Agency in the Age of Digital Communication

Jordan Kolb
11 min readJul 12, 2020


This project started with a prompt:

“In the age of digital communication, how has COVID-19 affected the remote experience?”

My responsibility was to design a feature for an app that would help facilitate users based on the answer to that question. I worked alone for this project.

Assumptions and Interviews

My initial assumptions regarding the remote experience due to COVID revolved around frustrations due to technical difficulties. I figured internet connectivity frustrations were the most common problems people have with communication nowadays. I also figured that lower-income people that lack access to high speed internet would have increasingly strained relationships and possibly be put at a disadvantage regarding job opportunities due to poor audio quality. This assumption that technical difficulties were the leading cause of frustrations was unfounded. Instead, I found a number of common themes amongst the four people I interviewed unrelated to that issue.

Affinity Maps

Affinity Map #1

My first affinity map was very flawed. Many of the categories were simply organizing statements into categories. This lead to very little info that could be parsed into something meaningful. The biggest takeaway that shaped what the rest of the affinity maps and, eventually, the rest of the project was the categories regarding “Older people having problems with learning software”.

Affinity Map #2

Affinity Map #2 was where I started to find themes instead of just observations. This affinity map was where “feeling trapped” became a cornerstone of the project. Another category that was very important going forward was the, “Other people I know have issues adapting to new technology.”

Affinity Map #3

This was my finalized affinity map, but even it could still use more work. “I and others feel trapped due to communication hindrances” was a better statement than before, especially since half of my interviewees specified their annoyance with being their relatives’ teachers. They also expressed worries regarding what would they do if they weren’t around to teach them. This affinity map found that the largest category of information came from people having difficulty with communication from general incompetence using new software. This map found that people more used to technology prefer things like Discord or Facebook for their features while people more unfamiliar preferred to use Zoom for its simplicity and ease of use. In hindsight, I should have combined the categories for “feeling trapped” with having “no agency over communication” and changed their names. “Feeling trapped” and having “no agency” are similar descriptors that they mean essentially the same thing.

Synthesized Insights

From this data, I came up with multiple insights. Teaching relatives how to use software was a depressing and often repetitive task. These interviewees were also worried about their relatives mental health if they were no longer around to help them. Definitively, difficulty with communication comes from incompetence rather than technical glitches. My younger interviewees felt like they had agency over communication due to, what can I only assume to be, feeling more comfortable turning down social obligation when communication is no longer in person. One interviewee felt they had very little control of their time due to constantly needing to be on call for work. The feeling of being “trapped” exists in both a physical and communicative sense. Finally, I found that Zoom was more popular with older users due to its simplicity and focused design, as opposed to Discord which has more features.


Name: Charlie

Age: 31

Family: Father, mother, only child

Location: Charleston, West Virginia

Scenario: Charlie’s job has moved online a few months back. Due to the nature of his job, he needs to be available to receive a call from the higher-ups at work to discuss his progress. Both his parents are retired and live at home. Charlie recently moved back home in order to do chores for his parents that involve going outside and interacting with people such as shopping. He lives in a small apartment complex without very much privacy. His parents are immunocompromised. Frequently while Charlie is working, one of his parents will ask him to step away from the computer in order to help them figure out how to use Zoom. They find Google too complicated. This leaves Charlie feeling anxious about potentially missing an important call from his higher-ups, and frustrated with his parents’ inability to understand the software.

Behaviors: Hyperfocused on work, dislikes distractions.

Takes a walk after work and needs some time to himself.

Likes to spend time after work de-stressing by playing games online with friends.

Often paces around his room, wishes he had more room to move around like when he worked in person.

Goals: Wants some way to teach his parents how to use Zoom without constantly needing his help for every task.

Wants to have some dedicated time a day where he can go offline for a bit without question from his higher-ups.

Pain points: Helping his parents figure out technology is time consuming and an often repetitive task.

