Build norms, not features

If you’re building a multi-user product, you’re not just selling social features. You’re selling social norms. In this post, I analyze LessWrong as a great example of product design, carefully designed to build strong social norms.

LessWrong is a forum with various features. But the developers don’t see themselves as building social features in a product. Instead, they’re building social norms in a community. Social norms are shared expectations of how to work together. The LessWrong community has strong social norms, such as long-form writing and rationality. The forum developers can’t build those norms directly, but they can help build them indirectly. Let’s see how they’ve achieved this.

Technique 1: state your norms. LessWrong’s community guidelines are below each comment box:

Aim to explain, not persuade. Try to offer concrete models and predictions. If you disagree, try getting curious about what your partner is thinking. Don’t be afraid to say ‘oops’ and change your mind.

This technique is extremely simple and powerful, but surprisingly under-used! I bet your enterprise Slack or Notion has no such norms stated anywhere.

Technique 2: defaults. Consider the behavior of the ⏎Enter button in a text box. If ⏎Enter sends my message, I’ll write short messages. But if creates a new paragraph, I’ll write longer comments. Then, by posting my longer comment, I help build the social norm that this is a place for long-form. Nudge theory tells us that defaults are powerful. But in multi-user platforms, defaults are all-powerful: first they determine individual behavior, then this determines group behavior, and then this sets off a positive feedback loop.

(Aside: I bet you’ve experienced what I call “Shift-Enter anxiety.” Visiting a new app, will the ⏎Enter key create a new paragraph, or will it prematurely send my message? With this micro-stress, I must make a guess: does it look like this app wants long-form writing? Is the input box large? Are other people posting multiple paragraphs? If so, I hit ⏎Enter, and pray for a new paragraph ...)

Technique 3: friction. The word “friction” in design is often used negatively, but friction is a powerful way to steer users towards desired behavior. Consider how LessWrong builds the social norm of long-form, async comms. In a LessWrong comment, ⏎Enter creates a new paragraph; there is no keyboard shortcut for “Submit”. There are no realtime notifications. Timestamps are only accurate to the hour, not the minute. There’s a separate feature called “shortform”.

Technique 4: moderation. Each user on LessWrong is also a moderator. They can write their own “moderation guidelines”. On that user’s posts, their moderation guidelines are shown alongside the standard community guidelines below the comment box.

Voting lets users moderate each other, reinforcing established norms. Each post and comment on LessWrong has an up/down vote box.

However, voting isn’t a way to establish norms in the first place: if bad behavior becomes a community norm, it will also be reinforced by voting systems. LessWrong guards against this with reactions. In most apps, you can react to stuff with emojis. But emojis can be very ambiguous (even causing legal issues!. On LessWrong, reactions have labels, like: “Changed My Mind”, “Insightful”, or “Good Facilitation”. LessWrong’s word-based reactions show users what’s valued in this community..

Technique 5: containment. Counter-intuitively, one way to build a norm is to build a feature for its opposite norm. I call these “norm containment” features. LessWrong has two containment features.

One containment feature is called Shortform. “Exploratory, draft-stage, rough, and rambly thoughts are all welcome on Shortform.” Implicit in this description is that such content is not generally welcome elsewhere. The “shortform” feature says: “Normal posts are long-form and carefully edited.”

Another containment feature is called “agreement voting”. Each comment on LessWrong has two voting axes. The first axis is the traditional “How much do you like this?”. The second axis is: “How much do you agree with this, separate from whether you think it’s a good comment?”. By explicitly moving “agreement” onto a separate axis, the forum tries to unbuild the “groupthink” social norm that plagues so many other forums. The “agreement voting” feature says: “Normal voting should not consider agreement.”

So if you’re trying to unbuild a social norm, try containing it by building a separate feature for it.

If you’re selling a collaboration product, you’re not selling features. You’re selling norms. Remember Google Wave, where the limit was your imagination, but no one knew what they were expected to do? It’s justifiably dead. When I use Slack, I need the other people using Slack to use Slack how I expect people to use Slack. If the servers go down, #ops is not async!

Instead of building features, try building norms. “In Q3, we’re building a chat-less-after-work norm. In Q4, we’ll deprecate the default-private-chat norm.” Which social norms are you selling? Do your defaults nudge people towards those norms? Which tiny tweaks can radically change the culture? Examine your defaults, and build your norms!

Discussion on Hacker News.
Tagged #essay, #product.
👋 I'm Jim, a full-stack product engineer. Want to build an amazing product and a profitable business? Read more about me or Get in touch!

More by Jim

This page copyright James Fisher 2023. Content is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.