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Alone Together: exploring social connectedness through communication technology during physical distancing

Aim

Alone Together is design research project that explores how communication technology can foster the sense of togetherness and social connectedness during physical distancing. This project focuses how to create a hang out feeling within online group interactions and how to create the in-the-moment feeling during shared online live experiences. 

Motivation

This project was motivated by COVID-19 as people turned to communication technology to feel a sense of social connectedness while physically distancing. My main inspiration for this project was the way in which both people and communication technology are creativity adapting to physical distancing.

Role

Research 

Ideation

Prototyping

User testing

Time

8 weeks (2020)

Tools

Figma

Solo project

Research question

How can existing communication technology foster a sense of togetherness to maintain the feeling of social connectedness during physical distancing?

Background

The current global pandemic COVID-19 is causing billions of people across the world to live in isolation or by physical distancing. The elimination of almost all in-person interactions has resulted in many people turning to communication technology to feel a sense of social connectedness.

This project builds upon three main areas of research:

Covid-19 

The social and psychological implications of physical distancing and isolation.

Communication technology  

The feeling of loneliness and togetherness within communication technology before Covid-19.

Designing for crises

Designing for crises within the field of interaction design focusing on emotional needs.

Design process

01 Background study

Literature review, related works

02 Fieldwork  

Auto-ethnography, participatory observation, interviews, cultural probe toolkit

03 Analysis and synthesis   

Affinity diagraming

04 Ideation  

Ideating concepts, sketching, prototyping 

05 Prototype testing

Think-aloud protocol, interviews 

06 Design considerations 

Produce design considerations based on findings from fieldwork, prototyping and literature review

Fieldwork Research

Fieldwork was conducted to gain insights into how people are using communication technology during physical distancing and explore how they are adapting existing forms of communication technology to feel a sense of social connectedness online.

The participants had been living under a strict lockdown for 5-7 weeks at the fieldwork and were using communication technology as their only form of communication with people outside their household. The fieldwork was conducted over 4 weeks and included auto-ethnography, participatory observation, interviews and a cultural probe toolkit. The toolkit included:

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01 Diary

The aim of the dairy was to find out the role communication technology played in their daily lives, how it fit into their routine and gain insights into their experiences of different types of interactions. This method allows for longer-term reflection on their behaviour and habits and for participants to express themselves freely in their own time and words.

 

The dairy included questions that encouraged both qualitative and quantitative answers focusing on:

  • Type of communication technology

  • How the interaction was planned or scheduled

  • Length of interaction 

  • Feeling of closeness and togetherness

03 Take a photo

The aim of this task was to gain insights into how communication technology fit into their daily lives by providing a glimpse of their environment. This method asks participants to take a photo of their go-to place when using communication technology to interact with others. 

02 Love letter, breakup letter  

The aim of the love letter and break up letter was to gain insights into what is meaningful and what frustrates people about interactions on different communication technology platforms. This playful method uses the familiar format of a letter and asks participants to write a love letter and breakup letter to their choice of communication technology platforms. 

04 Hack it

The aim of this task was to gain insights into what participants need from communication technology to socially connect during COVID-19 beyond their exiting features and purposes. This method challenged participants to re-appropriate a form of communication technology using it for something new. 

 

This method was inspired by the ways in which people are adapting existing forms online platforms during COVID-19 to replicate their social lives and activities such as virtual dance classes, virtual pubs and virtual music performances

Insights

Affinity diagramming was used to analyse and synthesise the data gathered from fieldwork. This led common themes and problematic areas forming such as: group video calls feeling unnatural and forced as social cues are lost in video calls and people feeling a sense of connection with others when taking part in an online live activity for example, yoga classes, fitness classes and live music streams.

“Video calls are less natural, it is okay for a business type of meeting as they are relatively formal, but for a social thing, it is less relaxed than normal in-person interactions.” 

“Other people doing the same thing at the same time as you online is a form of connection with other humans.” 

Insights from the fieldwork resulted in two sub-questions:

01 How can interaction design features within online communication platforms create the hang out feeling in group communication?

02 How can interaction design features within online communication create the in-the-moment feeling when participating in shared online experiences?