Gets visibly annoyed helping his parents out, it strains their relationship.

Sudden calls from higher-ups at seemingly random times a day give him anxiety.

User needs: Some sort of accessibility feature on Zoom for technologically inept people.

A way to convince his higher-ups that he needs frequent mental health breaks and to schedule time in a day where he will be unavailable to talk no-questions asked.

Name: Sloane

Age: 71

Family: Father, Husband, Son

Location: Charleston, West Virginia

Scenario: Sloane seemed to get the hang of technology as it became obsolete. She worked as a switchboard operator in 1974, but only a few years later that career would be phased out. Afterward, she would take those skills and pursue a career working various machine operating jobs until her son Charlie was born in 1989. In order to increase the family income as of late, she took a job at a hospital doing health care work. Her job has not moved online, but the physical paperwork can be filed remotely and sent to the hospital via mail. Recently, she just got an iPad and wants to try communicating with her friends via Zoom. She is not familiar with Google and the top responses are too complicated. This frustrates her greatly due to her background with machinery but the iPad is just too complicated. It doesn’t help that her son is not understanding of her plight and gets frustrated with her, too. Meeting people in-person is too dangerous in the current climate. It causes her to consider giving up on talking to people remotely altogether. After all, it might just become obsolete again soon anyway.

Behaviors: Traditionalist. Likes analog technology.

Likes to socialize with her work friends.

Misses the feeling of sharing a lunch with her co-workers.

Finds the iPad to be a dauntingly huge step up from her flip-phone

Many online concepts that have become mainstays as of late are lost to her

Goals: Wants to see and talk with her friends/co-workers remotely in a group setting

Wants to figure out how to use Zoom without bothering her busy son.

Pain points: Accessing and understanding the tutorials to even figure out Zoom are lost on her.

Feels lonely and wants someone to talk to that won’t be bothered by potentially silly questions.

Worried that if her job transitions online she’ll be fired.

Whenever she experiments with the app, she ends up doing something without knowing how to get back to the main screen.

User needs: A step-by-step way to figure out how to use Zoom consistently

A way to understand Zoom’s interface and return to the default view if need be.

For my personas, I used the two biggest issues from my affinity map:

  1. Difficulty with communication because of incompetence
  2. Having no agency over your time due to work

Charlie was made from the second problem. He represents your middle-class worker who moved back home to help care for his family. He is busy with work and just wants to relax when it is over. He’s tired of having to repeatedly teach his mother how to use Zoom, especially if she has a problem while he is on standby and might expect a call from his higher-ups at any point. This persona reflects the frustrations of most of my interviewees rolled into one person.

Sloane, on the other hand, is written to be Charlie’s mother. This persona was written as the person whom my interviewees were desperately trying to teach. The main point I want to get across is that the parent is not stupid. The parent should not be looked down upon. The parent is not alien to all things technological. The parent is feeling just as frustrated not being able to figure it out as you are teaching them. It’s easy to hate on older folk. Humanizing them will make their grievances more legitimate and give more purpose to the design.

From these personas I came up with the problem statement:

How might we provide more accessible features to people trying to communicate via group call apps like Zoom?

Platform Research

According to Pew Research,

41% of 65 to 69 year olds reported using tablet computers.

59% of 65 to 69 year olds reported owning and using smartphones.

I decided to use the iPad interface for my upcoming prototype for this reason.

Paper Prototype

Left: Paper Prototype 1, Center: Paper Prototype FINAL, Right: Paper Prototype 2

Before making my first paper prototype I realized that my interview data was slightly flawed. While I had plenty of data regarding frustrations with figuring out how to use Zoom, I had no data regarding what specifically people had trouble with. Upon asking my interviewees again, I was given a whole host of responses from screen-sharing, to not knowing how to click the zoom link, to figuring out how to download it. This posed a problem because adding a feature to Zoom to help improve accessibility would be difficult if I didn’t know which features people had the most trouble with.

