Making virtual more human

Thoughtful virtual collaboration can help us feel closer across distances. What if we could connect together online in ways that feel more human?

Glenn Fajardo
Mar 19 · 11 min read

“Imagine if tomorrow — like literally tomorrow, the day after today — there was some kind of global disaster, and suddenly humans could interact only through computers. It’s unclear when — or if — face-to-face contact will be possible again. It might be a while. Maybe that disaster is a zombie apocalypse, or a sudden change in the atmosphere, or something else.”

Something. Else. This was just supposed to be an exercise called “Virtual Humanity,” which I use in my classes.

I never thought about what might be the most likely scenario — a global pandemic. As I write this, it’s March 2020, the world is facing the coronavirus. Stanford has cancelled all in-person classes for the remainder of Winter quarter and is going online for the start of Spring quarter. San Francisco, where I live, has been under a state of emergency for three weeks.

I believe we can make virtual more human by noticing needs.

These days are like Staying Alive and Virtual Insanity mashed up

It’s funny-not-funny when your exercise becomes too real. People are scrambling to quickly make virtual *work* in schools, businesses, nonprofits, governments, and communities. Virtual collaboration was an emerging topic in “future of work” discussions, but now is a pressing topic in “present of work” conversations.

For 12 years, I’ve been a practitioner of virtual collaboration, working with people and organizations across the globe engaged in social impact work. I specialize in teaching classes and workshops on how to collaborate virtually, such as Design Across Borders at the d.school. We’ve had students work together from different corners of the world, including Stanford, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, London, and Vienna. We explore how we can be creative together when far apart.

I continue to learn how thoughtful virtual collaboration can help us feel closer across long distances. I’d like to share the deeper points I’ve learned so far that might help us feel closer in our moment of social distancing.

Many of us are feeling anxious now. The uncertainty is putting many of us into a mode of “What do we do? What do we do?? What do we do???” We don’t know how long this might be the new normal, where many of us can’t see each other in-person as often, and we have to lean on virtual interactions with people.

So I invite you to consider: What if we could design our virtual lives to feel more human?

I believe we can make virtual more human by noticing needs. Needs are the bedrock on which we build foundation. Mix in some beginner’s mindset and rapid experimentation, and we may find ways we can design our own virtual lives to feel more human. We’ll explore ways you can frame and reframe how you use existing technology tools that are available now.

In this article we’ll deep dive into:

  • Why virtual work can feel awkward (and how to make it feel more natural)
  • How to enable multiple ways to interact and activate different styles of learning
  • How “virtual is voluntary” can help us design more engaging online experiences

Let’s dig in!

Well… this feels weird. Why?

Have you ever been on a one-on-one video call that felt kind of…. awkward? (*Ding, ding, ding — a palpable feeling — alert, there might be a need here!)

It’s like you are just…looking…at…each…other’s…face. Yet, when we meet in-person, we are also looking at each other’s faces, but it doesn’t feel particularly weird. Why?

We can learn something about this weirdness from an adjacent space — film editing. Have you ever wondered why film editing works? Film editing takes advantage of how we perceive things every day — editing in many ways emulates how our attention constantly shifts while maintaining continuity across those shifts.

Think about your most recent in-person meeting. Most likely, you were not staring at one person’s face for 30 minutes straight. (I dare you to try doing that!) Now think about what many webinars look like: A disembodied voice talking over a bunch of slides. It also does not allow you to shift your attention.

If we don’t have ways to shift our attention, we can feel trapped and monotonous.

Building on this insight, we can start to frame this into a challenge: “How might we structure our real-time virtual interactions to allow us to shift our attention in desirable and natural ways?”

To be able to shift our attention, we need to have different things to give our attention to. Taking time to think about how humans interact with each other can support that.

(Takeaway: Understanding why virtual work can feel awkward allows us to avoid feeling trapped and monotonous and we can begin designing the structure of our virtual interactions for human needs.)

Humans interact in multiple ways

I find it funny when people ask me, “What tool should I use for virtual collaboration?”

Imagine if we asked the same question for in-person interactions:

“Hey, what tool are we going to use for our meeting in Room 169?”

“Whiteboard?”

“No, let’s use the tool called ‘talking’ this time.”

