Note: This post is adapted from a paper written for a Technology-Mediated Communication Course at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
How Do We Design Experiences to Create Richer Communication and Greater Feelings of Closeness?
That is a question that has riddled designers across the board. Technology-mediated communication (TMC) involves the “wide range of technologies that facilitate both human communication and the interactive sharing of information through computer networks.” (Worrell, 2018) User experience (UX) design is the “process of enhancing user satisfaction … by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.” (Sciandra, 2017) Better understanding how people use technology to communicate will allow us to develop better channels by involving the human perspective.
Designers must first understand that design in itself is an act of communication, it’s a conversation between the user and the channel to better help achieve users end-goals. (McKay, 2013, pg. 2) Designers who can leverage the communication between platform and user will be better equipped to create TMC for increased media richness and psychological closeness. Designers can even go as far as to use design to help reduce uncertainties in interactions and facilitate the growth of online communities. Even if the designer is able to manipulate the conversation between user and media they must also be open to user feedback. Designers should base their design decisions on the user research to create platforms people want to use and understand how to use.
Moving forward, designers should understand growing trends in TMC. Many of them aided by increased mobility and the adoption of emerging technology. The world of communication is changing as more people adopt smartphones, and technologies such as augmented reality and the internet of things change the way we interact with one another and share information via computer networks.
Design as an Act of Communication
Before getting into the details of how better user experience design facilitates human interaction and the sharing of information, it’s important to understand how design is an act of communication. “A user interface (UI) is essentially a conversation between users and a product to perform tasks that achieve a users’ goal.” (McKay, 2013, pg. 2) To create better channels and networks for communication, the designer must have a “deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating. In order to get better insight into people’s needs.” (Tubik Studio, 2017) Designers must understand those using their channels in order to help design platforms for human communication. Every decision a designer makes can impact how the channel communicates and aids human communication.
Jan Miksovsky puts it best, “The moment a user sees your UI, it communicates where they have arrived, what they can do, and how they should do it. The user receives this message from every aspect of your design: graphical and textual, silent and audible, static and moving, intentional and accidental.” (McKay, 2013, pg. 1) Every decision a UX/UI designer makes should add to the conversation with the user, and assist the user in understanding where they are, what they can do, and how they can achieve their end goals. “If your UI has elements that communicate nothing, you should remove them.” (McKay, 2013, pg. 2) In the case of the paper, the users’ goal is to interact with another user through human communication or share.
How to Design for Better TMC
Designing for Trust/Richer communication (Media Richness)
Media richness theory talks about how rich media is used to “signify multimodal or greater bandwidth media… communication media that support multiple verbal and nonverbal cue systems.” (Walther, 2011, p. 448) Designers have the power to influence the level of richness users experience in communication media by designing for the four sub-dimensions of media richness theory: “(1) the number of cue systems supported by a medium, (2) the immediacy of feedback provided by a medium… (3) the potential for natural language… (4) message personalization.” (Walther, 2011, p. 448) The better designers can add these elements into a platform the more likely the users will experience richer communication, and in the case of Airbnb greater trust during first impressions. “Trust gives group members the confidence to take risks and act without concern that other group members will take advantage of them.” (Wilson, 2006, p. 18) In addition, this idea of design for trust and rich communication can allow designers to tackle an even larger issue between relative or complete strangers, uncertainty.
