Scale Positive Behaviors by Designing Them Into Social Software

by cv harquail on March 20, 2012

Why doesn’t every piece of cake come with two forks?

There’s no fixed reason why the cake can only come with one fork. But, having only one fork is an obstacle to sharing, even for the most generous of potential dessert-sharers.

Why not bring me a second fork, to make it easy for me to share?

Even better, why not serve every piece of cake with two forks?

Why not make it easy for everyone to make sharing their default behavior?


Design decisions drive our behaviors more than we realize. Design decisions intentionally make some behaviors difficult to do, while making other behaviors easy.  Some behaviors occur by deliberately-designed ‘default’.

And, if we change the defaults, we change our behaviors.

This is true for individuals, and it’s true for organizations.

In organizations, deliberate changes to the defaults in our systems can lead to changes in our collective behaviors.

You know how this works– when your organization requires you to use a photo id to get into your building, people eventually start clipping those id’s on their belts. And soon enough, everyone’s wearing a name-tag. Those name-tags make it easier to refer to a person by name when you strike up a conversation in the elevator.

If we want to help our organizations thrive – to become truly social in ways that engage members in positive interactive behaviors– we need to change our systems of social interaction.

One great place to start is with our digital social networks. Here’s how that might work:

Dash off a list of some of the interpersonal behaviors that would make your organization more social, more positive, if only these behaviors could be increased in number. Think of behaviors like:

    • Thanking
    • Affirming
    • Sharing
    • Celebrating
    • Listening

Can you imagine ways that you could deliberately design your collective activity streaming, your data requests, your emails, and even your group meeting scheduler so that these activities invited people to thank each other, recognize each other, or share with each other?

This is not such a weird idea. Everyone on Facebook has seen this in action, with birthday greetings.

On Facebook, friends are flooded with online happy wishes on their birthdays. You might even have sent a few birthday wishes yourself. Why does this happen?

That flood of positive behavior doesn’t happen because you care more about that individual than you do about others.

And, that flood of positive behavior certainly doesn’t happen because everyone on Facebook went to some corporate meeting where they were urged to recognize people’s birthdays.

That flood of good wishes happens because Facebook’s systems have a built in reminder on the top right of your page: “Hey, His/Her birthday is tomorrow!”

Similarly, Gmail also has some built- in reminders to be more social. One tool recommends other people who might be added to the address field. Another tool reminds you to upload a document if the body of your email includes the words ‘attach’ or ‘attachment’.

Already, some enterprise-wide social recognition platforms have these positive triggers designed right in, so that they nudge us to change our behaviors towards the positive.

We can design in more positive behaviors, for example by designing  online employee profiles that recommend people to connect with, based on work role, project area, and even personal interests. We can import social platforms like Contactually to invite employees to design into their own email habits some regular invitations to reconnect with email contacts & colleagues.

Added 3/22: Here’s another example, from the new gmail interface =>’s  formatting highlights the sender’s visual avatar, to “remind you that there’s an actual human being on the other end of the message, not just some infernal robot trying to waste your time.” A simple design change builds in the [ositive behavior of affirming the person

In each of these examples, positive social behavior isn’t required; it’s merely prompted. But sometimes, all we need is a prompt to share, or a reminder to recognize and celebrate someone’s contribution, to actually take that positive step.

Imagine how this sharing could work in an organization, if the social tools that everyone uses had positive behavior triggers built right in!

If we change the default behaviors that are built into our social technologies, we can change how people interact across these systems. And, these online changes can even infect our offline behavior, making that more positive too.

Of course, there is a fine line between nudges and requirements. And, there’s a fine line between controlling these nudges ourselves and having the organization’s systems ‘big brother’ us with automatic suggestions.


  • But why not start thinking more deliberately about the positive behaviors we want?
  • Why not starting thinking more deliberately about the positive behavioral norms that we want to establish?

We’ve already predisposed certain behaviors and reinforced certain norms — less social ones — by designing systems without triggers for sharing, without triggers for remembering, and without triggers for thanking each other.

We’ve got communication systems and work flow systems that give us the equivalent of only one fork. If we want to encourage sharing, we need to design systems that give us that second fork. Or even a third one.

When tools make it easy to share, and defaults make it likely we’ll share, our behavior will become more generous — by design.

That way, we can have our cake, and so can you.


see also:

Images: Bigger than your head AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by gregoryperez on Flickr
Two Forks AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mmahaffie

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