Designing togetherness from a distance

"This is uncharted territory for us all, and the horizon stretches only as far as the screen's edge."

"Social distancing" is an oxymoron. Yes, we are physically distant, 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 across the globe. Communities are in a communication frenzy that outpaces the search for that last toilet roll. But the behavior stems from the same trigger: a fear of shortage and, in this case, the shortage of emotional engagement.

With all activations, experiences, and even church cancelled, 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. 

There has never been a more critical time for us as Experience Designers to design experiences that embody the warmth of human connection. Sure, we’ve been designing digital experiences for a while now, and we’ve been doing this with empathy, so we should be set – right? Well not quite. We’ve been inadvertently relying on the tangible relationship with physical experiences to validate this approach. And we also haven’t really needed to consider a group’s needs for connection over the individual’s experience.   

But constraints beget ingenuity, and the lessons we learn now will be instrumental to our industry for years to come. So, what are some of the early take-aways we can start applying to design?

Co-creation, not personalization

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

Furthermore group-actualization will replace the Goop-y notion of individualism and self-actualization. Showcasing the lifestyle, you magically conjured up through a dedication to moon juice is just not aspirational right now; how you contribute to a community for actual change is.

Pivot, don’t disrupt

The industry finally did what we wanted it to do...it disrupted! But this disruption hasn’t been radical or groundbreaking, it's 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 which only has a singular purpose. We need to know how to multitask, and use our tools and technologies for whatever and whenever the market demands.

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 want to solve for, but rather be with 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, all contribute to how we read a social situation. Without these data points we are making wild assumptions on emotion and how we should respond. We need to consider who, where and how we communicate with our audience and whether they are perceiving our intent. If in doubt, be clear and say what you mean.

Listen to our new messengers

Right now, we are turning to our local governments, healthcare and educational organizations for critical information. The influence of these social infrastructures on how we live our lives now will trickle into the choices we make once 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 health, and our education.

Have a sense of humor

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

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?

Annelie Koller is the associate director of experience design at Digitas. 

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