Airbnb is a prime example of how important design can be in facilitating human communication and the sharing of information. From a young age, we’re told not to talk to strangers, and not many people would willingly open their home to strangers or stay in a stranger’s home. Airbnb’s focus on designing for trust has allowed them to create a large scale, global platform to connect strangers with a spare room with those looking for a place to stay. “If members of distributed groups are going to engage in cooperative activities, they must either trust each other or be able to monitor each other.” (Wilson, 2006, p. 16)
Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia stresses the importance of designing for trust for the success of the Airbnb concept. (Gebbia, 2016) At the heart of their channel is a focus on design; design is the “mutual friend” that opens up communication between strangers and helps facilitate first impressions and initial introductions. (Aufmann, 2016) The focus on designing for trust helps to reduce the “level of uncertainty between people engaging in initial interactions,” as stated in uncertainty reduction theory. (Worrell, 2018) Uncertainty reduction theory refers to “anytime we might feel uncertainty with someone that we’re talking to…” (Worrell, 2018) This can happen either proactively, when we search online to learn more about someone we are going to meet, or reactively where we’ve already met someone a little, but want to get to know them better so we look them up. (Worrell, 2018) “Trust plays a critical role in influencing group effectiveness.” (Wilson, 2006, p. 17)
In the example of Airbnb, Airbnb bet their company on the belief people would be willing to overcome the stranger-danger bias and the uncertainty of interacting with strangers. In this case, design helps overcome an innate bias that occurs with initial interactions. This means that the designers behind Airbnb added capabilities and features such as profiles where users can become verified through multiple channels and receive reviews to help them build a positive reputation. (Aufmann, 2016) “It turns out, a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust. And we didn’t actually get it right the first time. It’s hard for people to leave bad reviews. Eventually, we learned to wait until both guests and hosts left the review before we reveal them.” (Gebbia, 2016) Design helped aid the right amount of disclosure and reputation information to make that happen and facilitate communication between strangers. Airbnb’s designers achieved this through requiring certain information on users’ profiles, as well as offer areas for users to expand about themselves. (Aufmann, 2016) Airbnb also sends an email after a stay to both the host and guest, but the designers learned to wait until both parties had filled out the form to reveal the reviews because they found they’re more likely to get responses from both sides if the users have to wait for the other to see their own review. (Aufmann, 2016)
Airbnb is also able to design for the right amount of disclosure to reduce the uncertainty of initial interactions and first impressions through the design of the message system between guest and host before the reservation is made. (Aufmann, 2016) Charlie Aufmann, Airbnb’s Experience Design Lead, stated, “our research has shown that these pre-booking messages may be a good signal of effort and trustworthiness for guests.” (Aufmann, 2016) Airbnb even goes so far as to make the box the right size to indicate the correct amount of disclosure between strangers. As seen in Figure 1, Airbnb found that if you share too little or too much the acceptance rates for a booking request go down. (Gebbia, 2016) They found a zone that’s right for enough, but not too much disclosure to gain booking acceptance. Airbnb uses design to get users to disclose just the right amount of information, “We use the size of the box to suggest the right length, and we guide them with prompts to encourage sharing.” (Gebbia, 2016)
Figure 1: Airbnb Host Acceptance vs. Initial Introduction Message (Gebbia, 2016)
Designing for Psychological Closeness (Electronic Propinquity)
Walther states that “the central construct in electronic propinquity theory is the psychological closeness experienced by communicators.” (p. 455) Greater bandwidth (the ability of a channel to convey multiple cue systems), mutual directionality (immediacy of feedback), lower levels of complexity, and fewer choices and communication rules all increase propinquity and that feeling of closeness. Walther argues that the same “physical closeness or proximity generally associated with interpersonal involvement in face-to-face communication” can also be experienced through electronic media. (p. 455) The decisions UX designers make can help to recreate the same physical proximity through online communications.
There are two sides to the communication on online channels, there’s the human communication between two or more users, and the communication between the platform and the individual user. (McKay, 2013) The platforms best equipped to help facilitate human communication are those with a cohesive conversation between the individual and the channel to best help perform the required tasks to achieve the users’ goals. This is done by creating experiences and interfaces that are “natural, professional and friendly, easy to understand, and efficient.” (Aufmann, 2016) This allows the communication to experience more non-verbal cues that we experience with face-to-face conversation creating a sense of closeness.
Take Skype for example, this platform was designed to allow people across the world to connect and feel as though they are in the same room. The design system use within Skype is made for “rich communication and collaboration experiences.” (Punchcut, 2018) Skype allows the users to video chat, share documents, and chat with one another in a seamless manner with increased personalization and expression. (Skype, 2018) These multi-cue features, as well as the immediacy of feedback through the video chat feature helps to create closeness per Walther’s definition of electronic propinquity. (Skype, 2018) Skype helps “you stay connected with everyone you care about.” (Skype, 2018)
Listen to User Feedback for New capabilities to Increase Richness (Social Influence Theory)
“Certain properties of media exclusively determine their expressive capabilities and their utility in interpersonal and other domains.” (Walther, p. 456) In addition, “the nature of media and their potentials are socially constructed, and the richness and utility of a medium are affected by interaction with other individuals in one’s social network.” These two concepts build on one another and go hand-in-hand when developing rich interactions.
As interactions develop and demand more capabilities user experience designers must be aware of the way in which people use the channel to communicate and design to create richer communication rather than designing for the sake of design. “Achieving users’ goals might require research-based refinement involving many related transactions” (McKay, 2013, “Having Forgiveness,” para. 4) However, sometimes new capabilities are developed based on creative exercises and these result in interactions becoming more expressive.
