Design Principles of Virtual Meeting Platforms

Mary Margaret Herring

While doing the readings for this week’s class, I kept applying the design concepts discussed to video meeting platforms like Zoom, FaceTime, or Microsoft Teams. In the past several months, it is likely that we have all relied quite heavily on these platforms for meetings, classes, and to stay connected with friends and family. So, I’ve decided to apply the design concepts used in the readings to virtual meeting services.

Ultimately, it seems like the most basic function of virtual meeting platforms is to simulate in-person meetings. At first, this seems easy to design for. Participants will need a webcam and microphone and simply need to be connected to one another to communicate. But, there are many different types of meetings that would need to be taken into consideration when designing a meeting platform. Just as a casual meeting between two colleagues over coffee differs from a lecture given to a packed classroom, digital meeting platforms need to accommodate a number of different situations. To replicate the nuances of these different scenarios, these products seem to rely on a form of natural mapping. Natural mapping, according to Norman (2002), is a design principle that users employ to determine how to use a technology that relies on physical analogies and cultural norms. An example of this could be the volume button on a remote. Usually, the increase volume button is above the decrease volume button. This physical analogy makes sense to the user who, wanting to increase the volume, pushes the button at the top. In this same way, designers of digital platforms need to create a platform that takes the cultural standards of interpersonal communication into account. To do this, Zoom, for example, allows the user to switch between “speaker view” and “participant view.” On speaker view, the majority of a meeting participant’s screen is filled with the person who is speaking. This replicates conversations between two people or scenarios where an audience pays attention to one speaker. The participant view, on the other hand, enables round-table-type meetings where all members are invited to discuss an issue. Here, all participants are displayed at the same size in a random order, suggesting that all members are equal and encouraged to speak. This design seems to rely heavily on the norms of in-person meetings or events to suggest how the members of the meeting should participate. In order for this design to be implemented, the technology must be programmed to recognize which person is speaking (where the audio input is coming from) and prioritize that user’s video. Zoom gives the speaker feedback that they “have the floor” by highlighting them in a lime green box.

While these designs may make sense conceptually, actually implementing these designs to be responsive on a number of screen sizes may prove to be difficult. Since most laptops and cameras have webcams, virtual meeting apps or software can be downloaded on a number of devices. However, the affordances, or physical properties that influence an object’s function (Lidwell, Holden, Butler 2003), of these technologies can impact the effectiveness of these displays. In speaker mode, it is easy to see the speaker whether a participant is joining the meeting from their phone or computer. However, smaller screens lack the ability to display all of the participants and it is more difficult to engage in a discussion with many people on a phone. While the speaker mode might be preferable on the phone because it is the easiest to see, a participant may not know who all is on the call because it is difficult to see the other attendees. So, phones and smaller screens seem to afford the speaker view more than the participant view.

A concluding remark/quandary:

I’ve read bits and pieces of The Design of Everyday Things (Norman 2002) and find it fascinating. However, I often have a difficult time applying Norman’s ideas to more complex technologies. I assume that this connection will be easier to make as we continue to de-black box technologies and learn about modular design. But, how far should we zoom in to a certain part of the design to apply these principles? Should we apply these principles to the modules as well as the whole technology?

References

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2003) Universal principles of design. Rockport Publishers, Inc.

Norman, D. (2002). The design of everyday things. Basic Books.