Designing Togetherness from a Distance


Designing Togetherness from a Distance

Annelie Koller

The phrase “social distancing” is an oxymoron. Yes, we may be physically distant right now, but socially we have never been more connected. At any given moment we can join an online yoga class, livestream a concert, or join a happy hour with friends or colleagues across the globe. Communities are in a communication frenzy that outpaces the search for the last toilet roll. But the behavior stems from the same trigger: a fear of shortage and, in this case, the imminent shortage of emotional engagement. 

So here lies an opportunity for us as Experience Designers: there has never been a more critical time for us to literally take our profession to heart, and design experiences that embody the warmth of human connection. 

We are panic-buying human contact and consuming it en masse. And for now it gives us comfort, and is necessary to keep us sane, just like eating that whole box of cookies for lunch, but we’re going to come down from this high with a thump when we realize that real emotional engagement just can’t be replaced by a group of people on a screen. We’re going to miss the ability to read a friend’s emotions just by looking in their eyes, the thrill of accidentally brushing our hands across a new love’s arm, and the absolute elation we feel as our favorite team scores a goal and the stadium reverberates. These are real experiences that just don't transfer to a group chat, or on any digital medium for that matter. 

Sure, we’ve been designing digital experiences for a while now, and our ethos proclaims we do this with empathy, so we should be set – right? Well not quite. We’ve been inadvertently relying on the relationship with physical experiences to validate this approach. The recent desire for D2C brands to move to brick-and-mortar environments where they could “delight” their customers supports this notion: the heavy lifting of actual emotional engagement is better IRL.  

With all events, activations, retail experiences, and even church being cancelled, the future of experiential marketing is uncertain. Our physical reality now stretches between kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and between tripping over the dog and keeping all the kids snacked-up, not much room is left for delight. We are turning to social and emotional experiences that have been relegated to what we can simulate online. This is uncharted territory for us all, and the horizon stretches only as far as the screen’s edge. 

But constraints beget ingenuity, and the lessons we learn now will be instrumental to our industry for years to come.  After COVID-19 we won't be able to squeeze the toothpaste back in the tube; many groups and organizations will realize that there is no good reason to do in person what can stay online. 

So where are the interesting changes happening right now and what can we, as Experience Designers, learn from them?

Co-creation has greater value than personalization

We turn to communities in times of hardship. But because location has been taken out of the equation, we’re not banding together with neighbors or work colleagues but by collective interest. This is creating micro think tanks collectively solving a group's concerns. 

Group-actualization will slowly replace the notion of extreme individualism and self-actualization of the Goop or Tim Ferris generation. Showcasing the lifestyle you magically conjured up through a religious dedication to yoga and tummy-tea is not really aspirational right now; how you contribute to a community for actual change is the inspiration we are looking for. 

Let’s all work together, share our resources across the industry and see how we can use our skills to design new solutions for all. 

Pivot, not disrupt

The industry finally did what we wanted it to disrupted! But this disruption hasn’t been radical or dope or groundbreaking, it's actually been devastating. So, how do we survive a disruption? We pivot, and for this we need to be agile and not bogged down by excess stuff (or people) that can only be used for a singular purpose. We need to know how to multitask, and use our tools and technologies for whatever and whenever the market demands. We need to be lean, mean pivoting machines, not bloated, single-focused, steam locomotives. 

Also, we need to keep learning new skills as this will help keep us relevant and responsive. 

Be compassionate

We need to move beyond empathy to compassion. These two concepts are closely related, but empathy is an attempt to understand how someone else is feeling in order to find a solution, where compassion doesn’t necessarily want to solve for, but rather be with you in those feelings. There is a closeness and relatability that comes from showing compassion and now is the time to show, through design, that we are all in this together.  

Consider the message and the medium

Body language, spatial perception, facial expression, tone of voice, even things like a fashion sense, all contribute to how we read a social situation. Without these data points in digital conversations we are making wild assumptions on how someone is feeling and how we want them to respond. We really need to consider who, where and how we communicate with our audience and whether they are fully perceiving our intent.  If in doubt, be clear, speak up and say exactly what you mean. 

Listen to our new messengers

Right now, we are turning to our local governments and healthcare and educational organizations for critical information. We’re learning to trust not only what they have to say, but realizing the impact these sectors have on our day-to-day lives. The influence of social infrastructure like healthcare on how we live our lives right now will trickle into the choices we make when this is all over. We will be expecting that brands and the industry seriously consider how their products or services are affecting our homes, our community, our health, and our education. 

Hold onto our sense of humor

Yes, this is a serious matter, but humor has a positive effect on health and mental wellness. So don’t stop tweeting, memeing, instagramming silliness, it really has the power to get us through this. 

If the above is some of the insight we can take away right now, here are nine tactical measures we can take to enhance our engagement online:

  • Speak Design: It’s called a design language because it communicates. Be intentional in your use of design elements so it really speaks to your audience. 
  • Be more expressive: 3D renderings, motion graphics, and data visualizations can convey a much richer narrative than words and images alone. Use them. 
  • Try Virtual & Augmented: Although still in the elementary stages, they might be some of the few platforms that can bring us closest to emulating actual sensorial experiences. 
  • Embrace the Digital Commons: Museums are opening their doors for virtual tours – how can we create similar experiences for consumers or even internally for our offices?
  • Go Live! Company leaders, thought leaders and even influencers can’t afford to disconnect from their audiences right now. We need their guidance, and platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or more focused platforms like Twitch, offer in-the-moment connectivity.
  • Use Tools to Support Online Camaraderie: We’re going to miss events and conferences like SXSW this year, but we should not stop finding ways to get together and share skills and knowledge. Online events are also more affordable to produce and have a far wider reach than live events. 
  • Use Community Managers: We are all organically grouping into communities out of necessity, but with no real precedent on how to do so effectively. Why not employ the experts to manage communication and growth? Consider them our new city planners and do it right. 
  • Create Engaging Content: A rotating banner might not cut it right now. Create engaging and frequently updated content to keep things interesting and bring users back. 
  • Listen to Communities: Tracking data or gauging sentiment on consumer behavior through our traditional channels is near impossible at the moment, but we can actively listen to communities for insights. How brands respond to these communities now is one of the best ways to ensure active and honest engagement.
  • Be Authentic Always: Building trust, telling the truth, and benefiting the greater good will be the greatest influence on brand loyalty. 
  • Do Zoom Backgrounds: Why the hell not! Do whatever it takes to make an experience more engaging and have a little fun right now. 

The period after the Spanish flu was one of the most decadent eras of the 20th century. When this is all over we will see pandemic turn to pandemonium; we will snap our laptops shut and spill out onto the streets in search of experiences to relieve us from the months of isolation and anxiety.

But until that day, we have the opportunity to understand how important togetherness is regardless of where we choose to connect. Could this be the genesis where we challenge our design approach from being empathetic to compassionate, human-centered to community centric?  

Originally featured in Campaign

Annelie Koller

Annelie Koller

Associate Director, Experience Design

Based in Boston, Annelie Koller is an Associate Director in Experience Design at Digitas. 


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