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The guest-host relationship

Last month I attended an IBM brand summit in which  IBM’s agency partners were invited to discuss the evolution of the Smarter Planet platform. On the second day of the summit, Eames Demetrios, the grandson of  Charles Eames and curator of the Eames Foundation, came to talk to us about the design principles that guided his grandfather’s work.

One of these principles is the guest-host relationship. It’s the idea that a design solution — whether it’s for a piece of furniture, a public space or anything else — should make the user feel as welcome as a host inviting guests into her home. The guest-host relationship is a human universal: most cultures agree on what it means to be a good host. Things like providing a safe, comfortable, intimate setting. Introducing the guests to each other and creating common ground between them. Getting the conversation started, but then letting it take its natural course. Attending to your guests’ needs, unobtrusively. And continually watching for opportunities to create connections between them.

This feels to me like a really powerful principle to guide the future of digital communications, as more and more of our activities in the digital space involve social interaction.

Right now, interaction design and information architecture are all about meeting two (often conflicting) needs: on the one hand, the company’s business goals and communication objectives; on the other, the user’s need to find information and complete tasks. The current models don’t capture the social dimension, except as just another type of content to consume or task to complete.

We’re starting to see more companies integrate their constituents’ social dialog into their web sites — usually via aggregated Twitter feeds, blog posts, etc. But that’s just like filling up a room with strangers who are all talking at the top of their voices without listening to each other. There’s no common ground, no common purpose, no sense of belonging to a group, and most of all, no actual dialog.

What’s missing is the host. For a corporate web site, being a “good host” would mean things like:

– setting the agenda with a strong point of view on its products, services, or vision, but then opening it up for discussion. That way, the official party line becomes the starting point of a conversation instead of a dead end.

– visualizing the most active social contributors and how they are connected.

– using community managers to provide those contributors with new information, and to foster new connections between them.

– providing simple, at-a-glance visual cues of the hottest topics and how they’re trending, so that new “guests” who enter the conversation can quickly orient themselves.

– letting the conversation police itself as much as possible.

– distilling the most promising ideas from the social dialog, editorializing them, and playing them back on the site as featured content.

Online communities are no different from real-world communities — they need a catalyst to create a sense of belonging, define a common purpose, and provide a safe setting to foster dialog. The guest-host relationship has probably been around ever since we became human, so it captures those principles beautifully.

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