Social Usability Workshop – Lift13 Geneve

On February, 8th I’ve been at the Lift 13 Conference with Davide to present our workshop about Social Usability.

Social Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy social interactions are to make. We proposed the Social Usability Checklist as a tool of analysis and design for social network dynamics and apps.

It was a great experience with several interesting questions, solutions and feedback. I want to thank all the participants that made it possible.

Collaboration in physical and digital space

From an interesting article of Jonah Lehrer on The New Yorker

Digital space is also a social space so we have to use the proximity variables to design platforms and communities with collaborative objectives.

A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations. The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate space.

Design the physical space, the rooms where we work all days it’s an important factor for complete project of User Experience Design in Social Business.

A new generation of laboratory architecture has tried to make chance encounters more likely to take place, and the trend has spread in the business world, too. One fanatical believer in the power of space to enhance the work of groups was Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. “We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.”
Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. “I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other’. He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says that Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

Proximity: A key social knowledge management principle

In 2006 I read an interesting article in Scientific American “Why are some animals so smart?” wrote by Prof. Carel van Schaik, Primatologist at the University of Zurich. His article has had a great influence on me. In the ethological field, van Schaik found the foundation of the knowledge management for groups, a foundation valid also for humans.

In his research he studied two groups of orangutans in the forest of Sumatra. The scenario was ideal (very similar to an experimental setting) because two communities were of the same genetically group. The two groups lived in the same forest, but their territories were separated by a long, wide river that did not allow any influence between the two groups. One group was characterized by a common practical ability to use a stick to eat a piece of fruit whereas in the other group only few members had this capacity. The second group had no tool use at all but instead broke off a piece of the tough, woody fruit.

The question was: why all the members of the first group were capable to share knowledge independently from the difference in ages, hierarchy or sex in the group members for generations, while in the second group new discoveries were owned by small groups of orangutans and then disappearing with them? What allowed the widespread of a knowledge inside the whole group and why new ideas did not disappear after inventor’s death but continue for generations?
How could the new knowledge become a group’s assets?

In this exceptional natural scenario van Schaik discovered that this fact has a cultural cause!

The cultural difference in the group characterized by a shared culture was a physical and emotional code of proximity that allowed members of the group to approach and interact between them easily. We are in the knowledge’s economy and the cultural proximity code is the first secret to transform knowledge in a evolutive boost.


We can generalize the effect of an optimal social proximity in these four benefits:

  1. discovering that there is a problem
  2. discovering that somebody has solved the problem
  3. the solution is understandable
  4. the solution can be communicate and disseminate


This social proximity code is physical, cognitive and emotional. It’s part of a culture so it’s expression of values, practices, styles of leaderships and roles. I got in touch with Prof. van Schaikv and he confirmed that these dynamic processes are valid also for human groups.

This research was an inspiration for my model of proximity in social business consultancy.
We can see the organization’s culture from different points of view. The proximity variable is excellent to catch both the collaboration in a traditional group and in a community in a digital space.
This factor is crucial in Social Business projects where the integration between professionals and users, company groups and companies intranet communities is the challenge.

A better level of cultural proximity could be achieved in a company through by integrating social features in the intranet following our social usability principles: where all users have a detailed profile, are protagonist of the process and contents and the company becomes closer to a flat structure of a net.
Proximity is also necessary to work directly with the culture of the organization analyzing the values and helping the process of leadership. The advantage of proximity criteria is between physical and digital, because the psychosocial dynamics are real (processes with causes and effects) and present in both spaces.

[Image by Davidandbecky]