that people believe. It’s being able to understand that there are all these different intents tied into this one little interaction component. It gets to be somewhat problematic if you are trying to keep a simple interface easy to use, somewhat easy to understand if you like this or have interest – star it. And if people take their star modeling from Gmail where it’s just you, it’s like “Oh, these are the things I want to come back to or I have interest in.” Comparing it to Twitter, it used to not have any outward exposure unless you went looking for someone’s Tweets but now it shows up in apps. It’s like “Oh, somebody favorited this.” And people will say “Oh, why didn’t you re-Tweet it?” I don’t know what it says, I don’t know if I agree but this is just a reminder to come back and review things that I favorite.  It gets to be these odd understandings of “What does it mean?”

And I know two organizations who have had people fired because there was a misunderstanding of what favoriting something meant. Somebody had misinterpreted that thinking that staring something meant that they approved of it and it was somebody of “sign-off” level and they were swamped on a project and were saving it for later, like it’s of interest and I need to pay attention to this. Somebody said, “Oh, so-and-so signed off on this, let’s move forward.” They start allocating money to it they start getting resources, buying property and so forth and somebody surfaces goes back to things they favorited. This document, this plan for moving forward, here are some big gaps and all of the sudden the company is like “What do you mean? You signed off on this.” “No, I didn’t sign off.”

Lara: It’s a communication issue. They misinterpreted the favoriting as approval, which is probably not their process for approval.

Thomas: No, and it’s that understanding of in some systems it can mean that. Quite often, no matter how clearly you have something is labeled as to what it means, this means that you like it. People are like “No, no, no, it means that they signed off.” Or they are giving feedback and saying, “This is good.”

Lara: That can get dangerous.

Thomas: It gets dangerous very quickly.  In presentation I had been giving a story of these are potential areas. Somebody came up after one of the talks and said, “My company actually fired someone for misunderstanding that. I don’t know who in that chain got fired. I’m guessing it was the person who thought it was a sign-off.

Lara: That would make sense.

Thomas: And lots of figures of money start getting allocated but then the next presentation I gave I said “Hey, if there’s a company that had somebody fired and someone came up after and said “My company had the same problem and here’s what happened. It was similar industries but it wasn’t the same company and I’m like “Huh.”

There’s more to this than a lot of the companies the vendors and people that make the services are like “Yeah, we run into this an awful lot.”

Lara: Well a lot of the big corporations I think are very conservative to begin with, with social media and they are hesitant to dip their toe in the water. For some of the companies I’ve worked with Facebook is an easy one to get started with a business page. LinkedIn, they don’t necessarily want to use that because they don’t want their personnel looking for another job. Twitter is just scary to them because they don’t know what it is and they think it’s kind of meaningless. They don’t understand how it can expand their brand awareness. So each channel has it’s own complications.

Thomas: Being able to understand not only the sharing and messaging out but also being able to listen and Twitter is really good for being able to listen. There’s people who have an interest in what we are doing but also could have a problem. When they started Comcast Cares, Comcast telephone support service was abysmal.  Usually it took a half hour to forty-five minutes at a minimum to get someone on the phone. I was switching cable services and I had an option. I don’t like my other option but I’m going to give Comcast a shot because I knew about Comcast Cares. If I can complain on Twitter and get a response within five minutes or ten minutes I’ve got 30 days to cancel. And so I gave it a shot and my installation guy wasn’t there two minutes before the end of the window and so I started complaining. I got somebody and they were like “Oh, he should be pulling up in your driveway.” I never would have gotten that on the phone, I would have still been on hold. I was like “Okay, this kind of works.” Talking to folks it’s a product that Esri bought, it’s a mapping tool that pays attention to social platforms.  Quite often the disaster services and emergency services start using the service to be able to map Twitter complaints and outages during storms and emergencies and being able to say “There’s an area that’s lost it’s power. Here’s a bridge that’s out.” Here’s all the stuff just by paying attention to Tweets and Facebook. Those people who have geolocation turned on they are able to say “Nobody has reported a bridge out. Maybe we need to go and investigate.” And all of the sudden four other people are like, “Okay, try the bridge from the other side.” Where did you have that before. Being able to take those examples and they are mapping it live. And also being able to say “Here are the trigger terms that we are paying attention to.” It’s like bridge out, where? Is anybody else saying it? Let’s see if emergency teams know about that. How do we route around that? How do we fix it? Or there is a hospital without power. We are not hearing anything. Their phone lines are down. But people are using their mobile phones and Tweeting about it. Calling somebody doesn’t surface but this magic thing of openly sharing and just saying “Somebody out there do something.” It gets heard.

