Bringing real human connections to remote collaboration

TL;DR
This projects investigates the dynamics of remote collaboration and formulates a concept how the 'magic' of teams in the same room could be brought to remote collaboration
Context
5 weeks professional product course (Novβ€”Dec 2020), collaboration between UID and Konftel AB
Teammates
Linda Kraft
Romy Koppert
Ruoyun Wang

Project brief

The goal of this project was to invent audiovideo interactions that enable professionals to bring the best of themselves during remote collaborations. The project was in collaboration with Konftel AB.

The need

When teams get together in a room and work towards a shared goal, magic starts to happen. Minds get aligned, a shared vision is built and a feeling of togetherness fills the room. The global introduction of remote work in 2020 left many people longing for this magic. How can this magic interhuman experience be brought back into the remote space and how can current remote audiovideo solutions be reimagined to bring out the best in everyone?

How might we...
bring the magic that happens in co-located teams to remote collaboration?

Role

The entire project was highly collaborative and especially in the initial research and exploration phase ideas were tightly built upon each other.
In the team I had an important role in conceptualizing the prototype phase and communicating our final concept to our stakeholders, for example through small graspable video clips.

Outcome

The outcome of this project is merely a possible interpretation of our research results and an artifact we designed to make our findings tangible.

During our research, we looked a lot at the dynamics of co-located teams and what creates the "magic" in physical teams. To make this magic tangible and conversational, we coined the term 'human magic', which is an umbrella term for the multi-layered dynamics of physical collaboration - such as body language or eye contact.

How it works

In our proposed remote setting, each team member has the same identical setup. Team members are split across separate screens, each of which is equipped with a camera.
Behind the scenes, team members are arranged around a virtual table where each screen acts as a proxy of a team member sitting opposite to you, to your left or to your right. Through this arrangement, each team member occupies a place in the physical space and conversational acts such as implicit body turning to a particular person are clearly communicated between all team members.

Team members are arranged and seated around a virtual roundtable which makes it obvious who is attending whom.
Dec 2020

The process of designing for magic

Key to our process was a 'prototyping as ideation' approach. Even during the initial research phase, we started to use experience prototyping and bodystorming to test various insights we got from interviews. We were then able to feed our own findings back into further interviews. The resulting feedback loop allowed us to identify problems of remote collaboration early on and to investigate them more deeply.

Research
Design ethnography
Design exploration
Prototyping as ideation
Refinement
Prototype development & refinement
Week 1Week 5
Initial research

Interviews

We kicked off the project by taking a look at current challenges of remote work. For this, we conducted ethnographic interviews with professionals and students and captured their voices about their own experience after six months of remote work.

πŸ”Ž Insights

The interviews with over 15 participants revealed that the majority of interviewees had difficulties describing what they were missing in remote space compared to their previous physical office space. To a majority, it was nothing specific but more the 'magic' that occurs when people get together in a room.

✨ Dealing with magic

This description of magic stood out to us because it was very vague, but yet we could all relate to it. We decided to use the 'magic of physical spaces' as a reference point to further investigate the dynamic of people sharing and collaborating in the same space.

Co-creation

Workshop

Building on the insights of the interviews, we hosted and led a remote co-creation workshop between our fellow students and our stakeholders (Konftel AB, a company for conferencing hardware).

During the workshop, we used the metaphor of 'magic in shared spaces' that was established during the interviews and used it to gain insights into what happens when people come together in a room.

Together with the workshop participants we worked out the 'ingredients of successful collaboration'

πŸ”Ž Insights

Introducing the metaphor of 'magic' turned out to be a great success because it made the struggles of remote space conversational. It was vague enough that it allowed for freedom of interpretation but specific enough to be relatable. Using the metaphor and together with the participants, worked out the 'ingredients of successful collaboration', such as a common ground, understanding intentions and eye contact/intimacy.

Prototyping as ideation

Experience Prototyping

In a next step, we transformed the insights from our workshops into prototypes. Through experience prototyping and bodystorming we explored how ingredients such as intimacy or understanding intentions are affected or limited by current remote technologies and how changing parameters of these technologies can change how we communicate and perceive each other.

πŸ–ΌοΈ Frame orientation

The common landscape-orientation of current computer screens limits what is visible and perceivable of a person. By rotating the frame, body language becomes visible and intentions are communicated more clearly.

πŸ“Έ Camera placement

The camera placement of modern laptops and computers doesn't allow for eye contact. By relocating the camera to eye-level, natural eye contact is enabled which creates intimacy between the conversational partners.

↔️ Spatial factors

Because current remote technology displays every video participant on a single screen, it is hard to follow conversation flows because every conversational partner occupies the same space. By separating participants across multiple screens, mutual gaze and natural head-turning becomes possible again and makes the conversation flow visible.

Conclusion

From the various experience prototyping sessions, we were able to gain valuable insights into the limitations that current remote technologies can have on communication. For many prototypes we were able to draw connections to insights from interviews and workshops.

Refinement

Consolidation

In a next step, we consolidated our findings into a single cohesive concept and build a more refined prototype. We chose the separation of team members across multiple screens as our main direction because it had the biggest impact during our experience prototyping sessions.

By filming the conversation from a POV perspective, we captured the experience of the conversation across separate screens.

Conclusion

The refined prototype exceeded our expectations because it made the conversation feel natural. Through implicit head turning of each participant it was clear who was attending whom and it was possible to get immersed in conversation flows again. During our testing we felt a glimpse of this magic that we were looking for throughout our process. Together with features we explored earlier, such as a portrait-oriented frame, we finalized this as our concept and deliverable.

Magic β†’ Reality

Bringing magic to our stakeholders

To communicate the concept to our stakeholders, we took two approaches:

  • First, we shot an experience video in which we used a dinner scene with friends to capture the feeling of togetherness and what it means to get together with people in a physical space.
  • We then used the established setting from the experience video and tied it back to our concept, drawing connections between a physical and remote space

After we set the stage with our experience video, we used the dinner scene as a bridge to communicate our concept. Through small looped video clips, we tried to make the experience of our concept graspable.

🌊 Conversation flows

The separation of screens and camera makes it natural to follow conversation flows and who is attending whom.

πŸ’¬ Conversational acts

The separation of screens and cameras allows natural conversational acts such as leaning in to talk to the other person.

πŸ‘‰ Pointing

The separation of screens and cameras makes it possible to point at people to engage them in conversations.

πŸ•Ί Body language

Portrait orientation of the screen allows to express oneself naturally through body language.

πŸ‘οΈ Eye contact

Eye contact during conversations creates intimacy and replicates a natural conversational act.

We concluded the project by presenting a 4-step proposal how Konftel, in the role of a hardware company, could incrementally implement our envisioned concept.