Social Influence: Incorporating Social Identity Theory into Design
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Social Influence: Incorporating Social Identity Theory into Design

By Mainak Biswas December 10, 2014 - 1,243 views

Social identity theory plays an important role in all sections of the society. This theory, developed by Henri Tejfal in 1979, proposes that every human being tries to identify himself or herself with a group. It is a three-phase step – social categorization, social identity and social comparison. This theory is responsible for the behavior of every human being.

Every person tries to categorize himself to become a part of a group. The group, which he or she becomes a part of, is known as in-group while all the other groups are termed as out-groups. This social categorization comes naturally to human beings and leads them towards social identity.

Understanding social identity through an example

For instance, a cricket fan will try to categorize him among all the cricket fans of the world by joining an online cricket forum. Social identity is the ability of a human being to identify himself with a social group and adopt the behavior common to the group members. All the members in the cricket forum will try to relate with each other by showing common interests and sharing common excitement towards the game.

This helps them in strengthening their social bonding by interacting with each other. Social comparison is the phenomenon with which a social group tries to compare itself with another group. Here, the group feeling strengthens further as the in-group members see all the other groups as out-groups.

This helps them to take solace in their superiority and in their ability to being different from others. So, the cricket forum members might think that football fans are a bunch of idiots. This negative feeling is natural to develop and creates an elevated feeling of pride within the in-group.

The same phenomenon is responsible for extreme cases of communal riots and hatred within two communities or even two countries. For instance, the historical hatred between the Bosnians and the Serbs etc. had cost the lives of millions of people.

How do designers and marketers use Social Identity Theory into design?

Marketers study behavior of their customers to give significant input to designers. Whether it is a website designer or a car designer, Social Identity Theory forms the basis of their design. User experience (UX) design is the process that takes all aspects into mind to simplify the interaction between the users and the product. The idea is to enhance the value, convenience and usability of the product to the users. The UX design is frequently used to create product prototypes, simulated models for research and market testing purposes. While developing a website, web designers engage themselves in A/B testing to enhance user experience and ultimately improve conversion rates.

Let us consider the following examples to understand the concept better:

1. Facebook/Twitter

The social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are excellent examples of user design considering the use of Social Identity Theory. Facebook reflects a group where the group members have a common need for social identity. Facebook allows its users to see friend suggestions from the existing group of friends. Users like a post, which is seen by their friends.

If their friends like it, share it or comment on it, it is further seen by their friends and the cycle goes on. What’s more, users can share, tag, like and comment on pictures and videos as well. The key to Facebook ideology is that users will like what their friends like. This is the formation of a strong in-group.

Though the visibility of the post depends upon the users’ personal settings, it offers a huge potential for the marketers to target their customers. Many online marketers track the user data to find out their interests and likes. This allows them to fine-tune their online advertisements and display the relevant ads to the user.

For instance, if a group of Facebook friends like an NGO’s page to help quit smoking, it is highly likely that they will start campaigning against the cigarette lovers group. Here, marketers will pick up the lead from NGO’s page to target users with dislike for tobacco. Such users might then be targeted by marketers of products that help to quit smoking like nicotine chewing gums, e-cigarettes etc.

On the other hand, the cigarette lovers’ group members might be targeted with books on the history of cultivation of tobacco, fancy cigarette lighters and tobacco-flavored colognes. Similarly, Twitter has shown a huge potential for marketers to promote their events and products using hashtags. Marketers often link real-time offers with the use of a defined hashtag. Hashtags enable them to talk about a specific subject and seek their consumers’ feedback at a common platform.

2. Amazon

Amazon is a well-known online shopping platform, which allows users to share their purchase decision with their friends through social media networking. This generates further sales due to a strong social influence of friends in the group.

If a user visits Amazon to look for a product but does not buy it for some or the other reason, Amazon marketers make a note of it and they target the same individual by advertising the product offer through his social media profile. It also allows users on Amazon to exchange product reviews helping subsequent consumers to take a purchasing decision.

3. Mercedes Benz/Harley Davidson

The same strategy is adopted by an automobile or a two-wheeler manufacturer. A luxury car designer Mercedes Benz will make sure that their design is classy and is identified with the upper crust of the society. Thus, besides the in-built features in the car, the outer look and the comfort of driving the car play a significant role in appealing to its high-profile target audience.

Consequently, marketers design their marketing messages like “Designed for the upper crust” in line with their target audience. Product branding is motivated by the product itself and the target audience. Seek consumer feedback on a periodic basis to innovate your design. Find out if you are able to meet their expectations.

4. Apple v/s Others

Apple boasts of its product differentiation strategy as its products are entirely different in the terms of user experience. The one-button for all functions is patent design for Apple. All Apple users take pride in its ownership and all categories of products like MacBook, iPhone, iPad etc. generate a distinguished user satisfaction. On the other hand, the same Apple users will look down upon Windows users or even Android and Blackberry users & consider them as an out-group.

How to make this theory work for your business?

Now that you understand the importance of this theory and its application in the industry, you are equally eager to apply it in your product design. Ask yourself the following questions to begin with:

  • How do users engage with your product outside the virtual world?
  • How do your competitors engage with your users?
  • What are the common user experiences with your product?
  • How do you classify your users’ profile?
  • Do you have any ground-breaking thoughts that you can incorporate in your UX design?
  • What are the R&D efforts taken up by your company to create innovative designs?
  • Do you continue to evolve your design to stay ahead in the race?
  • Is your product suitable to incorporate design changes?
  • Is there a possibility of social interaction around your product?

Once you get the answers to the above questions, analyze the opportunities ahead of you. Show a long-term commitment towards developing and sustaining your social networking connections. Find out what do users consider as an in-group activity and what as an out-group one. You also have to remember not to irritate the user by sending them product offers irrelevant to them. Users have equal power to report such marketers as spam.


It is, therefore, easy to conclude that Social Identity Theory is omnipresent and becomes a governing factor for interpreting the social influence on the group member.  The same concepts can be used by your company to derive distinguished user experience and establish a brand image for your company.

You can also use the basis of this theory to pitch your idea to investors and stakeholders who play a significant role in deciding the financial plight of your company. With appropriate design, you not only win your customers but also overtake your competitors. It is important to gain early mover advantage through your design to avoid clashes with the copycats.

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