In developing these new media capabilities and altering current experiences, designer’s decisions on what new features to pursue should be based on user data. (Kulkarni, 2017) “Ideally, your team will do plenty of user research and create models, called personas, for your target users.” (McKay, 2013, “A Model for Users,” para. 1) The best user experience design turns observations and research of the way people use the technology into new capabilities. Take Facebook, Facebook’s design team will beta test features by rolling them out to a select number of random users at a time and/or even roll out two different versions to different groups of users. (Zuckerberg, 2016) The new capabilities tend to shape new ways for people to interact, and as Facebook observes how people use these new capabilities they adjust them accordingly. Say one group favors one version of a feature significantly more than the other group, in this case social construction leads to the refined feature favoring the version more people favored in their interactions to be rolled out to everyone on the platform. (Zuckerberg, 2016)
Sticking with the Facebook example, the development of Facebook Live demonstrates how an idea Randi Zuckerberg developed during a Facebook hackathon was refined to become a full-time feature through user testing. “Half of Facebook’s features today came from hackathons. I had two ideas, one of which was Feedbomb, an ‘80s rock cover band that played for free. Which we did. The other, was a question: Could there be a 24-hour news feature that lived inside of Facebook?” (Zuckerberg, 2016) “Zuckerberg’s idea turned into Facebook Live.” (Andrei, 2016) Facebook Live took off when users, such as Katy Perry and President Obama used them in their campaigns to communicate with other users live. (Andrei, 2016) The feedback from the two events demonstrated the success and impact of the feature, allowing it to become a vital part of today’s version of Facebook. “Facebook launched its live video service last year for celebrities and public figures before offering the option of live streaming to regular people, too.” (Greenberg, 2016) Facebook even added the ability to react and comment during and on live streams. “That’s important, Facebook says, because initial data reveals that viewers comment “more than 10 times more on Facebook Live videos than regular ones.” Part of the fun of live videos, after all, is the real-time interaction—be it with questions, opinions, or just getting a chance to tell your favorite musician “Wow.” (Greenberg, 2016)
Figure 2: User-Centered Design Process. This illustrates how Facebook, and other platforms design and use feedback to develop new capabilities that will allow for richer TMC. (Barret, 2014, pg. 20)
Designing to Facilitate and Grow Communities
When designing to manage and grow communities, designers must understand that the channel is for communication and users should be able to communicate at any moment they want. (Lambropoulos, 2007) The most successful channels for growing communities, specifically online communities, are those based on user-generated content (e.g., YouTube, Reddit, etc.). (Tubik Studio, 2017) These platforms need to be designed in such a way that allows users multiple functions for sharing (e.g., discussions, posts, chatting, albums, etc.). (Tubik Studio, 2017) Designers must also understand that not everyone is high-tech, and it should be easy for anyone to use. (Tubik Studio, 2017) In addition, simple is better. TMC works better when the experience should also stick within expected standards, as people have a predefined expectation of how the channel should work, this also helps to reduce the learning curve allowing more time for expression and engagement. (Tubik Studio, 2017)
As put by Chuck Palahniuk, “the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture.” (Ferreira, 2017, “Cultural Aesthetics,” Para. 1) YouTube is a great example of a platform driven by user-centered content, that leverages design to promote multiple sharing functions and to control their culture and grow communities. YouTube’s multiple tools allow creators to not only post videos but reach their followers to create communities. (McCracken, 2016) YouTube users are not limited to just video, but can supplement that content with chats, comments, likes/dislikes, notifications, and shares with one another. In addition, YouTube introduced methods for screening rude and crude comments to create a more welcoming comment area to encourage communication between users allowing the communities to flourish. (McCracken, 2016)
YouTube encourages community-building. They realized that events such as VidCon were allowing users to interact in real-life through authentic connection, and they mimicked that in their online products to help communities grow. (McCracken, 2016) “New features were designed to appeal to users who care about the people whose videos they watch” (McCracken, 2016) YouTube designers created a notification where users could “receive a notification on their smartphone the moment a new post goes up. On the other hand, they can also choose to switch those notifications off and remove non-video posts from their feed.” (McCracken, 2016)
YouTube even went so far as to involve creators and fans in the design process to find out what they felt was missing from the experience. Taking advantage of the ideas in the previous section, YouTube listened and worked with their users to create a platform to encourage communities. “YouTube’s Community is designed to be a safe space, not a free speech zone. Only creators can post items on their pages; users can comment on those posts, but can’t comment on each other’s comments, and their feedback is subject to moderation. That gives creators the ability to steer the conversation and prevent anyone with trollish tendencies from hijacking it.” In addition, the posts are shown in reverse chronological, per creator suggestion, in order to allow it to be more conversational and keep the context of the conversation.
