Designing with Social Skills

Part of the trick is using the tools you’re born with: strong opinions and the desire to make decisions based on taste. Not just taste, but let’s call it snobbery (in the nicest sense). If you’re a snob about food, music or furniture, you might already be wired to design things or at least appreciate it when you see it.

But interactive design should enable the largest possible audience to accomplish and experience things easily. Visual design snobbishness has to be calibrated for the masses. We know that websites shouldn’t make us think. What I’ve realized now that machines have completely taken over my life is that websites must also have great social skills.

Simply being “usable” isn’t enough, no more than nice cars should be merely “driveable”. Ideally, a website should spark an interesting conversation the moment it loads. It should usher you from page to page, telling great stories along the way. It shouldn’t come on too shy or too strong. It should look sharp without looking vain. No gradients or noise filters can replace social skills, just like an expensive haircut can’t give someone a better personality.

As the digital world gets faster and more complicated, the more designers resist, forcing it to stay grounded and human-centered. More websites are attempting to be conversational lately, which is good, even if many are doing it the same way:


I don’t want to criticize what looks like trendiness here because I think it’s happening for a reason. Below the surface I honestly think there’s a desire to look users in the eye, shake their hand and make them remember you are (again the irony being that “Hi, I’m [x]” is now too common to be distinctive, but it’s a start.)

A rule of thumb in creative writing classes is “show, don’t tell”. If a writer is good enough at making overtures about the story and character, he won’t need to hit you over the head with what he’s trying to say. For this reason, a good sign-up form should never require instructions.

See what HuffDuffer did to make their form more conversational:


The support page at Sifter recently added some dynamic date info for a nice bit of human touch:


For the first 5 years of what I’d call the mainstream web (2000-2005), most sites lacked social skills. Plenty tried to be deliberately mysterious, and succeeded at that, even as they failed as websites. The narrative seems to finally be getting better.

I’ve come to think of it this way: when you’re out at a bar with a group of strangers, there will inevitably be one person in the room who tells the best stories. If you’re lucky, the person is also polite, they exhibit good taste and understand the dynamics of a conversation. People are attracted to that person magnetically for the rest of the evening. Our websites should be that person.