Joel on Software on social interface design

As many of you know, I’m a total fan of Joel on Software. I even went to a fan club dinner of his when he was in the Bay Area (he posted that he was going to be at a restaurant in Berkeley about a week in advance, and about 30 software geeks of all sorts showed up – it was surprisingly fun). Anyway, he often posts longer articles discussing various aspects of running a software company or project (he started his own software company after working at Microsoft and several other places), or writing good software. Today’s article was entitled “It’s Not Just Usability”.

Software in the 1980s, when usability was “invented,” was all
about computer-human interaction. A lot of software still is.
But the Internet brings us a new kind of software: software
that’s about human-human interaction. When you’re writing software
that mediates between people, after you get the usability right,
you have to get the social interface right. And the social
interface is more important. The best UI in the world won’t
save software with an awkward social interface.

He goes on to describe good and bad examples of social interfaces (I’d never thought that the quoting feature of Usenet contributes directly to the line-by-line nitpicking argument style), and suggests that social interface design is going to be a hot new field over the next decade or so, as we figure out how people interact, and how we can use software to reinforce the ways we want people to interact, and to discourage the unsociable behaviors.

Those of you who have been shocked to hear that I occasionally have thoughts of going back to grad school, just so you know, I was never going to go back in physics. Social interface design is the field. I didn’t have an appropriate label for it – I kept on calling it social informatics, or computer-mediated communities or something. But Joel nailed it with that label. It involves describing how people interact, a favorite topic of my rants about politics and management and people, and online communities, which have been a favorite topic of mine from way back. And I even know that Berkeley has the closest thing to a department in this right now, with illustrious students like danah boyd, whom Joel references in his article (I linked to the same talk actually). And, of course, I love the group blog at Many-to-Many, as my continual links demonstrate. I need to spend some time thinking about what research I could contribute this field, and how this could happen. Hrm.

Anyway, I felt I needed to link to Joel’s article, because it’s a really good overview that lays out the problems and gives anecdotal examples of possible solutions, and generally just does a good job of demonstrating what the field is. But, for now, I have to run to my real job.