In the work-from-home era, Zoom is our new office, and happy hour bar, and maybe even that place to catch a magic show when we’re all a bit tipsy afterward. But we don’t need to tell you that Zoom falls short at capturing the nuances of in-person communication. It’s still pretty tricky to have a satisfying group conversation in Zoom, let alone collaborate on important projects.
But Zoom is already here, so rather than complain, let’s fix it. Or at least that was the plan of two design studios, Bluecadet and Upstatement, which teamed up to each tackle a conceptual Zoom with their own point of view.
The ideas are practical, humanizing, and sometimes even fun. But most of all, they are unified through a single principle: agency. Whereas the Zoom of today is a place you mute to stay quiet while trying to keep your kids out of the frame, the Zoom they imagine for tomorrow is a place where you can communicate without talking at all, and colleagues can get their hands dirty on a project together.
Fostering real collaboration
One big problem we’ve heard again and again from creatives is that, while Zoom is okay for a catch-up meeting, it can be hard for real product development—proposing new ideas and riffing on the ideas of others.
Bluecadet suggests the idea of a Virtual Demo—this could be a 3D object or another file that everyone in a room could poke at and prod. It’s a similar idea to what we have in collaborative design software such as Mural or Figma, sure, but here, it’s baked right into Zoom itself. Instead of screen sharing, we’d be file sharing, and even file editing.
Upstatement plays with this same idea in a different way. Rather than pulling more software into Zoom, they imagine taking Zoom to more software.
“I could see Zoom being a layer I could turn on in any software I’m using,” says Mike Swartz, principal at Upstatement.
Literally, the Zoom chat group could appear on top of any other collaborative software platform. It’s instantly Zoom-i-fied. And so you could edit spreadsheets, documents, or graphics as a group with your colleagues—and have them all right there, ready to comment or ask questions in real time. You are still Zooming, sure, but it’s secondary to the actual work.
Enabling nonverbal communication
Zoom’s gallery view is handy for being able to see a lot of people on one screen. But the thumbnails are small. So a smile, frown, or quizzical look can be tough to read or even notice.
“One thing we’re doing [during client meetings] is scanning video. Susan keeps raising her eyebrows. Jared keeps going on and off mute,” says Swartz. “A lot of value is missed in these convos because they are not given the floor.”
Upstatement took several steps to solve this problem. First, they cropped videos from landscape to portrait mode, more like a phone. Why? Because it frames the human body sharply and removes distracting backgrounds so you can focus on the person. It sounds almost stupidly simple—and a lot like FaceTime video chat. Yet in their examples, the update is night and day.
These profile video streams fit beautifully together on a wide laptop display, squeezing in side by side better than Zoom’s gallery view does today. Then, when someone wants to speak, they can hit a button, which nudges their video stream up, demonstrating to the group that they have something to say.
From there, both studios had a similar idea—allow people to emote with emojis and other Snapchat-esque filters. Technically speaking, Zoom does let you react with emojis now, but it’s dry, with a thumbs-up appearing in the top corner of your screen. Each studio imagines Zoom emoji to be more animated and fun. With a more over-the-top treatment, these emoji feel less like they’re feeding into our own introversion and are more a tool of overt expression.
Fixing large-scale events
With big venues closed for live events, most of us have been attending talks and conferences online. Many are hosted on Zoom. That means we follow single-destination URLs to open Zoom panels. It’s tough to recreate the spontaneity, and casualness, of poking your head into a conference room for a talk, dipping out, and maybe catching another you might be more interested in.
Bluecadet imagined that Zoom could get to know you better for these large-scale events. They suggest a welcoming area where you click on your specific interests so the presenter has some context going into a talk. Then, before a talk starts, you can hop into a lobby to meet other attendees—tapping on their avatars to read a quick blurb about them, as you might on a social media site.
The real breakthrough, however, is a multi-panel view. Presenters could show themselves and present a whiteboard and accompanying media at the same time, as opposed to Zoom’s either/or option to share your screen or your face. Then, on the left, a column could list every talk you could hop into as a viewer. You tap, and instantly you’re in another space. No URLs or breakout rooms required.
Making networking easy . . . especially when you just need a break
Even a good Zoom happy hour loses a critical component of a real party: You can’t flit in and out of conversations, catching up with small groups here and there, and even meeting new people in the process.
Bluecadet suggests a solution that we’ve seen before but are still not tired of: Give people a little map, and they can drag themselves around it into different groups. Basically, Zoom’s user interface could be remade to mimic the function of real architecture—but better, with areas dedicated to certain specialties or topics of conversation.
“There are all these amazing affordances you have in video chat you wouldn’t have in person,” says Josh Goldblum, founder and CEO of Bluecadet. “I’ve gone to SXSW and it’s a clusterfuck. . . . You go into a room and you have no idea who anyone is. In some ways you can make way better and more efficient experiences with interfaces.”
But the best part of this idea is that, when networking, you don’t always have to be on. Zoom fatigue is real. Being charming through a computer screen takes that much more effort than being charming IRL. So when you need a break, you just drag your avatar out of any of the groups into white space. This is your “recharge zone.” It’s like standing in the corner at a party and checking your phone, but virtually.