A close look at closeness

User experiences can bring us closer to our family and friends, to organizations we care about, and to causes that excite us; or, they can make us feel either too close or too distant, and thus uncomfortable or ignored.

Great experiences define and measure closeness as part of the user experience, with deliberate adjustments to match the needs of their users.

Lions make for nifty metaphors.

What is closeness?

Closeness in a user experience is shaped by three aspects of the user’s perception*: barriers, emotional context, and temporal context.

1. Barriers

Perceived barriers fall on a scale of “none” to “solid.”

Imagine the barriers you perceive if you’re facing a lion, with nothing between you and its jaws; or, imagine the same lion while you’re in a car with open windows on a safari. We could also look at the far end of the scale: perhaps you’re on the other side of a sturdy fence.

Closeness increases as you remove barriers.

Barriers can be either physical or virtual. Bars at a zoo create a physical barrier between you and a lion, while the act of hiding personal information on your social media profile from strangers creates a virtual barrier.

2. Emotional Context

Our users are always operating in their own emotional context, which falls on a scale from “low” to “high” involvement.

Let’s continue to visualize this in terms of lions. What emotional context would you be operating in when a hungry lion is walking your way? You’d likely find yourself quite a bit more agitated than if you were next to a tranquilized lion.

Closeness increases as we become more emotionally involved in a given context.

Emotional context can be influenced by both internal and external sources. A deep-set phobia of lions acts as an internal influence on your emotions; meanwhile, a confusing and frustrating signup process acts as an external influence.

3. Temporal Context

Temporal context relates to the passage of time, on a scale from “in the past” to “in the future.”

A lion that was here an hour ago is in the past. The lion might return in an hour — that’s in the future. A lion that’s here right this moment, however, is very present in the temporal context.

Unlike the sliding scales that define barriers and situational context, closeness here is highest at the middle, “in the present.” Seeing that someone will hit “send” on an instant message at any moment is very different from trudging through the post-holiday email backlog.

It’s a balancing act.

Measuring closeness at a given point in time means exploring the balance of barriers, emotional context, and temporal context. Some parts we can control, while others we can’t. You can’t wish away a charging lion, but you can roll up the window in your Jeep.

What does this mean for user experiences?

We can look at closeness in user experience at both the macro and micro levels.

On the macro level, closeness can shape an entire experience.

Imagine if we wanted to make an app dedicated to the news junkie: the one who wants to feel like they’re with it, who loves the the feeling of being on the edge of what’s happening in their world. Before we even start, we know that our users need to feel a high level of closeness for our app to succeed. We could decide that we want give our users the viewpoint of someone on the ground (low barrier), focus only on compelling, dramatic events (high emotional involvement), and stream only live video (in the present).

If we instead chose to create an app that authentically captured the experience of a printed newspaper, we know we’d be choosing to create a lower-closeness experience. We could still give our readers rich, valuable information about a story (low barrier), but the story wouldn’t be as dramatic (low emotional involvement), and most likely from the day before (in the past).

Here’s another way to think about it: when we visit a fine dining establishment, we expect a high level of closeness with our dining partner, while being in control of the closeness of the service. We anticipate an attentive, personal, and knowledgable waiter while placing the order, and privacy while enjoying the meal.

At a fast food restaurant, however, we prefer to make our order, get our food, and go. We don’t necessarily want to know our server’s name, nor do we want to wait to be served at our table. If—as the owner of either of these establishments—we were to misconstrue how much closeness our diners expect, we’d put them off and lose their business.

On the micro level, closeness can influence every discrete moment of an experience.

Looking at Facebook reveals some great examples of how the level of closeness can vary across different moments in an experience.

For example, a just-received real-time status update† has a high level of closeness, as it’s in the present.

A status update further down in your timeline from an hour ago† is a lower level of closeness, as it’s set in the past.

A friend’s profile is packed with details that create a high level of closeness, removing barriers between you and your friend.

Meanwhile, a stranger receives a limited and cursory version of your profile, helping you maintain a comfortable personal distance.

Each of these points shows a different level of closeness, tailored for the user at each point in time.

How do we apply closeness when creating user experiences?

We need to think about closeness deliberately while creating user experiences. What level of closeness we choose—or need—to create is shaped by the user and their context.

At each point of the user experience, ask these questions as they relate to the user, the user to other users, and the user to ourselves as the creators of the experience.

  1. What kind of closeness does the user want?
    Think in terms of “The user wants…”
    “The user wants to stay in the loop with their family in a daily photo app.”
  2. What kind of closeness does the user expect?
    Think in terms of “The user expects we won’t…”
    “The user expects we won’t reveal their personal information to strangers.”
  3. What kind of closeness would the user not want?
    Think in terms of “The user would not want…”
    “When signing up for our email newsletter, the user would not want to provide their full name, home address, and phone number.”

When we’ve answered these questions, we’ll be able to see how we need to adjust the balance of barriers, emotional context, and temporal context to match closeness to a user’s needs.

It can help to draw parallels between digital and real-world interactions: if we’re designing a checkout process, what closeness do shoppers expect when they’re in a physical shop? How might that affect what they expect from our digital checkout?

Don’t forget to think about accessibility while asking these questions. It’s possible that a user’s starting point on the scale may be different than everyone else’s. As a hearing-impaired user, I start higher on the barrier scale than most other users while watching an online video. I need captions with the video just to bring me to the same starting point as everyone else.

People expect a certain level of closeness at different points of an experience. If you match their expectations at a given moment of your experience with the actual closeness you’ve created, you’ll create an engaging, rewarding experience. Make closeness a part of your user experience mindset.


* Perception, not reality: it’s not about what is, but what the user perceives is.

These take the liberty of assuming the timeline is in “Most Recent” mode.

I also like Jen’s original idea for “what the user would not want:” even if an aquarium meant well in attempting to create a more intimate experience for their visitors, she would not want to put her hand in a shark tank.