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Bulletin, August/September 2009

The Information Architecture of Social Experience Design: Five Principles, Five Anti-Patterns and 96 Patterns (in Three Buckets)

by Christian Crumlish

Christian Crumlish is the curator of the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library and the author of The Power of Many. He is writing a book called Designing Social Interfaces with Erin Malone. He is also a director of the Information Architecture Institute and co-chair of the monthly BayCHI program. He can be reached at xian<at>

Designing and building a successful social website or application is no mean feat. Adding a social dimension to an existing experience is trickier still. Nevertheless, the skills to do so are well worth cultivating, as the ubiquitous, pervasive, massively interconnected world of the Internet and allied digital networks, such as mobile SMS (short message service) connections, have unlocked a growing panoply of opportunities for social relationships, remote presence, real-time interactions and the capacity for self-organized groups of people to coordinate their behavior and collaborate on changing the world. 

So when your boss, client, teacher or mentor drops a project on your lap and asks you to "add social to it," where do you start? I'm thinking you start with the information architecture and in particular your conceptual models.

The pattern language that Erin Malone and I are working on (inspired by Christopher Alexander, Ward Cunningham, the Gang of Four, Jenifer Tidwell, Matt Leacock and Bill Scott, among others), describes patterns we've observed roughly sorted to focus on three major elements of our concept model: people, objects and relationships. Over several years, and with input from many people, we gathered a large list of potential patterns to investigate, and so far we've codified 96 of them, with 56 other principles and practices, and five major don'ts, classified as anti-patterns.

Five Principles
Of the myriad principles we've unearthed so far, five cut across the entire experience:

  • Pave the Cowpaths
  • Talk Like a Person
  • Play Well with Others
  • Learn from Games
  • Respect the Ethical Dimension

Pave the Cowpaths. Pave the Cowpaths means, essentially, look where the paths are already being formed by behavior and then formalize them, rather than creating some idealized path structure that ignores history and tradition, human nature, geometry and ergonomics, and common sense. Sometimes this principle is applied on campuses – and sometimes a rear-guard “keep off the grass” action is fought instead to no avail. 

In the design of social interfaces, this rubric has two applications. The first is simply to do your ethnographic homework – study some of your potential customers. How do they do what they do today? Yes, of course, the thing you want them to do will be better, but is it really entirely different? Can you offer people a way to continue doing most of the things they’re comfortable doing today as you introduce new possibilities into their lives, or are you really going to insist on them changing everything at once?

The second application of Pave the Cowpaths comes later in the lifecycle of your site, when you’ve got a user base and they start doing things you never anticipated. Often the impulse is to stamp out these rogue behaviors and enforce draconian rules requiring only the behaviors you had planned for. This course of action really only makes sense if the behaviors you are trying to stamp out are truly destructive or evil. There are many anecdotes about thriving social sites that killed themselves off by legislating against fun and forcing their users into exile to find the activities they had been improvising “incorrectly” in the site they had to leave.

A better plan is to support the behaviors your users are engaged in. Let your users tell you what the best and highest use of your interface may turn out to be. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume you know everything about how the social dynamics you’ve unleashed need to evolve. 

Talk Like a Person. When many of us started putting together personal sites, art projects and other creative or informal objects starting in the 1990s, the air of informality online was palpable, but when business came online a bit later in the decade, many of the first business-oriented websites reproduced the remote, inanimate, almost robotic corporate voice you tend to find in annual reports and catalog copy.

Even there, the more savvy enterprises appreciated the value of communicating to potential customers in a human voice. The corporation has always been a mask that disguises the human nature of the people who do the actual work of the business. Revealing the humanity of the people at the other end of the wire has a softening and welcoming effect.

Sure, there are still times where great formality and even perhaps distance are useful, but in an age where authority emerges from collaboration rather than by being handed down from on high, the remote, formal, stylized tone of printed communications is continually in the process of giving way to a more natural, conversational tone.

This is all the more true in the context of social sites. If a website does not communicate from the get-go that it is peopled – and written – by ordinary human beings, how will people ever feel comfortable there? The antiseptic air of a hospital or the bureaucratic formality of the department of motor vehicles is no environment for fostering connections, relationships or collaboration. Bear in mind that the writing on your site or in your application is a key part of the user interface (UI).

Call it web copy, nomenclature and labels if you like, but it’s as much a part of the UI as the buttons, windows and sliders.

Play Well with Others. Carry out this principle by designing an architecture that's as open as possible, in particular:

  • Embrace open standards
  • Share data outside of the bounds of your application
  • Accept external data within the sphere of your application
  • Support two-way interoperability

To be clear, we’re not religious about any of this. If a proprietary protocol, technology or model works best for you then use it in good health, gain whatever benefits you get, but be aware of what you may be giving up in exchange. Where possible, though, we’ve found that the more you can build your app upon the rock of proven, well implemented, open standards and technologies, the easier it is to participate fully in the social potential of the web and the always-on digital environment we now live in. 

