<aside> ☝ Part of Quest 2 in Values-Based Data Science & Design


We use "social design" to cover an extraordinary range of things, from games played by friends over dinner, to global social networks and governance institutions. What do they have in common?

Consider voting for a new President or Prime Minister. This has aspects of a game, like points and winners. It has aspects of a ritual, with paraphernalia like voting booths, special days, ceremonial presentations, and magical pronouncements like "the people have spoken". It has aspects of a social choice mechanism, aggregating information from individuals into a collective choice with various biases and failure modes. It has aspects of an institution, with rules that make some moves legitimate, others illegitimate. It also has aspects of an organization, with roles like voter and candidate, and relationships like campaign manager and poll worker.

The board game "Monopoly" also is game, ritual, mechanism, institution, and organization. So's Facebook News Feed.

We use the terms "social game" or "social system" for these things: a formal system of interaction, with a specified vocabulary of moves, roles, and rules.

Examples are voting, chess, markets, and Tinder. When you say "let's have a vote" you're saying "let's limit our interactions about this, for a moment, to the rules of voting". When you step into to a market, you become a buyer or seller and your interactions are limited to the standard ways that buyers and sellers interact.

Hard Steps

Often a social design will seem good for a set of values, but, in practice, it won't serve those values well. We find that even very talented designers run into this, which is why one of our main goals with the program is to help people avoid this problem.

We do this, first, by helping designers identify what keeps people from living by a value in one context vs another. We call those things—what gets in the way of living by values—the "hard steps" of a value.

<aside> ℹ️ What's a hard step?

Hard steps are the sub-actions that are necessary to live by a value, and which (in some environments) are hard to do.

Example: Speaking honestly has, as a sub-action, reflecting on what's true for you. That makes reflecting a "hard step" of speaking honesty.


So: if you want to design for honesty, it helps to remember that reflection is necessary. Reflecting will be harder in noisy rooms, when there's little time, etc. You can ensure your designs don't have those problems. And honesty has other hard steps—for instance, there are steps to build up a relationship that's good for honesty, like seeing how someone reacts when you're honest.

We learn how to find these hard steps, and use them in our design process.

Design Imagination

Most people, even leading designers (inventors of voting systems, social networks, etc.) can only imagine changing their designs in certain ways. Other changes don't occur to them.

So, when designers at Facebook think about harassment or spam, they mostly think about inclusion and exclusion—what we cover in Legitimation of People - Inclusion and Exclusion. They miss other kinds of changes, because they haven't trained their design imagination. For instance

A similar lack of imagination afflicts designers of voting systems. Take quadratic voting. It's designers think about Chapter 11. Incentives Structures, and a bit about information legitimation. What don't they consider?