When you’re having a problem with a product or service and being able to say something, they are able to pop up and say, “Yeah, what’s your problem? Give me your account information and your phone number and I’ll get a representative to call you or see if I can sort it out. “Oh, no your service is down, it should be back in fifteen minutes.” Those are heavy call load times and the time to process a call is much longer than it is to respond to a Tweet sometimes. Organizations that have caught onto that for me, it completely changed my perception of Comcast and now their telephone support has improved quite a bit.

Lara: And you became a customer because they had that excellent customer service available through social media and that can be a double edged sword because corporations don’t want the negative feedback but if you can respond quickly and say “Hey, we are really concerned about your issue, please email us and let us know how we can resolve that for you.” Other people see that you responded quickly, you’re honest, authentic, and you’re taking care of the issue and actually building more customers.

Thomas: It becomes one of those things that changes perceptions and understand sort of what happens in the different services. Each of them has their own sort of flavor as well as, strengths, benefits, and where they don’t necessarily do things well. It’s understanding who hangs out and who communicates. The old rules in business economics of you go where the customers are. If there is a great ice cream parlor and it’s swamped and there’s a line out the door, what do you know? Next summer, there are three other ice cream parlors in that same 3-block radius. They paid attention. They are like “Wow, there’s ice cream customers, maybe they will come to our ice cream place,” and they will break off that long line and “We’ve always wanted to make ice cream and we are looking for a second store.” You do those things. If you’re selling farm equipment you go to the county fairs and state fairs because that’s where the people are. You’re essentially going to where the people are and there is a good aggregation of people within Facebook and Twitter and so forth… and just being able to hang out and have a presence when people are talking about things or when they are mentioning something of interest you can pop up and say “Hey, yeah we are sorry that you’re having a problem,” or “Wow, we don’t have that in our service, that’s a really good idea, can you help us frame that for us?” and being able to talk to them. Sometimes it’s showing that you care and then being able to execute on something is even more helpful.

Lara: I know that, for example, on Twitter you can do a search by what has been mentioned most often and some companies are really using that to their benefit and so I think what I hear you saying is that you can be smart about how you use the information. Not only going to the customer but also looking at the terms and the feed to then base whatever your product design is. How have you used and how has that been successful?

Thomas: I’ve seen that used in some of the tools that are, it’s one of the sort of rough areas just because now there is such a large volume of information flowing through Twitter. Being able to have the keywords. Some companies are not only paying attention to their own brand or terms around their space but also paying attention to competitors. And usually when companies step over the line and start trashing their customers. That gets a lot of attention. It’s like understanding what sort of part of the community thinks is a good practice and when you have gone over the line. It’s something that a lot of companies are beginning to learn and it changes an awful lot. Sort of who cares about what and when this amorphous large collection of folks and sometimes it’s a handful of a few thousand can look like everybody.  With Twitter they have 200 million people but there’s 1.5 billion people online around the globe. And so 200 million people on Twitter is an insanely large number but not necessarily a large percentage.

Lara: And are they US verses international? Where is the location depending on what you’re looking at?

Thomas: Twitter has pretty good numbers as to where people are and just being able to pay attention to what’s out there and if you ever wade into the live stream of mainstream Twitter it’s just all sorts of different languages now and pretty much everywhere is covered.  It’s trying to figure out who you are talking to and how you deal with “Are these people local?” and local means an awful lot but it doesn’t mean as much. It has a very different meaning. That has shifted an awful lot, in particular a physical service or something that you’re offering that is location based. That’s something that’s really needed. Figuring out how you do that on Twitter where it’s global. And quite often it’s paying attention to what people said, sorting out where somebody is and figuring out how you’re going to engage in that manner. An awful lot of those lessons learned externally are somewhat the tip of the iceberg in what you’re dealing with inside organizations because Twitter with 200 million is not everybody.

