The Coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we live. From self-quarantine to travel bans, families and friends are stressed, separated, and worried about each other. More than ever, the needs of staying informed and connected are escalated during this challenging time. Here, I introduce Acomp, a virtual community app that brings the accompanyings online.
Time and Duration
Common Control Library
Check out CDC's COVID-19 Situation Summary
Our user researches toward people living in the outbreak areas had identified several issues, including the lack of food and PPE resources during the early stage of the quarantine, reduced personal incomes or unemployment, and various short to long term mental health challenges. While the governments were addressing the obstacles in supply chains and job markets, we decided to focus on the mental health aspect.
“Humans are intrinsically social; they want to get together with each other especially during this challenging time... In a rather isolated situation, how do you provide them with desirable and effective social methods?”
Dr. Renata Ivanek
Epidemiology Professor, Cornell University
We observed that members of remote families, especially international students, were heavily suffered from stress-related mental health issues. They were desperately looking for ways to stay connected with their loved ones, checking on the health status of each other, while staying concentrated on their schoolworks.
How might we establish a social method that promotes care expressing and maintains existing social interactions with family members and friends remotely?
A virtual community that promotes care-giving and real-life social interactions through daily check-in and collaborative gaming.
Virtual communities with a limited capacity are a great channel to reconnect with family members and close friends who are far away during the crisis.
Community members can participate in gamified activities like daily check-in, multiplayer games, or mindful meditation to earn points and build their communities.
Acomp provides on-demand mental health materials or guidance. This is not reinventing a mental health support app, but providing a private room to take a break and heal.
The onboarding delivers our message and guides the user to his/her very first virtual community at Acomp.
Because users need to get familiar with core features and to join at least one community to get started, it is necessary to include both "introduction" and "personalization" in the onboarding phase. With that said, achieving an optimum efficiency became a challenge.
To avoid losing users during the onboarding, I chose to provide a default avatar style, a default house choice, a community name, and an auto-generated community ID. Users can still have a decent profile even if they don't read any text or make any selections, but if they want to, they will have sufficient flexibility to customize this profile.
The community page is the core of Acomp. Serving as the homepage, it is a starting point for all other features.
The community page intends to provide users with a quiet and comforting place to spend time with their close ones. We created a set of illustrations to reflect morning, noon, dusk, and night. Weathers like rain and snow are also reflected here, to create a sense of connection with the real world.
During the competitive analysis, I noticed that popular social applications like "Soul" and "Forest" were utilizing the gamification idea of "collaborate and build" in their design to help enhance user engagement and provide a sense of accomplishment during the process of co-building the communities.
This gamification corresponds to our design goal of creating a bonded and light-hearted atmosphere: working toward the same goal helps people connect with each other closely.
Upgrading to a higher level requires the effort of the entire community, and a higher-level house requires more points. I have created the rules of gaining points to promote synchronous user interactions, but members will not have direct access to the rules because building a higher-level house is not a competition, instead, it is a bonus for those active community members who enjoy sharing and interacting with others during this challenging time.
Activities that contribute in upgrading the community.
Daily check-in beyond "How are you doing today?"
Sending messages to remote family members and friends to find out how they are doing has become a daily routine for lots of interviewees, especially during the self-quarantine. At Acomp, I want to make the check-in experience more active, and rewarding at the same time to encourage this interaction between people.
When a user logs into Acomp for the first time of a day, he/she will be asked to report his/her personal state before entering a community. I implemented 6 emoji choices to make the reflection faster but vague enough to make sure there was no privacy concern.
Another way to showcase one's life is via the optional "leave a video message" feature. From user interviews, we knew that a video message, which offers the opportunity to actually see other community members, could further strengthen their connections. Psychology experts also considered it as a valuable asset to stabilize people's mental health state.
Clicking on the avatars at the upper right side of the community page enters the "Members" page, where the host of a community can invite/remove members, and all current members can check out each other's daily status, video messages, and the daily report of a community.
Knowing that remote family members and friends are already having their messaging channels, I chose not to implement a chat feature in this app. Instead, members can show some love through inviting offline members to check-in, or smashing that ❤️ button when viewing others' videos.
