Mikael Johnson:

How Social Media Changes User-Centred Design: Cumulative and Strategic User Involvement with Respect to Developer–User Social Distance

Academic Dissertation

Available here: Thesis Complete PDF (11MB)        Intro and articles separately


The aim of user-centred, participatory, and lead-user design approaches is to raise the quality of products and services through methods that aid developers in user involvement. In the literature, the design context is often assumed to be ‘one-off projects’, which limits the applicability of the guidelines for further service design after market launch. Other challenges concerning social media include ambiguities in the role of informal engagement, the abstraction processes between millions of users and working user categories, and criteria for involving users.

This study investigated user involvement strategies and practices in the construction of a social media service. The research questions were (1) how do users’ actions in and around social media shape its design after market launch, (2) how do social media developers’ user involvement practices evolve over time, and (3) how does user categorisation change with social media? This thesis adopted an exploratory case study approach and the data was collected during 2003–2010. While the study is grounded in usability research and human–computer interaction, the theoretical and methodological framework leaned on science and technology studies.

The site of investigation was one of the world’s largest social game and online communities for teenagers, Habbo Hotel, operated by Sulake Corporation. The data was gathered from developers and users through a multi-method approach, using traditional qualitative and quantitative methods as well as online data sources. While this study offers unique insight into the interaction between a particular social media company and its users, the implications go beyond the studied target group and games to social media in general.

The key findings demonstrate how collaboration and feedback loops between developers and users change over time. In particular, this study highlights the effects of changes in the target group, the broad variety of applied user involvement methods, rhythms in development, and users’ contributions after market launch. The author developed two concepts, ‘developer–user social distance’ and ‘content creation capacity’, to help designers and researchers communicate previously neglected dimensions of user involvement. Results from analysis of the accumulation of user knowledge in the development organisation criticise assumptions in the literature on when and how designers categorise users as well as the functions of these user categories in the design process. The results further suggest that guidelines and other advice on user involvement should be uncoupled from the assumption of stable and orderly project phases. This case contributes to user-centred design guidelines, process guidance for user involvement, and re-search on social media development and developer–user collaboration.

Johnson, M. (2013) How social media changes user-centred design: Cumulative and strategic user involvement with respect to developer-user social distance. Espoo, Finland: Doctoral dissertation, Aalto University School of Science, Department of Computer Science and Engineering.