My first paper prototype on the left catered to the needs of Charlie, specifically his work environment. It would have allowed him to create a block of time in the calendar window of Microsoft Teams that can be designated as a “Do Not Call” time. I abandoned this idea because it only came from the data of one interviewee, making it not a very strong case.

My second paper prototype was the one on the right and was a mockup of a simplified Zoom interface. The user would be able to hit a switch and it would swap the traditional interface with a larger one that had the most generally used features. This idea was scrapped due to the problem listed above where I had no information on which features people had the most trouble with.

My third paper prototype is in the center and is based on the idea of a personal-assistant like Siri or Cortana. You would press a button and it would open a slide-in window that you can use to speak to. It would then give you help based on the question you had. I figured the best feature that would help people figure out Zoom would be the one that could help them with theoretically any problem. This design would undergo a lot of changes over the course of the project.

Paper Prototype for Usability Testing

The “Help” button, and by extension, its window changed positions a lot. Originally, it was placed on the left, on the top left corner of the screen. When it came to finalizing my paper prototype design for testing, I moved it down to the bottom left of the screen, in the same task bar as the rest of the interface.

After my usability testing, my design changed yet again. Many users with difficulty using Zoom found the bottom of the screen too complicated. Also, in regards to design conventions, a help button is usually located on the top right corner of the screen where it would happily stay for the rest of the design iterations.

Originally, the app was going to be voiced based. The feedback regarding using your voice in a video call was extremely negative, and they said they will feel embarrassed and annoyed having to pause a video call for that. I changed the design from a microphone icon, to a text-input field. I also changed the “Help” feature so that instead of it doing the job for you, it would give you instructions. The best way to learn is by doing, so the goal is to not need the help feature again after using it to solve a problem.

Medium Fidelity Usability Test

Default Zoom View with Help Feature

My medium fidelity prototype for Zoom had one big problem when it came to testing. Very few people actually needed the “Help” feature! My scenario and tasks were too easy for people to solve, even if they didn’t know how to do it. My three tasks were:

You want to see everyone at once on screen in the middle. However, only the person currently speaking is visible in the middle.

Change the view to see everyone in the middle.

John and Deborah are having a conversation with each other. This is distracting you from your conversation with Claire.

Mute John and Deborah.

You want to show everyone the menu for a restaurant you’ll all be getting lunch at. It’s in a webpage in your browser.

Show everyone the menu through Zoom.

Scenario 2, muting John and Deborah, was the most difficult to solve among users. However, everyone but one user was able to figure out how to mute people. This one user first tried clicking “Mute”, then tried clicking on a person on screen, then tried clicking “More”, and then finally clicked my newly added “Help” button.

Constructing the interact-able medium fidelity prototype was a little time-consuming because users very well might not need the feature (and they did not, for the most part). Here is what happens after a user clicks on the help button…

Help Window Open
Help Window Open with Choices (assume the user typed in something relating to muting someone)
Help Window Open with Tutorial
Help Window open and Participant Window open

With the users who did not need the help feature, I had them redo one of the tasks specifically using the help feature. Satisfaction for this feature was very high! Almost every user said it was satisfying to use and that after being forced to use it, they would be more inclined to use it again. Users were able to figure out how to close the window, although they tried to use the “clear” button first (which simply resets the help window back to the default screen). Afterward, they immediately hit the X button in the corner.

Some positive quotes

“Nice sized icon.”

“Helpful to not have to ask your tech support person down the hall.”

“When you don’t use something frequently, you just don’t remember.”

“I liked it was there! I can get help when I need it!”

“Felt confident it was going to tell me what to do.”

Changes moving forward

I would move the “Help” button so that it is inline with the view and full screen buttons.

Make it more obvious that clicking on a picture of a button in the “help” window will act as clicking that button.

Add a visual to the screen regarding what element on the screen the tutorial wants you to click.

Link to Invision Prototype

Thank You For Reading!