Can We Design Friendship?
Nudging youth to adopt inclusion and acceptance in social spaces online.
By Lance Shields
Designing Inclusion | Winter 2017
From 2013 and into 2016, our design firm Ideas in Digital (iiD) has spent a great deal of time researching and designing digital “spaces” for Generation Z (Loosely defined as 5 to 19 years old.) to interact with each other in new ways. But why would we concern ourselves so much with how young people engage with each other in digital? This journey has taught us much about how design can affect human relationships. More specifically, we’ve asked ourselves time and again: “Can we design friendship for young people?”
If being an adolescent is not complicated enough, trying to begin and maintain friendships across physical and digital spaces can make things a lot harder. Take for example, at the moment I am listening in on a conversation between my wife and my 12-year-old daughter who is having a “problem” with another 7th grade girlfriend repeatedly commenting on Instagram about why my daughter is changing her eye color in her selfies. After asking her in real life to stop commenting in this way, my daughter now has deleted all of her friend’s comments. Is this how friends should act? Will she lose a friend if she “communicates” this way in digital?
What is friendship in the year 2016?
The Oxford dictionary defines “Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.” However, this definition is very vague and provides few ideas for how to design better friendships. Digging a little deeper, we learn from child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore1 that young people benefit from friendships by learning self-esteem, problem solving, how to cope, and more importantly empathy for others. Kennedy-Moore describes three key ingredients of children’s friendship formation: openness, similarity, and shared fun.(1)
Our work designing digital products and campaigns for young people begs the question of whether their digital behavior with mobile apps and social media can throw an emotional wrench in the works. A related and important question is whether parents and educators are prepared to act as much needed guides in helping their children navigate friendships into these digital spaces including texting, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Kik,
Youtube, and many more.
Our journey began by studying respect
Our process to understand what friendship means to young people began with a project
called the Respect Effect, a mobile app our firm built for San Francisco-based non-profit
Futures Without Violence over the past two years. My own role in this has been to provide human-centered design research and strategy as well as user experience design for the platform.
The Respect Effect mobile app engages teenagers with positive daily challenges to highlight
actions that promote healthy, respectful relationships while preventing digital and dating abuse. To learn more about young people’s outlooks on relationships and digital lifestyles, we collaborated with Futures Without Violence to conduct a series of participatory design sprints with teens in high schools in San Francisco. We found the sprint method was effective in getting youth participants to discuss what respect means to them in different kinds of relationships and to actively sketch a variety of app design ideas, which led directly to prototypes, testing and the final product. When it launches in Fall 2016, the app will be an engaging way to make respect “cool”, much like Instagram or Snapchat does for a cause.
What we’ve learned from this research (explained in depth here) is that young people draw no distinction between their physical and digital lives. Yet how they should act in digital has become confusing and even alarming as incidents of bullying, digital harassment and dating abuse increase. We know that 1 in 4 dating teens is abused in digital spaces. An even more alarming yet believable stat is 52% of teens abused in digital are also physically abused. As the Bully documentary (Lee Hirsch, 2012) shows, negative and harmful adolescent behavior is happening in schools and neighborhoods across the U.S. in plain sight. Combine physical bullying with an “out of sight” digital space, the challenges for teens, parents and educators may seem insurmountable. In the face of these problems, our work on That’s Not Cool, which was awarded the Webby Award for best Charitable Organizations/Non-Profit, has been especially poignant and meaningful. Other iiD projects have included I Am a Witness, and currently we are working on The Bully Project and Peace First Challenge.
How can designers make an impact on friendship?
In the face of all of this doom and gloom, how can my 12-year-old daughter stand a chance in having a healthy, natural relationship with her friends and soon boyfriends? Even if you are not a bully, how you express yourself through a faceless text or email can be trickier than a face-to-face interaction with complementary body language and full accountability.
Taking Kennedy-Moore’s research to heart, we believe the three ingredients – Openness, Similarity and Fun – are ideal for designing digital products to support youth friendship.
1. Designing for Openness
The first ingredient to friendship, Openness, essentially means a young person needs to be able to express “Wanna be my friend?” A younger child may actually use these words but “cool” tweens and teens often need more complex signals to express kindness, according to Kennedy-Moore. In digital, this generally means liking or commenting on someone’s photo on Instagram or Facebook. But by intentionally designing with friendship in mind, a designer can structure the experience and task to actually be about expressing and spreading kindness. This is what we attempted to do with the Respect Effect and I Am a Witness campaign’s Send Kindness board, which enables young people to support their friends when bullied.
What are other such ways to show Kindness in digital? Here are a few ideas:
We know that Gen Z respond positively to imagery, and emojis are a great way to express positive, emotive feedback in place of facial expression and body language. Apps, websites and games that use emoji as a communication device have a greater chance to do well with tweens and teens.
Code of Conduct
Many games and apps provide “community rules” which users are required to accept before they can join the fun. Yik Yak’s community rules are a
great example. While rules may help set expectations for how users are to behave, interaction designers should be careful about being too rigid or authoritarian.
Rewards for Kindness
Foursquare has Swarm with real-world perks for check-ins. Kahn Academy has points, badges and levels for academic progress. In the same way, apps for teens could reward how kind a user is through points, badges, levels, unlocked content and other privileges. There could even be physical swag for overachievers. Incentives might get carried away as users start “competing to be the nicest”. However, if they are used as a fun, complement to an engaging social activity, they give positive feedback for how to be friendly.