Learn from Games. The intersection between game design and social design is opening up new possibilities for social experiences in game environments and introducing playful elements to social interfaces. An application doesn’t have to literally be a game or be presented as a game to employ many of the same design techniques that make games fun to play.

It’s no coincidence that Ludicorp’s first product was something called Game Neverending (their second was Flickr, which owes at least some of its success to the almost addictive game-like quality of its user interfaces).

Even in the enterprise, interfaces don’t have to be dry and tedious. Think about how to delight your users and encourage them to engage with each other.

Games are among the oldest social interfaces. The rules and tokens of a game provide a set of affordances and an environment in which people interact. In fact, people will make up their own games with whatever elements they find handy. Many of the memes that spread on sites like LiveJournal, blogs, MySpace and Facebook ("Which Buffy Character Are You?” “37 Things You Didn’t Know About My Cat” or “iPod Shuffle Ouija”) utilize built-in posting, commenting and polling features, which isn’t to say that you couldn’t encourage your users to invent games for each other by giving them generative tool with which to do so. 

Respect the Ethical Dimension. When you are designing experiences for people or designing frameworks within which people will create their own experiences, there is always an ethical dimension. What commitments are you making explicitly or implying when you open your doors for business? Are you promising to keep people safe, to keep their information secure or to respect their privacy? Are you willing to bend ethical rules to cheat your way through the cold start problem and rapidly build your social graph? 

Balzac once wrote, “The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime, forgotten because it was done neatly,” and many successful social sites today founded themselves on an original sin, perhaps a spammy viral invitation model or unapproved abuse of new users' address books. Some companies never lived down the taint and other seems to have passed some unspoken statute of limitations.

Five Anti-Patterns
You'll find that some of the forces that must be balanced to apply many of these patterns involve ethical dilemmas. Is opt-out good enough? Is this disclosure adequate? Is it your responsibility to stop the bullying? The five anti-patterns:

  • Cargo Cult
  • Don't Break Email
  • The Password Anti-Pattern
  • Ex-Boyfriend Bug
  • Potemkin Village

Briefly, the Cargo Cult means imitating superficial features of successful websites and applications without really understanding what makes them work. Don't Break Email warns against the practice of using email as a one-way notification or broadcast medium while disabling your users' ability to hit reply as a normal response. The Password Anti-Pattern is the pernicious practice of asking users to give you their passwords on other systems so that you can import their data for them, thus training them to be loose and insecure with their private information. The Ex-Boyfriend Bug crops up when you try to leverage a user's social graph without realizing that some of the gaps in a person's network may be deliberate and not an up-sell opportunity. Lastly, a Potemkin Village is an overly elaborated set of empty community discussion areas or other collaborative spaces, created in anticipation of a thriving population rather than grown organically in response to their needs (see also Pave the Cowpaths).

A Pattern Language Framework
With those major principles and caveats in mind, consider now the following pattern language framework. You could almost consider it a meta-information architecture – a taxonomy of patterns that can be selectively recombined and implemented to create new social information architectures that learn from the best of what has come before. The framework has three major buckets: concepts of the self, activities around objects and relationships and community dynamics. 

Concepts of the self. Patterns in this cluster deal with how people inhabit the social space, represent themselves and appear to each other:

  • Engagement (patterns for invitation and signup)
  • Identity (profiles, avatars, user cards)
  • Presence (availability, status, activity streams)
  • Reputation (levels, labels, awards, points)

Activities around objects. Patterns in this cluster involve the activities and interactions that people engage with around social objects. Without objects to congregate around, social networks can end up becoming static lists of connections. These objects include the following:

  • Collecting (bookmarking, tagging)
  • Sharing (sending, sharing, gifts)
  • Publishing (broadcasting, blogging, right)
  • Feedback (rating, comments, reviews)
  • Communication (forums, public conversation, private conversation)
  • Collaboration (governance, getting work done)
  • Social Media (tuning, filtering, real-time search)

Relationships and community dynamics. Patterns in this cluster involve connections between people and among larger groups of people and coordination of events in space and time. They include the following:

  • Connecting (reciprocity/symmetry, followers, adding friends, publicizing relationships)
  • Groups (group formation, moderation)
  • Community Management (norms, role models, community governance)
  • Place (being local, geo, scheduling)

Other factors you'll want to consider include context (recreational, enterprise, government?), and demographics (boomers, elderly, youth?).

Obviously, this discussion is just an overview, but you can delve into any of the patterns in this collection on the web at, or you can wait for our book, Designing Social Interfaces, coming from O'Reilly in September 2009.