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.

  • Christoph

    Great point about social skills. I think it’s just part of of the web designer/developer job now to span a wide range of skills and knowledge. From design to coding to information architecture, writing, self-promotion and marketing, it’s a pretty long list. In addition, even if you go to art school or study coding, you still only get taught part of that list. Everything else comes from doing your home work and experience.

    Part of becoming more social is also that we are simply more used to using web sites. Where they used to be new, exciting and foreign, now everybody has one (or five). Along that way, we have realized that web sites are not like a brochure you find at a car dealer, but that the interaction is more intimate and therefore the communication needs to be more personal.

    • chris

      well put.

      • Darren

        Part of becoming more social is also that we are simply more used to using web sites. Where they used to be new, exciting and foreign, now everybody has one (or five).

        Very true, wish I’d delved into that. Building websites in the early days, there was the very real consideration that people using the site might literally have never been on the internet before, didn’t understand basic navigation and UI subtleties. Luckily now, we can give users the benefit of the doubt and not be so slavish to Jakob Nielsen’s way of looking at things. But even when a site is easy to use, the experience should also be intimate, as you say.

  • Jon Bloom

    Hey there! Great post. I work in the field of voice user interface design, where the requirement for good social skills is even more evident. The interface is a conversation by its very nature. For both GUI and VUI, the next question that arises is: What etiquette and personality is a computer supposed to have in the eyes of a human interlocutor? Is it supposed to act “human,” regaling the user with delightful anecdotes, or does a human user prefer a subservient robot? The answer is probably different depending on the situation, but for many voice user interfaces, the answer is turning out to be that people want computers to “know their place. ” Systems that act like HAL and use terse language like the engineers in NASA mission control seem to be preferred over a system that’s like “What’s up?! I’m Duane! Tell me how I can help you today!”

    Again, great post!

    • Christoph

      Great comment. The idea of computers having personality completely reminds me of Microsofts incredibly approaches with Clippy and the annoying Windows search puppy. And that was basically the best idea ever.

  • Narendra

    Great post Darren. I totally agree with that because now website has to be more interactive which changes it’s way of communicating with visitors.

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  • Thiago Cavalcanti

    That is great advice man.

    Since, as you say ‘ “Hi, I’m [x]” is now too common to be distinctive ‘, what do you think would be a nice manner to strike up a conversation with the visitor that doesn’t reeks of the web circa-1994?

    I’m struggling with this question right now as I design my portfolio site and the answer keeps eluding me.

    I thought that perhaps someone more experienced as you could point me in the right direction.

  • Darryl

    Good stuff.
    Along with looking the user straight in the eye. I don’t think a lot of web designers know who that user or person is. So their design is too generalised. The users of a product or service does not = the company’s online users. If you’re building a portfolio site, you’re obviously looking for work. You’re not going to see 100 companies, but perhaps 10 in the year. How difficult can it be to design your site aimed at those 10 people. Or to look them in the eye so they don’t feel you’re speaking to them as part of a group. Too often we feel like our portfolio sites has to be for everyone.

  • Rachel

    Useful and interesting post – thank you!

    I usually try to write like I talk – which is more informal than you normally get on websites, especially corporate ones. I spend quite a lot of my working life editing clients’ text so it reads like a person wrote it instead of a robot.

    WRT the ‘Hi I’m X’ point – you can turn this around to be about the user instead. ‘Pleased to meet you’ or ‘May I help you?’ instantly makes it about the person reading instead of the writer. I once saw ‘Please wipe your feet’ on a homepage which made me smile. :)

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  • Carl – Web Courses Bangkok

    Great article. I am writing an article about the 7 / 8 inteligencies and how they relate to what kind of designer you will be. I

    ‘ve always been the interpersonally gifted person and thus I’ve become a UX designer :) goes to show your point is spot on!

  • bookmarkdofollow

    Great portfolio sites, I like your design.
    Thank you for share. :)

  • Glam Rock

    Function is imperative but without design practicality falls flat as people are switched off.

  • Claim Accident

    Great advice Darren, your point about a website should spark an interesting conversation the moment it loads is very true. A static website that does not engage will simply cause someone to leave. Its a much more interactive user experience world the internet is becomming and like you say you only have a few seconds to capture visitors and engage them in your site. Good stuff!

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  • Webstandard-Blog

    “Hello I’m …” – It’s true, I checked some Portfolios and more than 50% introduce himself with “Hello I’m …”.

  • Diseño Paginas Web

    hello, you are totally right, sometimes its a matter of taste, good advise

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  • Facebook Messages

    I agree with your sentiment Darren. Many web-designers design websites to be beautiful and attractive, but they lose focus on the purpose of the actual website in hand. The purpose of a website is normally to communicate information or to facilitate in the process of making sales or to encourage particular actions.

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  • Oren Escanlar

    I’d have to buy into with you here. Which is not something I typically do! I love reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  • The Pussycat Dolls

    was noticing the way, neat and to the piont, about this same You have given me