“Great, I’m glad we made a decision on a tool. Maybe we can use ‘talking’ as the go-to tool for in-person collaboration on an enterprise level.”

It’s not really about the tool per se. It’s about finding how we can support ways we interact. And as in-person, it’s probably going to make sense to use multiple tools to do this.

There are multiple ways we interact in person. We talk and listen. We react to facial expression and body language. We gesture. We sketch and visualize. We write words. Whether we are in a school context or not, we are activating different styles of learning in each other.

Support multiple ways of interacting online

How might we support multiple ways of interacting in our virtual lives?

I recommend starting with this: Try two tools in combination with each other, and find multiple ways to interact within those two tools. The two tools I’d start with are: 1) a video call, and 2) an “everyone edit digital space.”

Tool 1, the video call, is so you can hear and see each other. Take time to notice the different human interactions possible within that video call.

To enable noticing, try these logistics:

  • Remind everyone to be in a place with a solid internet connection. (This nudge helps!)
  • Ask everyone to be in a reasonably quiet place where they can be clearly heard. Encourage use of headphones.
  • Make it a norm to be on mute when one is not actively talking.
  • Require everyone to turn their camera on. Explain that our interactions are richer when we see each other.
  • Make sure everyone has their webcams positioned so everyone can see their face. Avoid backlighting and other heavy shadows.
  • Have everyone on their own device. It’s more democratic when each person is visually represented equally, and you can see each person’s expressions.

Continually notice facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. (Hands and shoulders can tell you a lot!) Consider writing down random things you notice about people at different times, to build your noticing muscles. (For example, “When we got to the third item of the meeting, Kelly’s face and voice suddenly lit up!”)

Develop a habit of “looking around the room.” Try switching your view every so often between “speaker view” and “gallery view.” (Sidenote: To me, “speaker view” in a lot of video call software works in an unnatural way. It constantly spotlights the person talking, which is not really how we direct our attention. We might mostly look at the person talking, but we’re also glancing around the room to see others’ listening reactions.)

Experiment with body motion, with kinesthetic ways to interact on camera. For example, you can designate body motions for “cheering,” “I’m confused,” or “that’s interesting!” Body motion can be a great way to be expressive without having to interrupt. See if you might even get some kinesthetic back-and-forth going.

Body motion: in the d.school’s Design Across Borders class, we DAB!

See what it’s like to change the size of the video call window. Try arranging things so that you see both the video call and the everyone-edit-digital-space at the same time. How does being able to see both simultaneously affect your perceptions? How does it feel to see people’s reactions while working on something together? How does it feel to focus entirely on one or the other?

Notice how “eye contact” is experienced. How do you come across to the other person when you are looking at someone’s face on your screen vs when you are looking directly at your camera?

Give tours of each other’s physical spaces. See if you can get a sense of each other in three dimensions.

Tool 2, the “everyone edit digital space,” is a place where all participants can edit stuff together in real-time, preferably a tool that makes it easier to get visual.

I strongly recommend using a digital whiteboard tool, one in which many people can collaborate in real-time. (I use MURAL, which has discounted options for education use.) A digital whiteboard makes it so much easier to get visual, rearrange things, zoom in and out, and find and follow other participants in the space. If you can’t get access to a digital whiteboard tool, you can also use something like Google Docs or Google Slides, with all participants having edit access. It’s not as smooth, but I’ve done it before — it’s workable.

The key is to have something you can look at and shape together. I’m not talking about screen sharing here. Think of some of the deep conversations you might have had while on a road trip or the emotional highs and lows while watching sports together.

There’s something powerful about the experience of looking at something together, and being able to share our reactions with each other. Participants need to be able to edit and participate, and move around autonomously in the space. We’ll get into why in the next section.

You might be wondering, what about chat / messaging? As you start exploring new ways to interact virtually, put chat on hold. Set it aside at the beginning, and focus your attention on exploring the video call and “everyone edit digital space” in combination. You will be able to layer chat in later if you’d like — it has its uses. But I agree that chat makes less sense as the primary, default method of communication. Chat is like fries: tasty, addictive, and can ruin your appetite for a more substantial main dish. It can be a fine side when prepared well, but I wouldn’t build a meal around it.