The daily report is a convenient way to monitor a community's progress of the day. From house level-up progress to daily check-in to activities, those pieces of information help community members know each other's lives a little bit more, also echo with the gamified idea of "collaborate and build."
Additionally, the "activities" section is the only way to retrieve game records like a completed "Dubbing" clip.
Games are more than having fun when playing together.
From "Bunch" to "House Party," we have seen party games moving from offline to online. In our case, the purpose of integrating games on a social platform goes beyond having users spend more time on our app. All the games we chose required multiple players to participate with either video or audio connections, and the contents were focusing on creating common memories or shared achievements.
I use "Dubbing" here as an example, where participants can video chat with each other in the waiting lounge or when they are choosing a movie clip that fits the number of participants. Once the game starts, each participant will be assign with a character and start to dub with a script. When the game ends, they can review a movie clip with their own voice, and get rewarded with community construction credits.
Again, through the gameplay, we want to emphasize the idea of "collaborate and build," and promote real-life connections through video or audio chat.
Mental wellness support, tailed for you.
We know that sometimes maintaining social interactions is not enough for people to recover from an anxious mental state during a pandemic, and the private space is our approach to assist them further.
Just like having a private room inside a townhouse, users can access their private space from any joined communities. Upon the first entrance, they are requested to choose a goal from "reduce stress," "increase happiness," "sleep better," and "be productive." Users can change the goal anytime in the private space, and Acomp will select short articles and audiobooks that can be read or listened in less than 10 minutes, as well as guided exercises like deep breathing and meditation.
We believe that these resources can help users better recover to a normal mental state, and if their conditions require professional assistance, we will then refer them to reliable mental healthcare providers like Cornell Health.
Given that the situation of Coronavirus changes rapidly, and different countries are in different stages of the crisis, I decided to start broadly by investigating the general public in outbreak areas and epidemiology professionals to understand the ongoing issues.
Empathize: we interviewed 20 individuals with diverse backgrounds.
Most challenging issues people are facing:
The lack of food and PPE resources during the self-quarantine (short-term).
Unstable personal incomes due to job changes or unemployment (short to long term).
The mental health issue caused by the growing pandemic and the lack of necessary social interactions while practicing social distancing (short to long term).
While the issues in global supply chain and job markets were in the scope of local governments, addressing the second issue appears to be more feasible to us.
“A lot of the stresses about COVID-19 have to do with the impact of not being able to go out to work and being self-isolated... So managing those stresses is hugely important.”
Dr. Steven Taylor
Clinical Psychologist & UBC Professor
During our interview, psychotherapists showed us a rapidly increasing number of visitors since mid-January of 2020. They were/are suffering from:
COVID-19 related news reports and social media contents
Racism and social bias
The ever-growing case number of infection and death
The unfulfilled need of caring for families and friends
The "Kübler-Ross Change Curve" was highlighted during our interview with psychological consultant Tingli Zhou. She told us that although visitors varied from each other, the majority of them were in the "denial," "anger," and "depression" periods, where mental health support is at most efficient. "They need to let their emotions out, or it is possible to transfer into PTSD instead of the 'acceptance' stage," said Zhou.
Typical emotional response to pandemics highlighted by psychological therapists
Three international students at Cornell University talked about their anxiety and helplessness during the interview. After universities being shut down, the pressure from coursework and personal life exaggerated; on the other hand, they were extremely worried about family and friends back in their home countries.
Define: who are the users and what are the problems to solve?
We decided to initially set the targeted user group to students or young professionals who study/work in a different city or state. To better represent their frustrations and goals, I created a persona, Vivian Smith.
Vivian is a senior year international student at Cornell University whose parents are working in Europe. Worried about her parents and feeling anxious about the impact of this pandemic, Vivian is in a dire need of a platform to maintain her social connections and to find reliable resources to help manage her mental states.
Persona Vivian, a Cornell international student who is stressed about the global pandemic
We believed that Vivian is a great representation of the general public we interviewed and building this persona allowed us to narrow down our design scope, instead of "designing for everyone who is affected by the pandemic."
Ideate and prototype.
