The Remote Interaction Guidelines is a research project we started in Summer 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued until the end of 2022. The COVID-19 lockdowns clearly showed our needs in terms of togetherness and social connection when we're apart. The software available at the time didn't seem prepared for extended periods of isolation and as a result, we saw people using online board games and quizzes to stay in touch with their friends and family. These games provided a structure and a reason for people to meet, replacing aimless Zoom calls and slowly disappearing small talk. The games’ rules and their board seem to play a central role in their success at bringing groups together, even remotely.
Rules are useful because they lay out clearly how to engage with other people. While we do this very naturally in person by reading cues from facial expression and body language, these cues are often distorted or invisible online. It seemed rules could help restore the feeling of a flowing interaction by making sure everyone is aware of how and when they can participate.
The board is a shared space between all the players. Everyone can see it and contribute to it and all exchanges happen through it. The board's centrality to every interaction seemed key in creating togetherness and connection in the groups. Strikingly, this kind of complete view of a shared space is often absent from our online tools, limited by the sizes of our screens.
To see if we could extrapolate these patterns from board games into software design guidelines, we made a cooperative online game called Identical. This first prototype allowed us to test how our ideas could transfer into a digital remote-first world and validate their impact in terms of togetherness, social connection and engagement. Specifically, we wanted to make sure our findings would be applicable outside of games, for groups of any size working synchronously or not.
To see if we'd achieved that goal, we produced a second prototype called Colab based on our own recommendations. Colab is a shared working space for remote teams inspired by how offices work. In offices, teams get clues about what happened in their absence by noticing physical changes in their environment (whiteboard scribbled on, papers on a desk, sticky notes on a wall, etc.). So in Colab users not only share a space, they share a space which records past activity for future users. Through its testing, we were able to broadly confirm the positive impact of the guidelines and extend their usefulness to a wider range of application.
You can read more about the project in our two in-depth articles: What can board games teach us about remote interactions? and What can offices teach us about asynchronous large groups?