What are we missing here?

With fearsome speed the covid-19 global pandemic has prompted some radical transformations, not mere changes, that will have long-standing effects — as a true “black swan” event like 9/11. A new normalcy will prevail, demanding profound adjustments to our behaviors, and attitudes. This is true across many facets of our lives — but  I’d like to focus on the area of hi-tech office work, especially as a designer in “three in a box” collaboration with peers in engineering and product management.

In my LinkedIn feed, I’ve seen what’s currently happening described as “strange times” or “bizarre circumstances” —  perhaps a polite way of hinting at new difficulties for hi-tech workers, forced to continue their work from self-isolated contexts (aka, “home”). Putting aside inevitable disruptions to home life with awkward, fraught “blurring of (actual) boundaries” , a key aspect of the uncertainty involves the challenge of how to sustain such business continuity…and one’s own sense of self.

Yes, there are plenty of good videoconferencing apps with chat and team features, as well collaborative docs/apps like G-Suite and Office 365. For designers there’s Figma and online whiteboarding/brainstorming apps like Mural or Miro. But those are tools and tactics.

What’s really being upended, and what are we really missing? 

To enable continuity of work across contexts, there needs to be means of ensuring communications, which involve dialogues to debate issues, frame up and generate ideas, prioritizing points, come to closure and making decisions. Much of this involves storytelling and engagement with audiences in a high-fidelity (facial and bodily gestures, “reading the room”) and coordinated manner. The higher order goals of enabling collective partnership and genuine respectful collaboration still matter. We must ensure those are not merely supplanted by virtual tools, or that the tools (and their inherent frictions) become the focus at the risk of losing the cohesion of “working together” towards a goal or mission. 

In addition, as a cross-functional designer, I worry about missing or losing the following, which I find essential to team success:

  • Pictures are a thousand words — especially drawn in the moment in front of people for immediate reactions and iterations, to clarify a point or suggest an idea. And not just UI sketches, but also diagrams of relationships.
  • Serendipitous encounters with non-UX colleagues, like when you go to the kitchen or restroom or going from the conference room to your desk. Those moments when you truly bump into someone, which leads to some clarity about an issue or realization we need a working session, or maybe new information about the project comes to light (the deadline changes, etc.)
  • Doing a quick huddle with people as you look around you and spot a few folks available and realize we need to chat about an impending issue or prepare for a session coming up this afternoon — fluidly, flexibly, with minimal “tool friction”.
  • Holding an impromptu brainstorm by grabbing a couple folks and running to a wall or whiteboard, even for just 15 minutes! 
  • And many others…

Modes of presence, levels of fidelity, visual presentation, live/real-time debates and spontaneous creativity — these are all essential underlying aspects of continuous business and design work that we need to consider as we’re wrangling with the tools and “work from home” setups. But at least knowing what we’re missing can help us discover what needs to be retained and valued amid radical transformation…and how it might live in new forms. 

So, as a designer, I wonder… How Might We… introduce and sustain those unique qualities of physical in-person, shared physical space interactions and communications amid virtual contexts, across geographic areas and time zones? How could we manipulate the digital tools for online work to enable what we miss in the real world? And more likely, how may we create new ways of interacting that speak to underlying needs for social interaction, collaboration, moments of joy and surprise? More on this soon… 

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