UX isn’t just about web and product design. There are also UX principles that can be applied to real-world situations we encounter every day. With the rise of the remote worker, virtual meetings are becoming part of our daily routines. Have you ever considered the user experience of these meetings? I’m not talking about the software that you use to conduct the meetings, I’m talking about the actual aspects of interacting with someone via your computer or tablet screen.
Obviously, you’re losing some of the advantages of face-to-face meetings. For example, it’s more difficult to see and interpret body language. Subtle cues that we rely on to understand each other can be more difficult to catch. If a participant looks off to the side, you may not see what they’re looking at so you lose the context of that action. Being in very different environments like a crowded office rather than a quiet individual space can cause participants to behave differently and not have the same level of comfort. Fortunately, there are some things we can do to improve the overall experience.
The first thing to understand is Gaze Parallax, which (in this context) is the difference between the perceived gaze and the actual gaze due to the position of your webcam. When you’re in a meeting, you look into the face of the person you’re talking with, making eye contact. Breaking that gaze can cause a loss of attention – it’s a distraction. You can lose the connection and consequently have less influence or engagement. In a virtual meeting, we tend to duplicate that behavior and look at the face on our screen. If our webcam is positioned at the top of the monitor, this can result in the perception by the other person that you’re constantly looking down below eye level as you’re talking to them, even though you feel as though you’re making eye contact. You’ll have less of a connection with the person you’re talking with as a result. The solution is to carefully position your webcam so you appear to be making eye contact. This is easier on a laptop with a built-in camera. You can place the laptop with the camera at eye level and/or at enough of a distance that you appear more natural in conversation and the other viewer feels that you’re making eye contact.
Another thing to consider is the size of the screen you’ll be on. If you know you’re going to appear on a large screen in a conference room, you’ll want to increase your distance from the camera or use a high resolution and wide capture so there’s more background and you appear smaller. This way, you’re not a huge person looming over everyone in the conference room and making them feel intimidated. This is especially important if you’re in a position of authority – you don’t want to create a visual experience that makes your employee feel small (if you do, you shouldn’t be in a position of authority).
Make sure you have a decent headset so poor sound quality doesn’t inhibit communication. It’s easy these days to find a good low-cost headset. Echo and barking dogs in the background can make it difficult to stay focused, so try to conduct your meeting in a quiet space and use the mute button when appropriate.
Lastly, use a conferencing service that’s reliable and doesn’t freeze or lag constantly. The software shouldn’t interfere with the meeting or cause the participants to have anxiety. I’ve tried them all and experienced lots of frustrations. I switched to Zoom this year and it’s been fantastic – it hasn’t frozen yet. It doesn’t get in the way of the meeting.
And breathe…relax and try not to be afraid of the camera. Video meetings can be so much nicer than a phone call or email when you’re physically removed from the people you need to work with. It’s nice to see each other smile!