Investing in Conversation

by Kevin Makice

While word-of-mouth is associated mostly with product- or service-oriented companies looking to expand their market base, social recommendation is something that can be leveraged in almost any project. When your active users are also evangelists guiding their networks into your system, communities are a potent means of increasing personal investment in its success.

Rather than rely solely on the content and experience in a website, designers can intentionally facilitate community interaction by making it easy to create artifacts, augment and validate information, and impose a level of small-group trust that no organization will be able to duplicate on its own. As Eric Fisher writes,

Communities can be very useful, almost like a buffer between us and the world. In the wild, they’re an evolutionary defense mechanism against danger: a larger group is more powerful than an individual and the individual can look to the group for social cues on what to do. For us as people, having a community is more of an emotional attachment: we define it by the close people we surround ourselves with—our friends and family. We know them, we like them, they know us and they like us. We share thoughts, feelings, experiences and we turn to them for love and support throughout our lives because we trust them.

Fisher describes social design in three parts: your identity, the community around your, and the conversation in between. All three parts need nurturing.

For a project like Kuali Student — where clients are entire institutions who make the huge decision to migrate to new tools — the value of social design is not in having students or faculty rave about the experience to their friends outside their university. It is more about finding ways to inject the trust flowing through small communities into the perceived value of the whole system. If students are empowered to recommend and affect the way courses are presented, for example, KS could be seen as an advisor, not just a registrar. This adds value to the investment by the institution, making the decision-makers happier and more likely to promote their good decision to decision-makers on other campuses.

Fish of the Bay (May 3, 2011, by Eric Fisher)