Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

Expert Interview: Christian Crumlish


You may know Christian, one of our crew of UX experts, from Designing Social Interfaces (O’Reilly, 2009), which he co-authored with Erin Malone. Or if you’ve spent time in the Bay Area, you’ve surely crossed paths with him at a BayCHI meeting. We asked Christian to help us better understand designing for social.

RM: What’s a common mistake people make when it comes to designing social websites and applications?

CC: Oh, there are so many. Let’s see, a few of the most common are to build far too much before launch based on hypotheticals. Much better to build something focused and amazing, invite some people in, and then start working with behavior.

Another common one these days is a sort of mindless “gamification” in the form of highly mechanical point systems, badges, or the like. They usually fail as games and can have many unintended distorting effects if not designed carefully as part of an overall engagement strategy.

RM: As you’ve investigated how clients approach the design of social experience, what’s one thing that’s really surprised you?

CC: Very little has surprised me on that front. Folks take all sorts of approaches, most commonly based on imitating or mashing together some effective, newly familiar models. I try to get people to take a step back and look at things on the ecosystem level, model things out a bit more, do a bunch of UX exploration and ideation, and then get back into the weeds of a roadmap and defining specific features and flows.

Honestly, the surprises always come from the users. A well-designed social experience establishes a framework and some ground rules, and operates as a good host and an honest broker. The real vitality of any such application or service comes from the critical mass of participants. Kindling the participation is one phase of things and has its own challenges, but beyond that the “folkways” of a social experience tend to ultimately invent uses and customs that might never otherwise have occurred to the founders and inventors. At that level, when a social environment is really humming along, it’s nothing but surprises, and the real challenge is figuring out which behaviors to amplify and reinforce.

RM: Thanks, Christian!