Inside organizations you’re essentially trying to get 100 percent. Essentially what email did, email took 5 years to get to 100% adoption within organizations. Being able to have that same sort of 100% adoption engagement in mind with tools that are completely foreign to 80% of the organization. There’s an awful lot of hurdles and that’s where a lot of the social complexities around it shows what works, what doesn’t work and doing essentially social interaction design and user experience to be able to identify what are the different roles, models, traits, expectations. Those shift quite a bit and are different for people.  You can’t really have a “One size fits all” internally and particularly in large organizations. Just because it’s difficult to sort of have brought education, once you get over to about 500 thousand people it starts fracturing a bit. Those start beginning to be points where people want to have smaller tools and say well we need something for ourselves; inside large organizations, under the 20,000 or over the 20,000. You start seeing many different tools being used. They may have one official tool but quite often that may not serve everybody. Each group is like “Wow, we have something that works for us to get our work done and we want to collaborate more, connect with our customers, or have ideation with customers and internally how do we put that out there? How do we do that and it’s like the service that we are supposed to be using doesn’t do that very well. It has an awful lot of checkboxes but nothing is really done well. You start seeing those in what’s working well, it goes back to user experience and understanding how different personalities and different people work and think and function in different ways. What works well for that one group may not work well for others. A lot of people fall into roles and positions based on personality traits they have and strengths that they have.

In going through social software in the mid-2000’s I was talking with professors that were using blogs and wikis within their classes. There’s a group that goes around and updates and cleans things up and adds.

Lara: And they are mostly men, which is interesting.

Thomas: The one who did mine was a woman.

Lara: Okay, that’s good.

Thomas: A lot of university projects that are doing sort of background.

Lara: I was just listening to a podcast Freakanomics, “Women are Not Men”, talking about women in technology and specifically overall for Wikipedia how many authors are men verses women, that [women] are far outnumbered and why? I thought that was surprising too.

Thomas: The public policy program that I graduated from, they are part of a collection of 8 different university and public policy programs that are going and working on public policy issues and public policy related matter and Wikipedia across many languages. They are looking for volunteers and even graduates. I’m like “Wow! This is really impressive,” and I started talking to people from the Wikimedia Foundation that funds it there’s tons of teams that are on different subject matter. Oh yeah, this is incomplete let’s update it. It was rather impressive. You also have all the back history of it. If something gets cut down a little bit or goes missing it’s like “Oh, what was there before, I know there was something here.” What did it link to, where did that information go because it was good?

Lara: Do they get recognition for content contribution?

Thomas: Some of the subject matter areas are funded and if you do so much work you may get a stipend, so you might get like $400 a semester for editing some number of pages, but not all subject matter has that behind it. I just stumbled into that. Trying to sort out who edited it and then we will watch edits take place and all of the sudden there’s massive edits and I’m like “What’s going on? Who did what, when where? I know that person and that person but who are these others? How do they know this stuff?” And tracking where they got the information, I’m like “I need to go clean that one up myself.”

Lara: We were talking about some of the complexities within an organization and within your talk here at the IA Summit is there anything else that you’re covering in your talk?

Thomas: I did a half-day workshop today on what I had backed up into a couple years ago, which was a rather wide breadth and depth of information around social. I had worked through an awful lot of social models from trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work and a lot of it didn’t mesh with some of the early sort of web 2.0 examples and theories about what works and what doesn’t work. An awful lot of that was based on how early adopters think and function.  When you start looking at one of the things that hold regular people back one of the things I use is social comfort; social comfort with people, with tools, and content. What are the interaction design and user experience design needs to build that comfort? Comfort is a replacement term for trust and trust is an almost impossible word to design for because it has so many different meanings for people and trust is not something you can easily define. Comfort and being able to get to the point “I’m comfortable enough to be able to contribute or participate, what are the things that are holding back that comfort, you understand what that is.” People, when you’re talking to users, they can express but that trust thing, people will contribute even if they don’t trust. But it’s something else that was holding back and I also couldn’t the people that I was working with in 2008, they were continually using trust and realized it was impossible to design. I couldn’t benchmark it and so I just banned the word “trust”. I’m like “You’ve got to use another term.” You define it and then within two or three minutes you’re using a different definition and we define that and then use the term again in another definition and then I’m just like “Let’s just pick all new words, pick another proxy word.” One of the ones that surfaced an awful lot was comfort. Am I comfortable with who other people are, am I comfortable with what they are going to do with the content and things that I share? Are they going to be responsible with it? Are they going to be reliable and sort of follow through and are there other things that are going to keep them from being reliable that may be out of their hands? There are an awful lot of things that people would say that would erode trust but when you frame it in comfort it’s not like this person is untrustworthy, but I don’t have comfort. They can frame why and there might be something that puts them more in an empathetic mode. Being able to understand gaps in the tools and if someone is not doing something maybe being able to expose the calendar, oh they just had a child who was in the hospital. They got caught up in [hurricane] Sandy and had been without power for two weeks or they are still living on the roof of their house waiting to get picked up. Being able to understand the context and being able to say maybe we need some outside information to be able to fill in these gaps. It becomes a much more human and a much more embraceable and this rough, technical, cold, edge becomes a little bit softer. It becomes a nicer way to start thinking and framing.

