Designing for sociability

Summary: Designing for sociability means thinking of the multi-user experience or the influence of secondary users on your experience. It involves identifying social interactions and then supporting them with sociable UI’s, such as multi-user log-in. 

Sociability means social interaction within your product or service is supported, seamless, and enjoyable. It’s the idea that there is no such thing as a “single user”. By designing for a “user” in UX we miss the opportunity to make interfaces and interactions more sociable.

Why is this important? In real life, secondary users influence each other, a process, a task, or a workflow. For example, in an Experience Dynamics user study among high school students applying for college, we found three key users: the student, the parent(s) or carer(s), and the Career Advisor. Designing for just the student’s needs would miss the influence of “secondary users”.

More examples? In B2B, nothing gets done without your boss reviewing, approving, and contributing. In scientific environments like drug design, teams, colleagues, and collaborators work together. Collaboration and social interaction are the default in many tasks. Yet we continue to look at our “one” user. 

Even in our work: In reviewing design, multiple stakeholders review design files and provide input. If a tool does not understand the requirement of a collaborative UI, you end up with bias, marginalized users, and minimally sociable UIs. For example, a director reviews a design on his phone (as a secondary user), but the software is made to review on a desktop (for designers). Worse, there is no easy way to manage the comments of others (reviewers are treated as ‘Guests’ who don’t need that access). You can still get your work done as a reviewer, but your hands are tied concerning better collaboration. This example illustrates your design strategy’s need for good sociability and collaborative interfaces, aka ‘sociable UI’s’. 

Adding sociability to your UX Design 

For sociability to improve UX in products and services, you need to elegantly support social interaction. This can take many forms, such as:

  • Enabling social interaction: This can be done through features like social media integration or not. Social Media scrapes the surface of sociability because it distracts you into thinking you’re done. Instead, sociable UIs offer features that aid social interaction and collaboration, like chat, status, identity expression, or privacy protection- a big UX challenge
  • Encouraging users to share content: This can be done through features like user-generated content, ratings, and reviews. Trust, reputation, and accountability build “sociability architecture”.

When designing for sociability, it’s important to keep the following principles in mind:

  • Make it easy to connect and disconnect: Users should be able to find, follow and connect quickly and easily. Hiding, muting, blocking, or reporting are also of the essence.
  • Encourage participation: Users should be motivated to share content and participate in discussions. Nudging users with default or contextual prompts can help. 
  • Create a sense of belonging: Users should feel like they are part of a community. Diversity and inclusion in content, leadership, and the mission will help make sure users don’t feel left out. 
  • Be mindful of privacy: Design with privacy as a default, not an afterthought or a configuration preference, as Facebook’s privacy lessons have shown. 
  • Offer safety controls: Emotional and social safety are critical for inclusion and belonging. Allowing users to manage their identity and participation level is critical. In VR for example, this is mandatory. 

What happens when you overlook sociability?

Apple’s iPad changed the tablet landscape. Only it had one major problem: it was designed as a single-user device. Even though all reports showed, it was a multi-user device. But you wouldn’t know it from picking up even the latest generation iPad, especially if you are a physician or business user handling sensitive data. We visited many doctor’s offices as part of our User Research consulting service to find stacks of unused iPads. Without multi-user support, privacy, security, and healthcare regulatory compliance was impossible. 

The concept of multiple logins is not new. Microsoft Windows added it many years ago. Even Microsoft Surface has built-in multi-user support. Netflix also has it as default. 

netflix login

This UX designer created a concept multi-user iPad login shown below. Apple has never followed suit, presumably to sell each individual a device. It seems they don’t want users to share. Apple calls it a “known issue being investigated“. Third parties pursued multi-user hacks; see Hedonic Software created an account management app; Switch has a multi-user web browser app.

a multi-user ipad concept

(Multi-user iPad concept; source:Matt Jones)

If you have children you know this to be an issue. My iPhone and Desktop have two accounts: mine and my child’s. For example, I often find Google, Twitter, Skype, Dropbox, and Facebook logged into the kid’s accounts both on Desktop and mobile. Account switching can be problematic on these services, especially if you need to switch quickly. 

When Sociability is a must 

Okay, lack of sociability in login for work and social media won’t kill you. But in security situations, a lack of multi-user support can. For example, the German-based server Contabo offers only one login for account managers and developers. Everyone uses the same login—equating to poor sociability and catastrophic security auditing. Instead, GoDaddy and many others offer “Add a Team” and a way to manage multiple users- a productivity and a security win. Example user management interface below. 

example add a team to a web app

Update: As of 2021, Contabo still does not offer multi-user account management. Many web apps and services (Facebook, Google, etc) do offer easy “Switch Account” access. The iPad still does not. Even parents’ iPhones given to kids do not.  


By thinking about the social interactions and collaboration users need and want, UX designers can create better sociable experiences. Sociability has become the default in platform-driven apps like Uber and Airbnb but extends to B2B, VR, and other areas. If you focus only on utility and miss sociability, you can potentially deny users of better social engagement with your design. 


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