Design better online-video chatting

Last year I worked with a team most of whose members were on a different continent. Since my job as a usability analyst and interaction designer often requires me to influence, motivate, and give feedback about work already completed, I quickly adopted online video chat in order to see the non-verbal communication cues of my teammates.

In the course of my work, I spent many hours chatting online with team members in Australia, India, and Canada. I experimented with camera locations and different video software. I also read about the research of David Nguyen and John Canny in Face-to-Face: Empathy Effects of Video Framing. The researchers explain how the right use of cameras makes an online experience as good as a face-to-face experience. And I combined this with research presented by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass in The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places. The authors explain how, in many ways, the human brain cannot distinguish between an online experience and a live, in-person experience.

I realised that it’s not just about how I communicate with my team members. As an interaction designer, I can improve the user experience of online video chat and online video calls—for example, in live Support calls—by considering:

    • What is needed to give the illusion of eye contact?
      Since people aren’t in the same space, eye contact isn’t real, but eye  contact can be simulated, with all the benefits that ensue from actual eye contact. To address this, place the other caller’s video close to your camera.
    • How do we minimise the false non-verbal cues that online experiences can introduce?
      Poor camera position creates cues that aren’t really there, but the viewer’s brain still processes and reacts to them. False cues from apparently looking down can convey boredom, submissiveness, disrespect, and so on. False cues from apparently looking up can convey daydreaming, making things up, and aloofness. To address this, place your camera – and the other caller’s video – at eye level.
    • What exactly should the video include in its frame?
      To get results that are equivalent to a face-to-face meeting, what’s in the frame is critical. For live online video calls, the common heads-only frame is undesirable. To address this, include both your face and your shoulders in the frame.

Since a lot of the above information is best conveyed visually, here’s a video to explain it:

3 common problems with video calls: lack of eye contact, eye level, and framing (or distance from the camera).