Collage of popular memes.

How is a meme like UX?

Memes, GIFs and text posts are like the products of our minds. We create them and push them online for validation and a sense of self. Our ideas are tested by those that see them. Reactions and friendly discourse are the desired outcomes. We measure our successes and failures by how many views, likes, retweets and comments we receive. A scientific method it is not, but it still acts as a personal litmus test evaluating our assumptions about our world and how we interact with it.

The process seems oddly familiar to me.

It reminds me of the user experience process in design studies. As UX is a fairly new convention in product development, it may be unknown still to some. Essentially the process goes like this: An organization creates a product for a target audience, researchers and designers test and retest all aspects of the product to reach maximal usability and desirability for the end user. Along the way many methods are employed to discover the ideal product features and likely uses for the product.

Basic Twitter home screen.
Basic Twitter home screen.

I think of social media as the ultimate reflection of the user experience process. As humans, we like to share: Our feelings, activities, successes, failures, happiness, sadness and so on. Social media is now the best medium for sharing and testing ideas with a broad base of users(assuming you have more than 3 followers). Like a proving ground for new ideas on a massive scale. The popular ideas receive adulation from millions of people, the unloved go unnoticed, unlikely to see the light again. If the person posting online is the product then they learn how to improve from the reactions of others. If you post something and find that it is disagreeable to everyone else, you might not post on that topic again and find something else that people will like.

You might argue that individual will just move to a different platform where their ideas are appreciated. I would say they are still trying to find their target audience. When fringe groups are “kicked off” Facebook or Twitter they move to more accommodating social media like MeWe and Parler. They found their audience, but they still need to test and refine their message. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to knowing your user. We all want our product to be loved unconditionally, but that rarely happens. User experience processes are all about improvement.

This is a similar process to how we test in the UX industry. Put out an idea or product and test its usability or desirability with audiences. Look for patterns, reiterate, improve. Keep what works, alter what doesn’t. Just like how an organization needs a viable product that serves the needs and wants of their customers, people post online to validate their own self-worth and relevance to the world at large. The goals are the same whether designing the perfect product or crafting the perfect story to post.

Social media is brand management for individuals. You are trying to promote an online persona that resonates with others and is popular. Same as refining a product through UX or promoting a brand across markets. Both forms need to react to the input given by returning value or desire. Testing user experiences is just a broad reflection of how our society works. Brand marketing, product development and social media personas live or die on UX testing. People gravitate towards things they like or let you know, in subtle ways, what they don’t. If you are not course correcting your message along the way then you will flounder and sink.

Psychology and medicine teaches us that we learn from our environment by trial and error interaction, starting when we were babies. As we aged, our personalities developed and we learned how to behave or think by watching others. We then transfer this learning method into how we interact online and search for validation. We make assumptions about what we think people want to see or share what we feel is important. Ideas might need to be filtered into more acceptable messages. Maybe the idea is targeted to a small group or intended to have broad appeal. Either way, that assumption is not validated until people respond. Imagine if you never posted anything. You might assume that everyone, everywhere loved your ideas. Without the user validation from others, you would have no idea. Validation is therefore needed to promote self and ideas. Without it you exist in a bubble, alone.

Think about how you hope to be received when you post an article, video or personal thought. What is your goal in sharing that snippet from your mind? Your first thought may be which media platform to post on, or to post to all that are available. After that, the next decision is how to present it. Do you add context, filters, links, emojis? How do you want to be perceived by the public? Is this intended to be a stand alone share or is it intended to shape your continuing brand message. All these are assumptions you make along the way to making your post are an important aspect of the user testing. UX designers craft surveys and product testing in the same way. Searching for answers to how the “product” works for users or what unforeseen problems are exposed. Growing and crafting an online persona is no different. There are even proven tutorials available that can teach you how to grow your follower base depending on the platform. These methods come from data and user testing, the same as a user experience process.

Chart of overlapping circles of people.
Chart of overlapping circles of people.

Basic principles of sociology confirm this; People learn from experiences and watching others. Our personalities, habits and knowledge are a direct result of who, where, how and what we are exposed to over our lives. That user experience process we use to learn and grow is simply an extension of how humans (and animals) have survived and coped with their environment over time. Now we use the process to learn and interact in a different social environment. The goals are generally the same as in any other aspect of our lives: success, improvement, happiness. All individuals want positive validation in whatever medium they put their energy into, just like an organization wants success for their “bread and butter” product.

Our current favorite form of communication may be a dumbed-down thought process, but it still follows the basic assumption/testing process needed to grow our audience and validate our ideas. Sometimes a meme is just a meme, sometimes it is a user experience test in progress.

A UX Designer in a UX Designer world