How to encourage meaningful effort in communication through digital handcrafting

Lei Zhang
Published in
6 min readNov 15, 2022


Our paper just won the best paper award at CSCW 2022! Check out the full paper here.

Why effortful communication?

Why would we want effort in communication? In today’s world, communication platforms are often designed to be brisk and automated, to make interactions easier for people. For example, interactions such as auto-completed messages or one click to send a “like” can decrease the meaningfulness of communication by limiting feelings of authenticity, trust, and support. On the other hand, effort can create emotional impact by showing that you care for someone and help you build your relationship with them. For example, we invest effort in the analog world by handcrafting gifts or handwriting letters as a way to express genuine affection for others.

Yet, as digital communication becomes increasingly mainstream, handwritten letters and handcrafted gifts might feel tedious and antiquated, while modern lightweight and automated communications can feel impersonal in comparison. We attempt to address this by reducing barriers to digital effort, and designing a communication system that enables versatile, personal expressions of effort.

What did we build?

We developed Auggie, an iOS app that encourages people to create digitally handcrafted AR experiences for each other. Auggie encourages effortful communication by making handcrafting for someone else playful, personal, and engaging. Each experience, or auggie, contains a 3D character that people can send to partners, along with personal photos, animated movements (a), drawings (b), and audio. We leverage AR’s physical and spatial nature to simulate the sense of handcrafting. After crafting the bear, users blow wind at their phone, which triggers an AR paper plane to fly the bear to their partner (c). Upon receiving an auggie, recipients can not only watch the AR experience that their partner crafts for them, but also see a “behind-the-scenes” view that reveals the process the sender took to craft it for them, and thus, the effort they put in.

(a) Animation; (b) Drawing; (c) Sending off

Check out a video walk-through of our system below.

What did we learn?

We recruited 30 participants (15 pairs) for 2 weeks with a partner of their choice (significant other, friend, sibling, etc.) to explore how people would use Auggie together. We found that digital handcrafting:

  • Encourages effortful communication by evoking a sense of agency and enabling people to craft gift-like personal stories beyond physical limits. The design of Auggie opened up a lot of creative possibilities, and people took advantage of that to get really personal, becoming creators of little animated stories that they were ultimately gifting to someone else to show they cared.

“As well as it allows for a fun personalized message, which could be used in that gifting aspect because you could use this incentive to create a personalized Happy Birthday to someone that you might not see all the time or be able to express some emotion a little more directly and more personable than via social media.” -P10a

  • Enables authentic connection, effortful yet lightweight communication, and feelings of presence. People viewed the animated character as a representation of themselves that could appear in each other’s physical environment as if they were there.

“One thing [about Auggie] was since we stay far apart, it is easier to connect. I feel like I’m right there with her, so it’s kind of give me the warmth” -P14b

How can designers integrate effort into digital communication?

Our results show that, with careful design, effortful communication systems can be a valuable means to build social connection. If you’re interested in integrating meaningful effort into digital communication platforms, we have some insights for you!

First, make effort more approachable by:

  • Masking the heaviness of effort with playfulness — Effort can feel heavy and undesirable sometimes. We found that the design of Auggie’s effortful experience, including playful animations and engaging visuals, helped make the undesirable aspects of crafting (i.e., the step-by-step of putting the craft together) fun and enjoyable. This demonstrates how playful design can distract people from the potential tedium of required effort with a joyful, more lightweight experience.
  • Lowering the skill required to generate content — Communication inherently involves generating content to be communicated, which can take a lot of skill — especially if you’re crafting something like an animation from scratch. We aimed to reduce the barrier of entry to content creation by providing a small and compact set of intuitive creation tools, and found that even people who self-described as non-artistic were able to create experiences that were personal, relatively complex, and aesthetically pleasing. We recommend that designers of communication platforms include simplified, widely accessible tools that give people the agency to create sophisticated personal content for others.
  • Reducing pressure with asynchronicity — The asynchronous design of Auggie helped reduce the pressure to communicate on both the sender’s and receiver’s side, where people treated communication more like a gift or card than a back-and-forth conversation. Asynchronicity can ensure that a sender has sufficient time to invest effort in their communication, while the receiver can better appreciate and reflect on the communication content.

Second, create meaning in effort by:

  • Providing channels for personalization — Having a variety of creation channels can help to achieve personalization by acting as a scaffold to guide effort. In our study, participants used different channels to personalize communication content, and make it feel less like a “message” and more like a story, such as animations to represent actions, drawings for props, and background music for mood. We encourage future researchers and designers to consider a range of effortful “building blocks,” where people can invest effort into assembling content that is unique and personal for someone else.
  • Bridging physicality — We found that the situatedness and physical interactions incorporated in Auggie’s design helped convey a sense of meaningful physicality in communication. For example, senders described taking a “considerate moment” in blowing wind to send their auggie off on an airplane, and receivers using their phone to guide the airplane to land and then open the auggie felt like they were unwrapping a gift. Future work might consider designing similar physical interactions to emulate this effortful wrapping process, such as body gestures (e.g., tossing the content into the air) or facial expressions (e.g., opening it with a smile).
  • Explicitly revealing effort — our results suggest that explicitly visualizing effort (e.g., through a “behind-the-scenes” screen recording) as opposed to expecting recipients to implicitly recognize effort (e.g., through knowledge about how much effort a system involves) can strengthen the meaningfulness of the communication content and encourage reciprocation. Researchers and practitioners should thus consider ways to explicitly reveal sender and receiver efforts involved in communication.

Check out our presentation at the CSCW 2022 conference on November 11 (9–10am ET) or November 16 (9–10pm ET) in the XR in Place and Space session!

If you’re interested in learning more or collaborating in this space, feel free to reach out to me and my amazing co-authors including Tianying Chen, Olivia Seow, Tim Chong, Sven Kratz, Yu Jiang Tham, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Rajan Vaish, and Fannie Liu.