Tether

Tether is a focused, minimal video chat app that delivers the essentials and removes the clutter from emotional connection.


Taylor is close to both of her parents and was heartbroken when she learned they would be moving to Norway. Keeping connected has been a struggle for her family, but video helps span the distance. Last year, when she was about to open her birthday present from her parents, Taylor decided to record herself opening the gift. No Skype, no coordination, just recording and then sending the video to her parents. The next day, her parents recorded themselves watching Taylor’s video and then sent her their reaction video. It was simple and a little silly, but this was the story Taylor shared with me when I asked her about when she felt most connected from her faraway family.

The idea

As an assignment for a UX Design course, I took on a project of improving the experience of connecting with loved ones over long distance. Having spent time abroad and having my parents live overseas, I empathize with expats living far from family and friends, and I wanted to make that experience better.

Discovery & Research

Through my 7 user interviews, I uncovered these four main trends:

  • A lack of spontaneity hampers emotional connection.

    • “The emotional moment has passed” by the time people usually respond. “Even if they get back to me an hour later, it's very sterile.”

  • Not being sure when contacts are available leads to fewer connections being made.

    • “I would keep Skype open so I could be flexible for my family.” “I’m not sure when a call would wake her up.”

  • Technical issues are frustrating and disempowering.

    • “You have the echo and the time delay, and it's very frustrating trying to have a conversation when that happens.”

  • Users felt the most emotional connection when sharing tangible things over video.

    • “I knew my mom would appreciate watching the video of me opening my presents. I just recorded. I didn't have to worry about wifi.”

One story in particular moved me deeply. Dave, a usually stoic fellow, used language that betrayed legitimate frustration and sadness when sharing his story of missed connections with me. Synthesizing my observastion, I honed in on the big problem: people who are far away from friends and family need a simple, reliable way to communicate with their loved ones. I also created a persona to capture the user I was designing for.

Competitive analysis and user research uncovered video chat and sharing poignant moments in real time as keys to fostering the most emotional connection in communication. My goal became to create more opportunity for that intimacy. To do that, I wanted to create an experience with low friction, making way for more connection and fewer technical problems than expected.


Framing & Ideation

With a clear and informed problem space in mind, I played with a How Might We exercise to brainstorm potential solutions. I also generated a list of potential features and ranked them by level of impact on emotional connection and how expected they are by the user.

How might we…

  • streamline the video call process?

  • create more opportunity for deep connection moments?

  • bring relief to the coordination process?

  • facilitate more connection and less complication?

Keeping my persona in mind with the ever present cell phone, I wanted to go mobile only with a native app that would be able to use the full functionality of the phone’s video camera and mic.  I also wanted to have as nimble and lean of an app as possible so that it would use as little of the machine as possible, hopefully reducing connection drops and issues. Leading with high quality video chat capabilities, a second feature I wanted to add and test were availability markers, allowing users to see when their contacts are available and when a spontaneous call would be welcome.

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This app isn’t going to be the next Facebook, it’s going to be even more personal. It’s designed to connect users only with their closest of friends and family. This led me to include only a few contacts in my wireframes and prototype, and when built, I’d like to keep the contact list capped at around 10.  

Armed with this concept, I drew out a user flow and storyboard for a few tasks to get my ideas onto paper. Next came a paper prototype and my first series of user tests. Getting feedback from users early on allowed me to adjust and accommodate before building out my assumptions.

Low- and med-fi wireframes led to a clickable prototype with tweaks and omissions made along the way. When my clickable prototype hit user testing, a few of my assumptions were validated, but a few still needed some work. The current version you see today took user feedback into account by making text fields larger and easier to read and removing the save buttons. I also removed the wifi gauge from my earlier wireframes, designed more intuitive paths back to the home screen, and used a clearer icon for the user settings page.

User feedback for the current prototype:

  • "I like that it's really simple."

  • "It doesn't seem like I would get lost on this app."

  • "I thought it was pretty straightforward. Everything seemed to make really good sense."

  • "I liked how my dad could use this with his big fingers."

What’s next for Tether?

I’d like to pair with a software engineer to verify my hypothesis on nimbleness being impactful for video connection. I’d like to conduct more user tests to solidify the intuitiveness of the flow. I use soft colors in the current interface, and I want to test the aesthetics for color blindness and accessibility. I also want to test whether users would use the availability toggle or if it would be forgotten and cause miscommunication between contacts. I’m hopeful but curious about what kind of difference will those little green dots could make to the experience.


Highlights

This was my first project, and I’m very proud of how much I learned from it. My very first idea of what I would be building was quickly thrown out the window once it was made clear that it wasn’t what the users wanted. I’m committed to putting user needs first, and I’m glad for the opportunity to put that to practice.

I loved listening to the stories shared in my user interviews. Hearing about their problems and happy paths was sometimes an emotional roller coaster. Early in my interviewing, I realized I could provide a better interview experience if I adjusted the script to end on their positive experiences, which I immediately started doing. It made our conversations even more enjoyable, not only for me, but for the users, as well.

During usability testing, I got very positive feedback about how I conducted the test. A Sr. Developer I work with shared with me that I provided the perfect amount of low guidance and that I have a knack for design, especially usability testing. I’m very happy my users felt comfortable and relaxed during testing, as caring for others is a personal passion of mine.


Learnings & Insights

  • Next time I’ll list and track my assumptions about my prototype before usability testing. Having the hard data would have helped me prioritize what to adjust next and would be easier to communicate to stakeholders.

  • I would have liked to have considered different axes in my 2x2 prioritization exercises. In fact, I wish I had spent more time to create clearer problem statements, prioritized those, and then started with a lean approach to the most important problem.

  • Users appreciated simplicity much more than I expected. I was hopeful for how the focus of the app would lead to a better experience, but the response was surprisingly positive.


So far, Tether provides a stripped down, concentrated video chat experience that gets everything else out of the way of emotional connection. Regardless of what changes are made, it will remain lean, simple and easy to use, and focused on delivering high quality video chat with the ones you love most.