Focus on the core. This includes video calling, which enables us to “look at each other,” and the everyone-edit-digital-space, which enables us to “look at together.”

Phew! We’ve covered a lot in this section, so let’s recap:

  • Humans interact in multiple ways.
  • In virtual, we can use tools in combination with each other, and find multiple ways to interact within those tools.
  • Video calls can enable all kinds of human interactions — talking, facial expressions, body motion — which allows us to share thoughts and feel each other’s reactions. We can “look at each other.”
  • An “everyone-edit-digital-space” allows us to shape ideas together in ways that we can see, rearrange, and evolve. This allows us to “look at together.” And if we use a digital whiteboard for this, we can get super visual while collaborating.

But to craft virtual experiences that feel more human, there’s one more thing we need to understand about the context of virtual.

Virtual is intrinsically voluntary… Embrace that!

I’ve been asked many times, “How do I make people pay attention in a virtual meeting / class / workshop?” If you frame the problem like that, you’re swimming against a very strong current.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the context of virtual, it’s this:

Virtual is voluntary.

People choose whether or not they opt-in, mentally and emotionally. Participants have greater power of exit than they do in-person. It’s much easier to be off in a different world — on social media, chats with friends, online shopping — while pretending to be “present” in a virtual meeting. Intrinsic motivation is not new to learning, whether it’s in person or in virtual, but it’s even more critical in virtual.

You could choose to find this frustrating. Or you could embrace “virtual is voluntary” as a beautiful constraint. I think it’s beautiful that we practically have to foster everyone’s intrinsic motivation to make virtual… work.

According to self-determination theory, if we would like to foster intrinsic motivation, we need to support people’s three overarching psychological needs:

  • Autonomy — having some control over their choices
  • Competence — experiencing progression and growth
  • Relatedness — being in relationship with others

We can use those three as guideposts as we notice more specific needs. For example: “I want to be able to look around at other people’s ideas.” or “I want to feel like we’re moving the needle.” or “I want to have a sense of people’s reactions to different things.”

So we are not going to try to “make people pay attention.” Instead, we are going to help people make something together that they want to give attention to. When I say “make something,” it could be anything from “make sense” to “make a plan” to “make a thing.”

Most of this making will take place in small groups, where the conversations can be more intimate, where each person can express more, and feel heard and seen. (For example, if our whole group was 16 people, we might split up into small teams of 4 through breakout rooms in Zoom for some activities, with each team working in different parts of a digital whiteboard for the whole group.)

Creating engages us. It’s something we can feel a sense of ownership and self-expression. It’s something that can help grow intrinsic motivation. And we contribute more profoundly.

(Takeaway: “Virtual is voluntary” adds an extra challenge, but if we can embrace it, it’s an opportunity to foster everyone’s intrinsic motivation to make virtual…work. One way is to help people make something together that they want to give attention to.)

Want to see what it can look like in practice?

Check out this companion piece, where I walk through a sample virtual class with 16 people, using Zoom as our video call and a MURAL digital whiteboard as our “everyone edit digital space.” You’ll find examples of how to get people warmed up, dive them into immediate activity, play around with ideas, bubble up key points, and reflect to capture key learnings.

What an idea flare could look like in MURAL

Human, online

I’ve observed many people approach virtual collaboration with a deficit mindset where “it’s never as good as in-person,” and they end up with sad, second-rate copies of in-person experiences. To me, this makes no sense. Think about it in the opposite direction — would you try to do Twitter in real life?

…there’s a lot we can learn from the context of in-person that we can apply to virtual. But it requires deconstructing and remixing…

If we think like designers, we learn from different people and contexts, and there’s a lot we can learn from the context of in-person that we can apply to virtual. But it requires deconstructing and remixing… and getting curious about the context of virtual.

Humans have been interacting in-person for 200,000 years. The world’s first popular web browser was released in 1993. So I think we can be gentle on ourselves for not yet having virtual fully figured out. We can all be explorers and experimenters with tools available today if we notice needs, have a beginner’s mindset, and experiment rapidly.

We can discover some ways in which virtual can be even better than in-person, begin to see how virtual and in-person have different strengths and weaknesses, and start to think about how virtual and in-person can harmonize and complement each other. We learn how to be profoundly human with each other, wherever we are.

Virtually more human? Love it!

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