Unwritten “rules” define acceptable behaviors in specific settings. For example, at Thanksgiving holiday dinner in the U.S., some families “understand” that no one eats until prayer is said. In the southern United States, it’s a common expectation for children to say yes ma’am and no ma’am when they address a woman. When boarding an elevator, it is expected behavior to walk in, then turn around to face the doors. Social norms are often not explicitly shared, but through experience and observation, people learn these social rules inherent in different settings. People who break social norms are often seen as outsiders because they do not behave “properly.” When designers are familiar with the established rules in a setting, they can create products, services, and systems that will work in harmony with these norms.

Examples of Social Norms

  • Dress Codes: Dress appropriately for the context or an occasion.
  • Politeness: Saying “thank you” or opening a door for others.
  • Queueing: Waiting in line before boarding a bus.
  • Noise Levels: Waiting until after 10 a.m. (an acceptable time) to mow your lawn with a loud mower.

Researching Social Norms

Designers who research social norms discover acceptable behaviors in different settings. If design outcomes intend to work within a setting’s rules, researching norms provides designers with a list of norms to address. If stakeholders intend to design outcomes that break norms, researching social rules reveals how norms emerged in a setting and their effects. By researching norms, designers can create products, services, and systems whose styling and operation can effectively address matters in contexts.

Questions to Ask

  • What activities are allowable in this setting?
  • How did social norms emerge?
  • What cultural attitudes established these norms?
  • Who do these norms place in power?

Look For…

  • Ways people dress
  • Cultural activities
  • Explicit and tacit expectations for behavior
  • Ways people speak
  • Gestures people make



Updated: June 21, 2024 10:56 am
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