Defining Social Media Settings
Published: September 7, 2009
In a previous article for UXmatters, “The Social Buzz: Designing User Experiences for Social Media,” I discussed the phenomenal rise and fast-spreading influence of social media and how UX professionals are ideally placed to establish interaction patterns for social media and drive user interface designs and information architectures for environments that require a social context for optimal use. As we explore what social technologies can offer and the boundaries they can cross—boundaries that had confined the traditional Web—UX professionals must now take up a new design challenge. We must address the changing needs for social media and facilitate users’ taking better advantage of everything social media has to offer. 
A Need to Define Social Media Settings
Some consider cultures that support the dominance of intellectual over social values and social over biological values superior to those that do not.  Although struggles exist over which of these different values will prevail, there is an inherent need for the patterns of intellect and the patterns of society to exist in harmony with biological patterns. Social patterns have their own role to play in keeping certain intellectual patterns in check, just as biological patterns keep certain social patterns under control. A mutual dependence among these patterns enables humankind to thrive.
Problems surface when the delicate balance between intellectual, social, and biological patterns goes awry amidst their struggle for dominance. M. Robert Pirsig, in his book Lila: An Enquiry into Morals,  describes a scenario in which no proper balance exists between these patterns and humankind ends up facing the consequences of the disorder they have inadvertently created.
“…today we are living in an intellectual and technological paradise and a moral and social nightmare because the intellectual level of evolution, in its struggle to become free of the social level, has ignored the social level’s role in keeping the biological level under control. One reason why fundamentalist Moslem cultures have become so fanatic in their hatred of the West is that it has released the biological forces of evil that Islam has fought for centuries to control.”—M. Robert Pirsig
With the kind of clout social media offers in enabling the domination of intellectual patterns over everything else, it is necessary to appropriately define social media settings—not only to help keep their balance right, but also, to characterize what makes a social media setting successful. Defining social media settings becomes even more important in contexts and regions where people hold cultural values in very high regard and social patterns have a very important role to play in keeping biological patterns in check.
A Case Study: HP Customer Care
I worked on a project for HP’s Customer Care division that involved researching and recommending a social media setting for HP.com. HP wanted user-generated content on the customer care section of their portal to enable users to make better decisions that would help them solve the technical problems that brought them to HP.com. This was part of HP’s Total Care initiative. Its goal was to build a business model around the idea that supporting user-generated content would engender trust and confidence that would draw users to their portal.
On HP.com, Customer Care is the go-to place for support and information on any HP product. Its primary objectives are to provide the following:
- 24/7 online support for HP’s Home and Home Office lines of products
- 24/7 service and support for both in-warranty and out-of-warranty products
- advice for customers—before, during, and after they make buying decisions
HP Customer Care has about 70 localized sites across several continents. Between HP and Compaq, which merged in 2002, users from almost every country in the world use HP products, which led us to this question: How, exactly, could we come up with a coherent set of recommendations for a social media setting that would work for all customers visiting the Customer Care portal? These users could be just about anyone—from any country on Earth, social background, or age group. They would come to HP Customer Care with just one basic qualification—they’ve run into some technical problem with an HP product they own or use and need HP’s help resolving it.
What Users Should We Study?
Generally, unless a social setting exists for a specific class of users, you’re very likely to run into two sets of broadly defined profiles: the technically savvy and technically naive. Users belonging to each of these profiles perceive reality from two different perspectives: the world in which we actually live and the world of scientific discovery. So, what we have got here, really, are two different realities: the world as it immediately appears to all of us and its underlying scientific explanations.  An awareness of the second perspective forms the fundamental basis of a technologically advanced culture, setting it apart from those that are technologically unsophisticated. The needs of users who are technologically savvy and those who are technologically naive don’t really match. These two sets of users have little in common and don’t usually have much to do with one another.
No best practices, methods, or guidelines for UX professionals were available to guide us as we thoroughly investigated the problem, then, on the basis of our findings, proposed a coherent set of recommendations for HP’s social media setting—especially not for such a broad set of users. The viability of the recommendations we eventually made to HP after doing our research is now undergoing review. So, our recommendations are some time away from actually being implemented on their Customer Care portal.
Without a scientific methodology for social media research in place, we could not guarantee that our recommendations would work for HP exactly as we had intended. However, a follow-up usability study across several international locations did prove this point. Though that study yielded several valuable insights, some very interesting questions remained unanswered—in fact, these insights raised some new questions. For example, when reviewing a solution on the HP Customer Care portal, some cultures like China preferred to rate and comment on the solution only if they were unable to solve their problem using the solution, while cultures like Germany opted to rate and leave comments on the solution, regardless of whether the solution worked for them.
Applying a Scientific Methodology to Study Social Media
As in every field of research, we need to define a set of empirical methods that would let us dispassionately study and understand our area of focus. We must establish a scientific methodology for studying social media settings, then establish a set of best practices, processes, and methods to guide UX professionals designing social media.
Very often, researchers tend to forget the scientific underpinnings of our profession’s existing processes and methods. I see now as a good time and UXmatters as an appropriate forum for re-establishing the significance of scientific methods in what we do as UX professionals.
Pirsig, in his cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, explains, in layman’s terms, that the real purpose of scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled us into thinking we know something we don’t actually know. Pirsig observes that there’s not a mechanic or scientist or technician alive who hasn’t suffered from being misled by nature, prompting them to be always on guard. He warns that, if carelessness sets in or one romanticizes scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, nature will soon make a complete fool out of us. Pirsig cautions us that we must be extremely careful and rigidly logical when dealing with nature. One logical slip and an entire scientific edifice can come tumbling down. 
To establish best practices and a methodology for social media research, study the dynamics of groups—our unit of analysis—and come to some educated inferences about social media settings, we can draw inspiration from
- the traditional field of sociology—using systematic methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis
- social psychology—using methods of observation in controlled settings
- cultural and social anthropology—examining culture as a meaningful scientific concept
- even the growing field of experimental economics—understanding markets and social preferences
With the changing perspective of the Internet, it is the collective intellect of users—arising from the societies they represent—that now has the biggest say in what we could consider a design success—whether for a social media setting or otherwise. 
Verne Ho is among those who have taken an early crack at solving the puzzle of defining social media settings. Because social media settings are very context dependent, he has deduced that we cannot dictate any rules that define rights or wrongs for designing them.  Social media is a relatively new phenomenon, with many unknowns. Therefore, for business organizations attempting to find ways to leverage social media, it would be worthwhile for us to lay some groundwork for a comprehensive scientific methodology that would let us research and help define best practices, processes, and methods for social media settings.
For a different project in which I am currently involved—IBM’s Smart Market—we now face a similar challenge. We must define a social media setting for a set of applications that would see use across several countries. With the experience I gained when working on HP’s social media initiative for their Customer Care division, I am now just a little wiser about how we should define social media settings. With social media continuously evolving and new applications and uses cropping up every day, UX professionals still have some way to go before we can authoritatively define social media settings, according to their context of use and intended audience.
 Junaid, A. “The Social Buzz: Designing User Experiences for Social Media.” UXmatters, June 22, 2009. Retrieved September 3, 2009.
 Pirsig, M. R. Lila: An Enquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
 Pirsig, M. R. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974.
 Ho, Verne. “Applications of Usability Principles on a Social Network.” Creative Briefing, March 17, 2009. Retrieved April 30, 2009.