Ideation

Quick sketches and journey mapping were used as a main methods for this stage which explored a range of different possibilities and iterations. The concepts were based on Zoom as it was the most common platform for both group video calls and online live experiences amongst the participants.

 

Two concepts were developed in Figma and tested by the participants:

Family Kitchen Table is a concept for a feature that allows users to create a virtual space and give it an identity such as 'Family Kitchen Table'. Within the space, users can move between one-on-one video calls and group video calls within a larger group. 

This concept focused on how to create the hang out feeling in group communication. Family Kitchen Table was motivated by insights form the fieldwork about how giving a name to an online interaction can create a certain atmosphere and how video calls were not fluid and flexible like in-person interactions. This concept aims to give online group calls an identity and allow conversations to flow and develop organically similar to the dynamic of in-person group interactions, rather than everyone waiting their turn to talk in group video call.

Motivated by insights from the fieldwork:

“I had a digital night in the “pub”, it made it so easy for us to have a drink and laugh together again.” 

“It was nice and natural and almost felt like I was back in the kitchen with them.” 

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01 Family Kitchen Table

Participants reflections on the prototype:

“Giving a name and identity to the online interaction changes the whole dynamic of the call."

“You start to create fluid conversations within a group setting where everyone is sort of in the same room or space and you can turn to different people and groups of people.”

02 Digital Waiting Room

Digital Waiting Room is a concept for a feature that allows users to interact with one another before a shared online live experience, like a waiting room in real life. When logging on to the event, participants are notified with how many people are in the digital waiting room to create a sense of anticipation and have the option to join and interact with others. After the event has ended, the participants are notified with how many people they shared the experience with to further foster the sense of togetherness. 

This concept focused on how to create the in-the-moment feeling when participating in shared online experiences. Digital Waiting Room was motivated by insights from the fieldwork about how interacting with other participants before an online event creates a sense of togetherness.

Motivated by insights from the fieldwork:

“The chat before and after to fill space lets you know that people are in the same boat.” 

“At the end of the class, the teacher unmutes the class... we say goodbye and everyone wishes each other good wishes for the day to come. It is one of the most genuine interactions I have had online.”

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Participants reflections on the prototype:

“There is an anticipation of something that is about to happen. I enjoy that build of feeling of something that is about to start and also knowing that there are people also waiting for the same thing to start.”

“The interactive stage is really good, it’s way more interactive than going straight onto a Zoom call and just doing the class. It is more similar to real life experiences.”

Design Considerations

The results from the analysis of the literature review, fieldwork and prototypes testing were gathered to produce design considerations for designing communication technology that fosters togetherness during physical distancing.

Social Structure

A balance is needed between creating social structure and flexibility within online group communication that allows people to create their own dynamics. 

Creating a hang out feeling within online group communication can contribute to the sense of social presence and connectedness online by allowing for more informal and relaxed interactions.​

Closeness and Togetherness 

The feeling of togetherness can be influenced by online interactions that focus on social presence. Whereas the feeling of closeness is influenced by the existing relationship between the people.

Creating opportunities for interactions during the ‘waiting room’ stage of online shared live experiences can foster the sense of togetherness and the in-the-moment feeling as other people sharing an experience together at the same time. This can also create the sense of anticipation, a feeling that people experience during in-person events though currently is lost when events are replicated online.

Dynamics

Allowing users to create an identity for online group communication can foster a sense of social connectedness as it can influence the dynamics and give meaning to the interactions.

Simultaneous Activities 

Users participating in simultaneous activities can foster a hang out feeling as it removes the focus from the conversation and provides an opportunity for people to share an experience. This also allows for more informal and relaxed interactions.

Future iterations 

This project was conducted during the ‘first wave’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. As it is now apparent that physical distancing maybe be a long-term method and ‘going back to normal’ may not be an option, this presents an opportunity to design new experiences online.

 

Based on the insights gathered during this project, future explorations could focus on: 

Cultural tools

Exploring the opportunity for a diverse set of tools that create social structure suitable for different cultural norms of communication.

Peripheral communication

Exploring the opportunity for peripheral communication that is less demanding than video calls.

Evolving virtual spaces

Exploring the opportunity for evolving virtual spaces and enhancing online shared live experiences and events

Gathering online in different scales

Exploring how to structure both small-scale and large-scale online spaces for communities and cities.