As long as there have been societies, we have tried to find smoother ways of interacting. Every society and every culture has their own unique recipe for social interaction, but most of it stays the same. Surely some of the more robust social codes should apply to digital culture as well?
Cultural artifacts are mediating our interactions
Humanity has always used cultural artifacts to act in and perceive the outside world. We create things that help us act and interact in the physical world. From the simplest pencil to more abstract things as signs or metaphors — these are all cultural artifacts.
Take speech for example. Speech is a truly revolutionary artifact, almost beyond our ability to fully comprehend. The writing language is another cultural artifact, which made it possible to carry on thoughts and experiences from one generation to another and from one location to another.
Let this simmer for a while. It is almost impossible to imagine human mind and interpersonal activity without cultural artifacts such as language, speech or text. These artifacts have fundamentally changed what it means to be human, they perhaps even define us as species.
Digital tools are cultural artifacts too
Just as speech and text, most digital tools are mediating human interaction. Either by supporting users interacting with each other, or by supporting creators of the tool to affect or communicate with their end users. They are cultural artifacts completing or replacing face-to-face interaction. It’s called interface (“between face”) right?
There is (at least) one very robust rule for social interaction
When it comes to social interaction, there is evidently a couple of really solid principles. You tend to realize that once you step aside them. These are principles that work regardless of what tool or artifact we use to interact with each other. They have stuck around for quite some time, and they will probably overlive the digital era too.
One particularly robust principle is the Golden rule. This rule is a central part of almost every law, religion and code of conduct ever written. There are some variations to it, but this law of reciprocity basically says to treat others as one would wish to be treated. It is an expectation that people will respond to each other in similar ways — responding to kindness with similar compassion, and responding to hurtful acts from others with indifference or retaliation of some sort.
Reciprocity is built into our notion of digital
Reciprocity should be easy to obtain in designing user interfaces and digital services. Because it is already expected of us, from the metaphors we use. We talk of hosts, visitors, services, invites, requests and so on. These are all metaphors for social activities in the physical world. And they are all metaphors implying reciprocal expectations.
For example, when we talk of visitors, we implicitly expect a welcoming or greeting of these newcomers in some way. Try inviting people to your house, and don’t bother shaking hands or saying “Hi and welcome”. Just treat your visitors as they have always been around. Or try requesting directions from a stranger on the sidewalk, then just leave without a simple “Thank you”. This would probably invoke painstaking evidence that reciprocity is implicitly built in to our expectations of social interaction.
As UX designers we need to be inquisitive, every piece of information about users strengthens the chances to build something fantastic. And we have more data and insights about our users than ever before. These insights are invaluable for our understanding of the users. But what about imagination and intuition? Are these neglected pieces of the puzzle?
As humans, we know first hand how it is to feel and experience things. We all have that introspective ability to reimagine the thoughts and feelings of another human being. Imagining you were that specific user — what would it be like interacting with the artifact?
For every interaction we should try to imagine the amount of effort it requires from the user. And we should design interactions that give back the corresponding amount of value for that effort.
The more we practice our kindness, respect and empathic abilities in the making of any tool, device or service — the more kindness, patience and forgiveness is to be expected from its users. Raising our interfaces with social skills, making them ask kindly and saying thank you, may have a greater impact on the overall experience than we think. Because your digital tool or service will inevitably mediate your organizations culture and values, and it can’t be more well behaved and empathetic than your own culture let it.