A room where the image is being projected
Image made by Soyeon Kwon

Happy Hour: A Communication Platform Built for Distant Experience

A Case Study Prototyping Change in Communication

This speculative case study was designed early in the pandemic between April and May 2020. Some of the features imagined here have developed into real services and some ideas have evolved as our collective experiences with quarantining have grown.

Background

I change only my pajama top into casual clothes to attend my morning class. I sit at the desk in my room and open my laptop, find the Zoom link, and join the class. Throughout most of the class, I keep my microphone muted, but — when my professor creates breakout rooms I talk within a small group of three to four, where we give each other feedback before returning to the larger class. One of my friends, a middle school teacher in Korea, took a different approach. She bought video editing software to make fun lectures with various designed subtitles and effects, inspired by professional YouTubers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, global economies have experienced an unprecedented crisis. Recently, Google launched a video conferencing service called Meet despite already having a video chat service called Hangouts. Facebook has spurred the development of its messaging app. Airbnb has launched an online service to provide the experience of travel while in your own home. You can watch and enjoy meditation in your house while a host in the Netherlands plays the cello in an online video chat room. This coronavirus is transforming the way we communicate.

Imagination

These online collaboration services will remain important platforms even after the coronavirus quarantine is over. To work from home, we’ve learned how to use online communication tools such as Zoom, Google Drive, and Google Classroom, but these tools could do so much more. People could watch a play, go to a party. According to author and journalist Joel Stein (2020), Hollywood celebrities enjoy private parties, stand-up comedy shows, and charity events in their homes via Zoom. After the time of social distancing is over, Korean schools are planning to hold online classes instead of closing schools on days with heavy snow, heavy rain, or poor air conditioning. Outside of school, people may use Zoom to hang out or visit distant relatives.

Finding Problems

Video chat services have various problems as a tool for enjoying a party:

  1. When a user performs a screen share, the faces of the others become significantly smaller, or when the number of participants exceeds 20, not all faces are visible on one page.
  2. All volumes of voices are equal. For example, in face-to-face lectures, the professor’s voice is louder than the voices of the students, but this is not true in a zoom room. All voices are equal meaning that unless a student mutes their microphone, even a small noise disrupts the classroom atmosphere. Eventually, in a room with twenty people, only one person can talk while the rest are muted. Having a party in this situation would mean some people will not speak until the party is over.

User Interviews

I interviewed my friends who often have video chat parties and found a common problem.

One speaker and five muted speakers
One speaker and five muted speakers
Icons made by Pixel perfect from Flaticon

1. Only one person can speak at a time.
If there are more than six people in a room, it is difficult to talk naturally. Break out rooms are required in a big room to allow everyone the chance to talk. This creates the drawback of not being able to see everyone invited to the party or to easily join another conversation group.. These online parties usually start off with 20–30 minutes of conversation which is followed by enjoying a game that can be played together online through screen share. They do not usually last over 2 hours due to a lack of conversation topics or fatigue from sitting in front of their laptops.

Two people on the Zoom screen
Two people on the Zoom screen
Icons made by Freepik from Flaticon

2. Tension before entering a meeting
Beyond the technical limitations, my user interviews highlighted the way Zoom and other conferencing platforms change the experience of hanging out face-to-face. Normally with friends, we easily spend more than 3 hours together. This made me wonder why people felt tired so quickly on Zoom. Interview subjects reported that Zoom and Google Meet are designed for conferences, so, even if simply meeting a friend, they felt the same tension as before entering a formal meeting.

Six people in the frames
Six people in the frames
Icons made by Freepik from Flaticon

3. Same screen for a long time
Online hangouts feel like the same experience for two hours. Unlike watching a movie, where the scenes change quickly and absorb the viewer, watching an online conference screen for two hours feels like watching a static screen for two hours. When we hang out in person, we meet with a theme such as food, birthday party, or board games to share a new experience together. On Zoom, this new experience is difficult to achieve.

User persona

Based on the interviews, I made a problem statement worksheet and simple personas. I wrote a problem statement that takes into account the specific situation. One persona is for an invited user and the other one is for the host.

Problem Statement Worksheet from eightshapes by Dan Brown
Problem Statement Worksheet from eightshapes by Dan Brown
Problem Statement Worksheet
User Persona

Problem

How can I help people enjoy an online party in a subtle, non-distracting, yet a fun way, all on one screen?

Solution

Develop a new video chat platform just for online parties

Ideation & Sketch

Idea 1: Different sound volume

I began exploring ideas in creating a new video chat service that would enable us to enjoy parties with lots of friends, or at least more than six of them. This reminded me of a house party I attended just before this quarantine started. Twenty-one people greeted and talked to each other, but soon divided off into small groups to carry out different conversations and activities. This is different from an online breakout room. You can still see each other together in a physical room, but the sounds were not competing because of the distance. This inspired my idea of ​​allowing people to divide into small groups that would dictate sound volumes based on these divisions.

Idea 2: Music, filters, and games, etc.

Music is a must at any party. It will be fun for hosts and participants to create playlists together inside the service. This platform could support not only music, but also various features such as facial recognition filters, online games, and donations as plugins.

Prototyping

1. Make a fun room
As a host, decorate your party room with various plugins, such as facial filters, playlists, and countdowns.

2. Different voice volume
A host and guests can walk around the room and a user will hear different voice volumes based on the distance visualized as different sizes of videos.

The face pictures are supposed to be video chats.

3. Plugins that let you enjoy a fun virtual party
Participants could change playlist and facial filters with emojis and chats right on the screen.

4. Announcement
When the host announces news to everyone, they will be placed in the center of the room for the announcement as it has the loudest volume in the room.

The face pictures are supposed to be video chats.

Reflection

I conducted user testing to find out usability issues in the interface of the app. Most users easily understood each function and could easily navigate between the screens. However, some people misunderstood the ‘physical distance’ feature since each face was not playing.

Due to time constraints, I was only able to design basic features. With more time, these are some features that I would like to add:

  • Food Delivery Service
  • Donation
  • Open Party
  • Games

Conclusion

Even though we still have technical problems such as the speed of the internet, the size of our screens, and the limits of directional microphones, the technology will develop much better soon. As technology and software development has evolved, we will get 5G internet faster, screens will be bigger, and our microphones will recognize our voices better. Eventually, this equipment will be cheaper so that improved technology will spread across our daily lives. Consumption and markets are rapidly changing. I never thought I would actually make CHIVE into a cooking streaming service from the prototype I was making right before the quarantine. After the quarantine started, what I needed more than anything was CHIVE, and my desire to pursue it changed. We won’t be returning to our old normal, but rather, a new, new normal. Our communication methods are expected to change significantly, largely due to the advancements we made during this quarantine. Before this experience, my professor said she never imagined inviting people in other cities to join her class virtually because she thought online meetings were inconvenient. However, these past couple of months revealed the possibilities that could be created through this. In the future, she intends to invite other designers online to join even her otherwise face-to-face classes. And so, these issues revolving around online communication need to be discussed more deeply to better connect people.

Thank you to the community at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Ellen Lupton, Ashley Guchhait, and the class of GDMFA 2021 for your help and support with this project.

Product designer with a dreamer's perspective