Aerial photo of people collaborating with red sofa and concrete floors

Designing for social norms.

Warren Schramm | Technical Director

Warren Schramm

With more than two decades of information technology experience, ranging from product development to enterprise architecture, Warren provides a 360 degree perspective of technology.

Imagine you are in a meeting where two people are writing on a whiteboard. Maybe a program manager is capturing a list of action items while a subject matter expert is drawing a diagram. They draw while the rest of the meeting attendees huddle around and contribute by asking the people with the pens to scribe for them. If the team is comfortable with one another, they may even grab a pen and join in. In that moment one of two things is likely to happen: A) they will start writing on a clean section of the board away from the content of the other two, or B) they will ask another person at the board if they can make changes to their work. What would happen in this meeting if the new person at the board started changing action items?

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We get uncomfortable when we see behavior that doesn’t align with our values. Empathy affects everyone in a meeting; it prompts them to respond. The response could be anything from a scoff of disapproval to the program manager asking them to remove their changes and surrender the pen. Good manners teach us to respect another person’s work, which prompts us to ask before we change something. As designers we have been trained to observe these social norms and account for them in a user’s experience. How we account for them is where the magic happens.

Human-machine interfaces are maturing so quickly they sometimes feel like real human interaction.

A few years ago, our design consulting team was asked to build a collaborative whiteboard application that would allow people in close physical proximity to edit the same drawing from their personal device. The client team was concerned about preventing people from writing over another person’s work. They discussed solutions like versioning or blocking a section of the screen in an attempt to account for undesirable behavior by providing an affordance in the application to roll back the change or lock the other person out. What they failed to realize was that seeing the disappointment or frustration from the person who created the original content would be enough to discourage certain behaviors. While remote collaboration was possible, the client’s preferred use case was in-person collaboration—there was simply no need to add features to govern this type of disruptive behavior.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that nothing should have needed to have been done. During the project, however, the team came across many of these scenarios, and most of them required a lengthy debate to determine the “right” thing to do. Learning from this project and others, we have compiled a list of five key considerations to help improve efficiencies and evaluate the impact of social norms in product design.

  • Setting. The whiteboard app worked great when people were together. When the app was used to collaborate remotely, it could benefit from an affordance to provide a sense of presence of the remote user—for example, a signifier to show a collaborator’s pen color or their last mark. These cues enable good social behavior, like not using the same color as another collaborator, and provide a quick way of seeing where the other person is focused.
  • Interruption. What happens if the user is interrupted while performing a task? Does performing that task create an interruption for others? In traditional social norms, an interruption refers to a physical action—a person coming to your desk or checking text messages in a meeting, for example. Mute buttons in conferencing solutions are intended to account for interruptions or distracting background noise. Instead they promote side conversations and poor listener participation. How many times have you “listened to a call on mute” while you got something else done?
  • Sharing. Sharing features are readily considered today. Business applications focus on collaboration. Personal applications focus on social media. These examples are both optimized for sharing with people who have a similar understanding. To encourage diverse thinking, consider how the experience could be shared with or explained to someone with no context. (E.g., how would you explain the experience to your grandparents?)
  • Effort. Typically, a person becomes more attached to something the more effort they expend. A designer in our studio recently finished creating a design thinking workshop. They presented their plan to our client and followed up with a document containing a detailed agenda, activities, and pre-read materials. The client provided feedback to our project manager a few days later, and instead of going back and marking up the original document, our program manager made a copy and marked that up. This made things worse for collaboration, because the copy didn’t have any of the version history from the original, but making the copy respected the effort that had gone into the original by leaving it untarnished. Could some feature of your product be underused because it conflicts with a social norm?
  • Culture. Go beyond the physical setting to consider the way a product will be perceived in different cultures. This does not mean trying to imagine how your product would be perceived by a foreign market. There may be different demographics and cultural expectations within a person’s own family. When the Apple Watch released in 2015, it was seen as a status symbol. After four years of app development, a person wearing an Apple Watch is just as likely to be seen as health-conscious as they are to be perceived as trendy. Apple’s focus on health has become so popular, an elderly person wearing the latest watch could be perceived as having a heart condition because the watch had been promoted by featuring an electrocardiogram (ECG) capable of identifying atrial fibrillation (AFib), a form of irregular heart rhythm.

In the age of mixed reality and digital assistants, human-machine interfaces are maturing so quickly they sometimes feel like real human interaction.

This makes considering social norms during product design development even more important. These considerations are intended to prompt discussions that inform your design, giving you the choice to leverage an expected behavior or, if need be, challenge social norms. Designers must tune the user experience to respond in a way that people find comfortable and consider how the larger social group will impact a user’s perception.

This article was originally published in the Journal of Design and Creative Technologies, a digital publication produced by the School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin.