The discussion section from Ling et al.’s piece resonated with my thoughts (and some confusions) on social theories and their applications either to design or sometimes in terms of further theory development.
I remember two years ago, when working with my college friends in participating in a technology design competition, what we used to ground our design idea are: data (gathered both from relevant literature/reports and talking to targeted audience), trial results (we made several prototypes, and tested them to see which one would give us the best outcome) and our intuition (like the concept of “naive physics”). Back then, I never thought of digging into a psychology, communication or cognition book to research some relevant social theories first, to see if any of those would help us to guide our design. I believe the way we came up with our design idea for the competition is what most companies are doing today when devising their new products. They do “marketing research” and “data analysis” based on very tangible facts: testing marketing data, product popularity, usability test, etc. Rarely they would consider what’s the story (psycho-dynamic processes driving people’s behavior) behind people’s choice of using one product over other options. While the usability test and various market data do provide us with first hand evidence of what design, what feature or which prototype was mostly welcomed or hated by users, and to some extent why, they inevitably involve a lot of “contextual noise” which make the results of those data analysis and tests can hardly be generated to other circumstances. Most companies rely heavily on data to make their decision of which design or what product to launch, even though those data mostly only generate “surface realism” or “naive interpretation” of people’s behavior.
I guess they don’t have to think through everything before they launch a product either (by the time they sort out all the theories and processes, they will definitely lose the timing for their business). I couldn’t agree more with what have been mentioned in Ling et al.’s article that the two major contributions of theories are inspiration and prediction. Ideas should be generated both inductively (from data) and deductively (from theories). If without the bond-based and identity-based theories, one can hardly think of the idea to emphasize that part in the “email campaign”, maybe intuitively but definitely cannot be systematically recruiting people to participate more in an online community. Since theories are high level ideas that are more generalizable to different circumstances, the psychological strategy to recruit people to a golf club can also be applied to an online setting. In terms of prediction, by using controlled experiment or study, we could test whether certain theories could explain part of people’s behaviors in some settings. Various theories help us gradually map out the pieces of psychological processes that guide people’s behavior. We may not get the whole picture, which is why the prediction is not always accurate, but step by step, we could learn about the influencing factors. Also, different processes they are inter-winded and mutually influencing each other, so lots of compound effects will occur even if you’ve identified most of the underlying psychological process, not to mention contextual differences, individual differences in terms of previous experience, social/cultural background, etc.
I want to think theories are the ingredients which consist of the recipes behind each dishes (our social behavior). We could know which is the most popular dish simply by letting people taste and select, but it would be very hard for us to replicate and generate new and creative dishes without knowing at least part of the ingredients and/or recipes. I guess mapping out those ingredients (processes) are the responsibilities of our academia.