Lara: So do you use some of those questions that help define the comfort levels when you’re developing the personas?

Thomas: Initially identify the gaps. Then start being able to understand what are the traits of the people that have a lack of comfort? Is it with the tools, is it with the content or are they just not comfortable? Is most of where the content is being shared within expert territory but you have people who have good ideas and feedback and it’s like “This just doesn’t work for me,” and l like the company and I like the brand and I like what we are doing if it’s internal like having someone in marketing and say “Hey, we can save quite a bit of money if our trucks inflate their tires a little bit more.” So they get better gas mileage and in the winter, for safety, decrease the gas mileage. I’m looking in the summertime and they are low and in the winter they are high. Maybe we need to switch that or pay attention to it but how do you do that as a marketing person who doesn’t have any credibility within logistics and trucking and shipping. Where is that space for ideas and is there a place in being able to say “Wow, this is really good.” Being able to understand the information flows, the types of information, what is out there and the capabilities who you maybe interacting with. How do you work with coworkers?

Back in the mid-2000’s an awful lot of these social platforms that started getting focused on business were trying to solve the problem of getting information flows and working out of email. And people were like, “Yeah, we work in email but we need to bring somebody new into the project, and all of that history is tucked in email and we can’t re-find it and there is no history for somebody to drop in and say “Okay, here’s all the discussions but these three that have been stared go look at those. We’ve tagged them here is the information that has been created. Here are the important things to look at” and we have either a wiki page or a living document one that’s not put into PDF or Microsoft Word but it’s like, people can go in and edit and it’s like “Oh, here’s an update to this and there is only one version that exists. Being able to account for the broken ways we got into sharing office documents around. Making it so that information was consistent. It lived in one place, it was easy to work with, easy to edit. And when you get to an end-point it’s like “Oh this is a good deliverable.” Turn it over into a document format because that’s how things are stored and what’s expected. And you can style it and as you’re making it look as expected and have it as a milestone. As you’re working, having formats that work and allow things to be created and collectively and collaboratively far more easily and work has actual productivity tools and not anti-productivity tools.

Lara: What tool would you use for something like that when you are communicating internally, storing things.

Thomas: There are an awful lot of services that are out there and they keep on shifting quite a bit. In the session this morning, in the workshop there were people who were using Jive to do some of that. Being able to point to documents being able to see if there is anything behind an idea. I know organizations that use social text. There’s an awful lot of services that started as wiki companies but they have changed their interface to look more like document companies but they still have the talk pages and the versioning that is there from a wiki but it looks more like a Word document. Being able to interlink information very easily within a wiki allows that collective understanding and people having jumping off points. Like, “where do we find more information on that?” You’re pointing to a sub-heading in another page and it’s like “Oh, there are my two paragraphs.” That ease of work and when you go back and listen to Douglas Engelbart and start reading some of the early folks from Xerox PARC and SAIL that were building the early internet, how they collaborated across distance to build this stuff. Some of the stuff that they were talking about is this future of work. These are sort of outcroppings of going back to having living documents and living environments where things aren’t sort of having digital versions of things that didn’t work very well in the paper world.

Lara: Thank you so much for being on UX-radio!

Thomas: You’re welcome. This was fantastic. Thank you.


Thomas Vander Wal is Senior UX Designer and Strategist at Design for Context. He helps organizations better understand their information needs and interaction patterns around information in social collaborative services and complex and complicated systems. He also works with vendors improving their products by embracing how humans are social and not have people adapt to machines. His focus is the common person who make up the vast majority befuddled by all the cool stuff “everybody is doing”, so to bring them along.

Dog years ago Thomas helped found the IAI, Boxes and Arrows, and fathered the term folksonomy.

T @vanderwal, work-ish account @infocloud and Open @openvanderwal