Three Keys to Mobile Application Design Part 2 – Social Connections

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at mobility and app design. In Part 2, we look at some social aspects to consider with mobile app design.

Social Connections

Mobile devices provide an interface to the internet, but more specifically, to our relationships. Coworkers can contact us when we’re on the move, and we can stay in near-constant contact with friends and family. Social connections help us keep in touch, and often provide the quickest, most up-to-date information on current events or developments in our communities.

Social connections are important, and can be powerful tools, even in enterprise or business apps. We’ve all heard about the massive growth of social applications in the consumer market, but social connections are important for productivity as well. Our professional social circles provide quick access to information to help solive problems, discover important news, or for recommendations on products and services. Social connections also create cohesion and improve our relationships at work in ways that dress up days and team building activities fail to do.

Here is an example: a few years ago, I was working with my friend Ken March. We were getting tired of our individual music libraries that we were listening to, so we decided to share our music with each other. We discovered others who had also shared music in the office, and we expanded our listening. We started chatting about music when we ran into each other in the office, and teasing each other about guilty pleasure tastes. Ken decided to set up DJ software so we could create playlists, and he also set up an IRC (internet relay chat) channel so we could instant message each other about the music we were listening to. With IRC, you can type in short text messages either to the entire group who subscribe to the channel, to one other person, or a sub-group, depending on how private or public your communication needs to be.

Ken expanded the application so we could create playlists and control the DJ software using commands in IRC. We could also use the Unix “say” command to broadcast messages using Text To Speech. Ken also added in extra hidden commands that allowed you to temporarily block a certain genre of music if you thought it was getting over played. If someone made a request and someone else had blocked it, the system would block it and provide humorous messages. We had a lot of fun with the system but soon learned it was a great channel for work or technical questions.

It turned out that the IRC chats were rarely about music – we found it to be a great channel to talk about work. We could ask for help, or keep people apprised of what we were doing on other projects. Instead of walking over and interrupting someone who was busy, the messages could be ignored and then read after a period of focused concentration. Once you were no longer busy, you’d catch up and answer the questions, and set up any follow-up meetings or face-to-face meetings.

The group expanded from the IRC server to getting together for lunches. We shared ideas about work, and learned about each other’s families and backgrounds. When one team member’s wife became ill, we were able to offer them support and help them when they were telecommuting. One team member and I found out we were both interested in game theory and estimation with uncertainty factors, so we spent some time on our own collaborating. We all ended up contributing to each other’s work in various ways, and we all enjoyed a boost in productivity.

Something appealed to us in that relationship that we developed. It touched an intrinsic sense of belonging, of collaborating and building something worthwhile. If one of us worked over time, it could feel incredibly lonely without our work buddies there with us virtually. Even worse, you lost contact to quick and easy information that could help you solve problems more quickly. Eventually, most of us moved on to other projects and other companies, but we all remained friends. We all miss that simple social program that helped us communicate, keep in contact and help each other out.

What were the keys for this simple application’s success?
1. It was entertaining
We could listen to an interesting variety music which helped make our day more enjoyable. The group input into the music selections kept them interesting for us. Some people had a great sense of humour and it was enjoyable to read their posts to the group.
2. It was social
We felt like we were part of a group, and we got to know each other better, which helped us work better. We were also able to share information at a much deeper and richer level than the brief daily standups we saw each other in.
3. It was fun
Once in a while over the course of the day, would also share funny cartoons, or youtube videos once in a while to add some levity. Once we got to know each other better, we would tease each other a bit, or send a silly broadcast message to try to cheer up someone who was feeling down that day.
4. It helped us solve problems
Each person using the program had a different background and expertise, and they had different experiences and access to information within the company. Many problems could be quickly solved with a message on our music channel.

Easy access to social relationships are an integral aspect of mobile devices and apps. When we’re on the move, we’re often alone, and these devices provide access to people so we have company. If we’re alone in a strange city, we can connect to our friends and loved ones and feel a sense of belonging, safety and calm.
My wife Elizabeth says that social networks seem to be full of the following:

  • Sharing our current thoughts and location with our network
  • Bragging and complaining

I’d also throw in pictures of cats and food to the mix. But it isn’t all frivolous; I enjoy finding out where my friends are at, and seeing pictures of their holidays. If a friend complains about a company that did shoddy work on their vehicle, I stay away from it. If another friend recommends a home handiman service, I contact them when I need work done on my place. This mitigates the risk of getting ripped off, or shoddy work.

In the work place, sharing ideas can be powerful, especially with knowledge workers. I have been working on a new product design, and I’ve been struggling with one aspect of the technical implementation. A quick message on a social networking channel resulted in 4 possible solutions from a programmer friend. We also brag about accomplishments, giving shout-outs or kudos to other team members who we think have done a good job, or have simply shipped something after a long release cycle. We also complain about vapor-ware technology, vendor relationships that have gone wrong, or tools that don’t provide value. This is valuable information to utilize as we work on and lead our own projects.

Social connections help us feel motivated when we are on the move, and they can be a tremendous support when we need motivation, or a quick answer to a question or a problem. They are a great fit with mobile technology, since they help us connect to people, knowledge and allow us to share experiences from virtually anywhere.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of 4 of this series.

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