I draw boxesA blog on user experience & design

May 20, 2011

What ‘The Social Network’ can teach UXers

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg creates facebook, as portrayed in The Social Network

I’ve always loved the democracy of the web – the fact that anyone can create their own site relatively easily and cheaply alongside that of a global corporation is what first attracted me to it as a medium. Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and youtube have only served to increase this effect by lowering the barrier to entry to the general public. Everyone with Internet access can have their own place on the web.

Since my move in to digital user experience design, I do somewhat miss building websites, and watching The Social Network recently made me think of a fundamental tuth: you always need someone to build a website for it to exist.

Being able to code and build gives you amazing power over an end product, and an ability to actually create what others can only sketch or wax lyrial about.

I would always advocate bringing your developers in to your UX work, and at a higher lever having developers on the board of a company or at Creative Director level. Developers are incredibly creative and up-to-date with their thinking and awareness of technology. Many understandably resent the term ‘creatives’ to refer to UXers and designers. Granted, some developers are not the best in other areas (and who is strong in every area?) but a brilliant developer inputting in a timely manner can be invaluable.

“my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing”
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

From what I can see from the film, Mark Zuckerberg puts great faith in his own skill – pure web development, hacking. The developer contests at facebook are legendary, and feature in the film too. It seems to me (and I would love to know if this is the case) that he puts a lot of emphasis on developers at facebook rather than other disciplines, for example user experience design or visual design. I bet developers run the show.

A key storyline in the film follows the Winklevoss twins who claim to have ‘invented facebook’ because they described a similar idea to Zuckerberg at some point. This should be a scenario familar to anyone who has worked at a small development agency – potential client comes to you with a ‘great’ idea. This idea will change the world. It’s amazing the world has survived so far without it. They will probably swear you to secrecy and brandish NDAs. In fact, you’re lucky they’ve chosen you to be a part of it.

“When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.”
Mark Twain

And so it was (and still is) with websites, especially in the dotcom boom.

And here is the key point: Zuckerberg is brilliant because he actually created facebook. This was only possible because of the democracy of the web. In theory, anyone could buy a domain name for £10 and create the ‘next big thing’. He coupled this with an acute awareness of what users liked about the product: exclusivity, 100% uptime, the ability to ‘stalk’ your friends and people you meet. These are the fundamental tenets of the facebook user experience – and he didn’t need a UXer to tell him.

“You know, you really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

As user experience designers and visual designers it is easy to get carried away with big ideas and things you’d love to see on screen. But we cannot make anything on our own. I fundamentally believe in the viability of our unique role and the special skills we bring to a team (empathy for users, user research, detailed planning, communication skills etc.) but it’s important to be able to do as much as we can to create websites. Get your hands dirty. Maintain your own site. Better, learn to code. At the very least, have great respect for web developers.

Let’s not become the Winklevii.

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