Designing for the Future of Communication
Designing for Mobile TMC
“The mobile device, more than any other recent invention, is dramatically changing the ways in which we interact with each other and with our cities.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 1) We can now carry the power of our computers in our pocket everywhere we go. We’re available to anyone, anytime 24/7. The rise of mobile devices has been rapid, the number of smartphone users is expected to hit 2.53 billion this year and 2.87 billion by 2020. (Statista, 2016) Mobile devices are part of the reason that social networks have grown to the point they’re at now, and why new ones keep popping up.
“Mobile communication technologies offer the possibility of connecting with other anywhere and anytime.” (Ugur, 2013, p. 50) Moving forward, designers need to be increasingly aware of the impact and growth of smartphones, and mobile communication. People are mobile, and as we are mobile we experience more connected devices and spaces. “The mobile phone is the ideal platform for these rich, contextual experiences.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 1) This will change how we communicate and share information with one another. “The mobile device must be able to sense where a user is and facilitate actions situated in an immediate, living moment of experience defined by real places and times, by real states of being.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 17) Designers must be aware of this factor of mobility and account for this in their designs by taking “advantage of the necessary and sufficient elements of that physically situated experience: location, time, visual, and auditory characteristics.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 18) For example, “a workout application that offered a range of instructional and archival tools for individual workouts but was also a tool for sharing your workout stats with coaches or team members or friends in another city as a way of finding new workouts from trusted sources while at the gym.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 19) This version of the application takes advantage of the increased mobility by allowing users to share information about workouts and communicate with likeminded people right from the gym. Mobile designs should account for “everything going on around the device and how particular on-screen interactions fit into larger social or place-based interactions.” (Barret, 2014, pg. 21)
Emerging Technology: AR/VR, Wearables, Internet of Things, Voice Interfaces
Adding to the mobile movement, new technologies are emerging from augmented reality and virtual reality to wearables and the internet of things. Even more we will be able to replicate the non-verbal cues and richness of face-to-face communication through TMC. (Ugur, 2013) Augmented reality and virtual reality can place us face-to-face and in the same space with others around the world. Wearables will allow us to feel closer to our loved ones as we can monitor and share information right from our body. (Ugur, 2013) While most of these technologies are in their infancy, designers should be aware of upcoming trends by researching the technology and talking to potential users about their expectations for the technologies in their day-to-day communications.
“New communication technologies can open new avenues to express emotions and change the traditional social norms and habits.” “Wearable technology can be used in mediated communication in order to detect, express and regulate emotions.” (Ugur, 2013, p. 51) Designers can take advantage of these abilities of new technologies through KUIs (Kinetic User Interfaces) capturing user’s motions and behavior to create engaging interactions. (Ugur, 2013, p. 51) In addition, designers can take advantage of colors and shapes to convey emotions and elicit emotional responses. Through new technology, KUIs, and KOIs (Kinetic Organic Interfaces) the body can become a dynamic display that designers can capitalize on through pre-designed movements and behaviors to facilitate human communication and the sharing of information. (Ugur, 2013, p. 51)
Design in itself is an act of communication, and through design, we can create experiences for richer communication and greater feelings of closeness. Design signals from the size of a box to a complete profile can help overcome our uncertainties when interacting with strangers and create enough trust to open our homes to people we’ve never met. By design more nonverbal cues into our media and allowing for more immediate feedback we can recreate the physical closeness we feel through electronic channels. The platforms best equipped to help facilitate human communication are those with a cohesive conversation between the individual and the channel. By listening to user feedback, we can iterate the designs of new capabilities to provide features for better communication and sharing of information, data told us that users take to real-time interaction, therefore live video commenting features create richer experiences.
Design can help grow communities, particularly those focused on user-generated content with multiple sharing functions. The design takes a back seat to the interactions and sharing of information between users. The mobility of future technology such as the rise of smartphones and the emergence of augmented reality and wearables allows us to communicate and share from anywhere. Designers should be aware of these growing and emerging trends to be prepared to design in new spaces that take advantage of the real-world around them or even a completely new world (virtual reality).
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