With the concept of "a virtual community that promotes care-giving and real-life social interactions through daily check-in and collaborative gaming." in mind, I created a flow chart to better visualize a user's journey during his/her time with Acomp.
A flow chart that showcases the typical user flows of Acomp
While interactions are shown in blue boxes, major pages are highlighted in yellow. This flow chart helped us distribute the design work to four team members, and also served as a baseline for expert evaluations and usability tests.
Test: to validate the Acomp design, I organized both expert evaluations and usability tests.
After the team finished a low-fidelity prototype, we invited psychologist & Cornell CIS professor Sue Fussell, HCI Ph.D. candidate Chelsea Wang, and psychological consultant Tingli Zhou to evaluate our design from a conceptual level. Although our gamified approach and the idea of private online communities were proven to be effective by the field experts, there were some comments that shaped our direction.
A video message or a calendar that records check-in history for a constructive period of time can be more effective to understand one's mental health state than simply documenting with one of the preset emojis.
There are hundreds of existing mental health applications. Instead of competing with them, an alternative approach can be focusing on personal wellbeing and providing tailored resources based on one's daily goal or emoji choice.
The gamification part is unclear: users should have a better idea that the house is upgradable and how to upgrade it. The current rewards are insufficient to attract users to log in Acomp on a daily basis.
The issue of lacking essential social interactions is not limited to this self-quarantine time, and this solution can also be applied to remote families or enhancing the connections between old friends.
Later on, I conducted four rounds of usability tests after finishing the mid-fidelity prototype. Each participant was given the tasks of:
Overall, participants liked the design of our app and especially the visual design of the community page. As for the 4 tasks given to them, 3/4 of participants felt that the onboarding process was intuitive and informative. However, all of them expressed different concerns over the check-in questionnaire. For example, one suggested there could be more emotional expression than the six emojis we provided. In addition, it is unclear what content should the video message cover.
When it came to the game flow, 3/4 expressed their concern over the use of camera and microphone. Although it was obvious that the app would ask for permission before the hardware involved, it would be more clear to label out whether a mic or camera was required for the game.
In terms of the “personal space,” participants suggested that users should be allowed to change their goals upon entering the space. According to the use case of the app, it is more often that people want to achieve a short term goal rather than a long term goal. This feedback echoed with the feedback we received from expert evaluations.
Participants also gave us overall app suggestions. They understood we were trying to fill the social gap caused by the self-quarantine, however, 2/4 participants stated that the game itself was not enough to do so. Especially, playing technically challenging games consumes energy, which may not be appropriate for people who are feeling anxious or down at the time. As we also label this app as a “lighthearted” app, thus accordingly, we should also design light and interactive games that meet the needs of users and to make them feel emotionally supported.
Iterate: with their valuable feedback, I organized Acomp's design iteration.
The iterated design further enhances users' interactions with other community members and provides a quick overview for those who pay more attention to the development of their communities.
We also simplify the gamification aspect of Acomp. Now all the user behaviors will be rewarded with the same kind of level-up points but with different amounts, and users can view the level-up progress by either tapping on the house or checking out the daily report.
The original idea of embedding mental health support resources in Acomp was to provide an extra helping hand when the virtual interpersonal communication was not enough to alleviate a stressful mind. Although these resources are related to targeted users' goals, they are less related to Acomp's concept of building virtual communities for the close ones. So after the iteration, only a quick exercise, like a 5-min audio book, 3-min mindful meditation, or 1-min breathe exercise will be provided based on users' selections.
The iterated Acomp received positive feedback from both users and field experts, although there are more we can do to make this product a more compelling solution. If I had more time, I would further iterate the design of daily check-in, one of the core activities that require users to perform on a daily basis, to make the process engrossing and rewarding. I also wanted to use 3D models to represent houses in a community, so they would contain enriched details. I hope a visually pleased virtual community can attract more people to "move-in" and develop it.
On a large scale, Acomp convinces me that the future of experience design might be less about creating tools to solve problems, but more about building a personal connection between a tool and its users. This connection can be supportive emotionally, or letting people to carry on and overcome the obstacles in lives. With that said, "being responsible and respectful" is the new term that I will keep in mind.