Category Archives: Social Computing

How can a non-designer approach design work without pretending to be a designer?

First of all, I’m not a designer. So my way of approaching design was to find something that didn’t involve Pantone mugs, Apple Macintosh computing equipment or learning to draw!

photo credit: robhawkes

So here I take a look at some approaches to design work that don’t take the designer as genius, or take a traditional participatory approach, but try and look at the design process from the experience of the people who the design is for.

My boss Pete Wright and his writing partner McCarthy’s (2010) idea of a humanist vision of design was a good guiding light for me when I started thinking about approaching design.  The Malmo Living Lab stance of, “attending to values of agency, democracy, equality, and choice” is both commendable and something I aspire to, although as I have protested on many occasions, the idea of democracy through design remains problematic for me.

So, what is experience-centred design?

Wright & McCarthy suggest:

the excitement in experience-centred design is the impulse to use these developments to give people the chance to have a richer life, to include people who might otherwise feel excluded, to ensure everyone has a chance to have their say especially those who feel voiceless.

This idea of an equality of ideas and social computing enacting the conditions of equality is an area close to my research agenda.

Design as theory

I am warming to the idea of design as theory and sympathise with the notion that “any designed technology embodies assumptions (made by designers) about how the system will be used. In this sense a technology itself is both a theory of and a hypothesis about use. It is a question put to the user by the designer.” Paul Dourish (2001) looks to phenomenology to ground his theory for HCI as embodied interaction. This type of design approach focuses on situated interaction and meaning making. The co-creation of meaning, particularly through dialogic means is a framework for understanding which I feel happily espouses both social computing and HCI, as described as experience-centred design.

‘Beautiful things work better’

Emotion is the cement that holds action together. I believe there is certainly more to design than usability, and we should focus on the experiences of people living with technology rather than just using it. Forlizzi and Batterbee (2004), in order to rationalise this, attempted to distinguish three types of experience: experience, an experience, or co-experience. Alongside this, I understand co-creation of meaning as an experience. As well as experiences that are shared between people, the co-creation of meaning can be constructed as an experience.

If technology is an experience that begins with the idea of sense-making, we reach a problematic juncture where we might try to understand how people make sense of things. How they experience the world, or a situation, or a technology.

Experience as social

Sense making is ‘irreducibly’ social. There is not room here to discuss the myriad psychologists’ and philosophers’ concepts on this, but we should understand that there are many things (other people, media, past) at play which will likely affect the way a person makes sense of the world.

Even when two people co-experience something it is impossible to say if their experiences were alike. Forlizzi and Battarbee (2004) discuss a framework for understanding human experience to inform design. This is useful as long as we understand that human experience cannot be measured. We can categorise types of experience but cannot objectively determine how that experience is felt, even conversation analysis is a process of subjective interpretations that one can only understand through their own experience. Through how they make sense of the world.


Dourish, P. (2001). Seeking a foundation for context-aware computing. Human–Computer Interaction, 16(2-4), 229-241.

Forlizzi, J., & Battarbee, K. (2004). Understanding experience in interactive systems. In Proceedings of the 5th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (pp. 261-268). ACM.

Wright, P., & McCarthy, J. (2010). Experience-centered design: designers, users, and communities in dialogue. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, 3(1), 1-123.

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Social computing, trust and social capital

Increasingly, people are looking to each other, rather than corporations, for news, guidance, advice and support. A lack of trust in large organisations, and a general sociological move towards bottom-up networks of support has grown in recent years.

Society and computing technologies have influenced each other, and continue to do so. Social computing: from social informatics to social intelligence by Wang et al (2007), consider a move away from information to intelligence in social computing. Large corporations like Amazon and EBay, among others have moved away from what they recommend for you, to what other people have done. Not, ‘here’s what we think you might like’, but, ‘here’s what other customers bought’.

“Netflix’s recent…competition is one indication of the significance and business value of improving recommendation quality.” (Wang at al, 2007)

Many other websites have adopted platforms ‘for the consumer community to share experiences collectively and influence their purchasing behaviour’; for example Vanish, where consumers swap tips on how which of the product range works best for specific stains.


Social media platforms have changed the dynamic between organisations and consumers forcing companies to adopt. Companies can no longer control the discussion about their brand (see Waddington & Earl, 2012 or this old blog post).

In the public sector ‘people are increasingly connecting with online…communities.’ Newman et al (2011)

I believe that the move to online communities is a symptom of what I describe above. Particularly in health where often people who have lived with an illness become the ‘expert’ on their disease, it really makes sense for them to seek advice and support from each other rather than the medical professional. Particularly, as Newman et al found with “emotional support when dealing with difficult health issues.”

I believe that in both the private and public sector ICT and society have influenced each other to create platforms where people’s opinions are of more value than large corporation (for different reasons). Previously my research has been around using social media to enact civil society for improving communication, participation and engagement between communities of individuals and local governments.

Social computing and innovation; creating or reinventing platforms to empower people to share their opinions, knowledge and advice, is an area where I hope to shape my future research. It was interesting to hear Newman’s perspective on the creation of social capital through online health communities.


Newman, M. W., Lauterbach, D., Munson, S. A., Resnick, P., & Morris, M. E. (2011, March). ‘It’s not that i don’t have problems, I’m just not putting them on Facebook: challenges and opportunities in using online social networks for health’. In Proceedings of the ACM 2011 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 341-350). ACM.

Waddington, S., & Earl, S. (2012). Brand Anarchy: Managing Corporate Reputation. A&C Black.

Wang, F. Y., Carley, K. M., Zeng, D., & Mao, W. (2007). Social computing: From social informatics to social intelligence. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 22(2), 79-83.

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