2. Designing for Similarity
Since the early days of The WELL(one of the oldest virtual communities)and bulletin board systems (BBS), communities have existed for like-minded people to connect and share. With the rise of the social network, traditional communities have been replaced by Facebook groups and pages. However, with many young people moving to public Instagram or private social apps like Snapchat, Kik and WhatsApp, the digital space where younger users can seek out people who have the same interests, values and sensibilities has become harder to find. With this challenge in mind, there are currently terrific opportunities for app designers to help young users connect by similarity. What does this look like?
First of all, we need to think about what children are interested in and who they can find similarities with. Fashion, games, music, celebrities, entertainment, sports are just a few examples. Next, we must think about where this experience would live. One word. Mobile. Any thought of doing a web-based forum should be eliminated. Instead, quick and “snackable” user generated content feeds based loosely around an interest is where we’re headed. Is this Instagram for fashion? Or Yik Yak for music? It could be a hybrid of any existing functionality. Or it could be something new that hasn’t been invented. Whatever it is, going back to the original purpose of designing for similarity (and friendship), the social app should bring kids together in a new way and make them feel like they belong, such as a club or a circle of real people who may not be 100% the same but have something they connect around and have other young people they identify with.
In surveys by LifeCourse Associates, it was found that teens and tweens are extremely anxious about being criticized on social media and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad. Social app Wishbone designers see those anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to take selfies in which they look beautiful or what amazing place they went on vacation. Instead, users make and take humorous polls to talk about celebrities, makeup and bands. It is about their tastes, not their identity. Again, Wishbone’s success points to using tastes to connect teens by similarity.
3. Designing for Fun
This space is clearly the most commonly available for Gen Z today. It is dominated by online gaming, where a 72% of teens play video games on the desktop, console or mobile in 2015. According to Pew research (2), teen gamers play games with different types of people. Either they play with friends they know in person (89%), friends they know only online (54%), or others online who are not friends (52%). Gaming is also more popular for boys (84%) compared to girls (59%).
Heightening this online game experience is the use of voice chat to increase user proximity to each other. 71% of boy gamers use some form of voice either in-game or Skype. This voice chat feature is certainly a way to foster friendship, making communications more personal and intimate versus an emotionless text chat. For our own new app designs, we find in voice is a means for bringing young users closer together.
How do we design a fun user experience for young people that is not a console game? Let us suppose we want to combine the first two elements of openness and similarity to to design an app for friendship. What would this look like? Where would this live? What would the task at hand be (content sharing, communications, competing, etc.?) What would the social interaction be (voice chat, likes, comments, other?) And most importantly, what would bring the fun to the app? These are key questions, and each project will have its own set of design solutions.
From designing friendships to designing social impact
Apps, games and social networks that help build authentic friendships have a better chance for survival and a competitive advantage over other platforms. But beyond growth hacks for startups, there is the more compelling and significant question of how designers can enable young people to form and sustain truly healthy friendships on a basis of inclusivity and respect while also helping to prevent social injustice from occurring in their increasingly digital lifestyles.
Designing to empower young people to have healthier relationships at such a key stage in their development is more than just another client project. We believe it is a meaningful public service. In the same vein, our current project called the Peace Challenge(3) takes designing friendship to another level. Created in partnership with the non-profit Peace First, a community to empower youth to launch their own peace movements, this project is deepening our understanding of what social impact means to young people and how to help them succeed in their passion for causes, volunteering and activism. Instead of only helping youth have better one-to-one relationships, it will enable them to learn to solve problems and eliminate social injustice on a global scale.
The forming of friendships is fundamental to our ability to have healthy thriving relationships, and further healthy thriving communities and societies. The nurturing and nudging of young mindsets to develop respectful, empathic and engaging character traits requires understanding the new challenges they face daily, in an ever-changing physical and digital landscape.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
>> Frame Interactions for Openness, Similarity & Fun:
Set a tone up front for people to open, engage and share in common bonds for the purpose of pure enjoyment and promoting friendship.
>> Design Positive Feedback Mechanisms:
Find a way to promote and reward acts of kindness and friendship.
>> Build Respect:
Structure tasks, experiences or interactions to express openness and kindness, which help build relationships based on respect.
>> Develop a Code of Conduct:
Set ground rules for behavior and interaction that require you to be respectful and law-abiding, yet not rigid or authoritarian.
About the Author:
Lance Shields is co-founder and Chief Experience Officer of ideas in digital (iiD). Founded in 2008, iiD is a design and innovation consultancy in San Francisco. As the strategy and UX lead at iiD, Lance develops human-centered strategies for digital products and services, mobile and smart phone applications, social networks, and other interactive experiences. Lance specializes in creating social and mobile experiences for Generation Z. He also focuses on designing human-centered experiences for a societal benefit. Lance is interested in reinventing the way designers and causes collaborate, to build digital platforms that rethink social impact in the digital age.
ideas in digital (iiD)
iiD is a user experience design, digital branding and strategy firm based in San Francisco. They help organizations invent breakthrough digital innovation. They strategize, design and engineer digital platforms that promote positive change in the world. iiD’s work inspires ongoing dialogue, engagement and action, creating a measurable difference for corporations and non-profits alike. iiD partners with a diverse group of innovative organizations including Futures Without Violence, Leadspace, Peace First, Visa, Dress For Success, The Bully Project and The Ad Council. The iiD team is honored to have won The 2016 Webby Awards for ThatsNotCool.com and IWitnessBullying.org, both of which were designed to help teenagers create social impact by addressing issues such as dating violence, digital abuse and bullying.
(1) Kennedy-Moore, Eileen. “What Friends Teach Children”. Psychology Today, 28 May 2013.
(3) The beta of Peace Challenge will launch in Fall 2016.