UX IRL: Syncing the Online and Offline Experience

The web is making the world smaller, and human communication is being rapidly replaced by online interactions. But the offline "real world" still has its place in building trust and camaraderie, and this week Katharine Bierce shows us how businesses can merge the two.

As technology and real-life interactions converge, the digital-physical blur is transforming how people experience the world. Wearable tech like Nike FuelBand is creating a stir in the consumer market, but embedding technology in everyday products is just one aspect of the increasingly thin line between the web and “IRL” or “In Real Life.” For UX professionals, this trend calls for a fresh look at ideas of trust and authenticity, human motivation, and community building.

The digital-physical blur refers to any product or service that either embeds technology into a device beyond the “typical” use case of computers, smartphones, and tablets or that feeds data from real-life interactions back into technology, improving the quality of those interactions as more data enters the system. It’s the latter scenario that interests me most: how can we merge technology and real life to create the best experiences?

Facebook's “Nearby Friends” app brings Facebook friends into the real world.

Many companies are beginning to explore the digital-physical blur. Facebook, for example, now offers a Nearby Friends feature, which enables users to locate Facebook friends offline using geolocation data. In this instance, online “friends” become real-world connections. Such blurring of online and offline interaction hits at what HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah implied when he said, “humans crave a total experience.”

Yet to provide a total experience, design and engineering teams must look for areas where technology frequently fails to account for real human interaction patterns. Among these are:

  • Building trust
  • Increasing motivation
  • Creating a sense of camaraderie

Luckily, “IRL” experiences excel at all three,which is why many companies are syncing digital tools with real world, offline experiences.

Building trust

Building trust and assessing personal compatibility are difficult to achieve online – even dating websites like OKCupid only promise to “find someone who claims to fulfill your claimed requirements.” To address this problem, OKCupid has started facilitating in-person events. For example, people who might not feel comfortable going to a bar might want to meet like-minded others at a bookstore or art gallery – and because OKCupid has surveys filled with user preferences, it can tailor events to users’ interests.

Another example is ApartmentList, a website dedicated to apartment hunting, which found that encouraging offline social events increased use of its platform and improved brand recognition. After all, people often use a combination of offline search (via friends or colleagues) as well as online search to find a rental. It stands to reason that an online solution accounting for the community-oriented nature of apartment search would be at an advantage in the marketplace; it mirrors the user’s natural search process.

And that’s exactly what ApartmentList provides by hosting “roommate parties” that introduce strangers and get them talking, in person, about the apartment hunt. As Sam Parr at ApartmentList notes:

We’ve found that, like with dating websites, people often don’t reveal or don’t know their actual preferences. For example, women often say they don’t want to live with men. However, at our in-person roommate parties, once people meet in person, a lot of women realize that some particular man might actually be a nice roommate and it can work out just fine. But they wouldn’t say that initially, before they met someone cool at one of the roommate parties.

ApartmentList is clearly looking at the end-to-end experience. As TechCrunch recently reported, “CEO John Kobs said that down the line, the aim is for ApartmentList to become an end-to-end platform.’” A lofty goal, and one far more likely to be achieved with its combined on- and offline components.

Motivating users to meet goals

Getting motivated is hard, and an app alone is not always enough to help people achieve new goals. One way to design for behavior change is to select the right trigger to apply to a target behavior. To paraphrase behavior design expert BJ Fogg, the best approach to motivation is to make it easier for people to do the things they already want to do. A combination of technology triggers combined with positive peer pressure can help with ideal motivation.

For instance, although Weight Watchers has an online app, it continues to host weekly, in-person meetings as well. In these gatherings, participants use the power of social motivation to hold each other accountable to weight loss goals. Online tools like the Weight Watchers “Simple Start” app are considered ancillary to face-to-face motivation, not replacements. Luckily for participants, syncing online and offline motivation pays off. Baylor College of Medicine researchers found that among participants following Weight Watchers, those accessing the program via meetings and online tools enjoyed consistently greater weight loss than those using just one or the other.

Weight Watchers uses online apps as well as in-person meetings

Another tool that mixes online and offline interactions for improved motivation and goal attainment is StickK. Co-Founded by Dean Karlan, an Economics Professor at Yale, stickK is an online “Commitment Store.” Karlan envisioned a place where people sign social contracts obliging them to achieve their personal goals like losing weight or quitting smoking. If users fail to meet their goals (as verified by a “referee,” such as a spouse or a close friend), their credit cards would be charged a pre-set amount to an “anti-charity,” an organization the user hates. For instance, if a user is pro-gun control he or she can designate the NRA as the recipient of stakes, or vice versa. such as a sports team the user opposes.

As stickK CEO Jordan Goldberg says:

On stickK, some users are meeting new folks on our website to serve as supporters and referees. But the majority of users are inviting their close friends […] to serve as their referees and supporters on the network. This way they are getting the online support, where thoughts and feelings are aggregated but also in real life, like with a spouse seeing whether you’re eating a healthy dinner or sticking to your goal. So the benefit of having your real life network online is that you’re getting the support of both worlds.

By engaging spouses, friends, and colleagues at work, stickK’s online platform channels existing real-life relationships to help users meet their goals.

Building camaraderie and community

As Adam Poswolsky notes in The Power of Exponential Community:

Technology alone will not change the world. Only we can do that. Only when we surround ourselves with people who accelerate our ability to innovate, to grow, to fail, to try again, to try harder; will we move forward. Creating exponential impact requires cultivating exponential community: communities that empower each individual member to reach their potential, and accelerate a group’s collective ability to create the change they wish to see in the world.

However, what Poswolsky ignores is technology’s ability to scale human interaction beyond one-on-one meetings. In addition, technology can empower us to build communities across previously impassable physical divides.

One company addressing this issue is WeWork, a network of co-working spaces. WeWork members can participate in an online Facebook-like community as well as in-person events at the various WeWork office locations; not surprisingly, WeWork calls itself “a physical social network.” One way WeWork encourages participation in the online community is by strategically placing large, flat-screen TVs in locations where people are likely to linger. The screens display updates on upcoming events as well as online network posts by members. By advertising an in-person happy hour the same way as an upcoming webinar or by broadcasting a new post from a New York City member to its San Francisco location, WeWork helps members identify online and offline situations as community-building opportunities. As a result, both types of events are associated with the strong, integrated community at WeWork.

Design for community

Here are a few practical takeaways that entrepreneurs and UX designers can apply to transform on- or offline experiences into “total experiences.”

  1. To build trust and help users assess personal compatibility, complement online interactions with in-person events or meetups around a product. Especially for consumer-facing products, engaging users in person provides a more complete and “natural” experience. While technology helps users assess trustworthiness based on factors such as how many friends they have in common, another person’s credit score, or the content of work profiles, many people prefer to assess trustworthiness and compatibility in person. For this reason, facilitating authenticity offline can strengthen online-formed relationships between users.
  2. To motivate users to achieve objectives, facilitate seamless online-offline interactions that align with users’ life goals. A user-approved agreement, such as the Weight Watchers’ meetings, which publicize progress (or lack of progress) toward goal attainment is one way to achieve this. Alternatively, this can also mean employing push notifications or automated suggestions like Google Now, which uses technology to reinforce plans made using Gmail, Google Calendar, or Google searches.
  3. To cultivate team camaraderie, add a tool for virtual presence in a physical space. A live video feed or ongoing videoconference is one way to do this. As Craig Mod, co-founder of Hi, mentions in his reflections on the digital and physical, “something curious happens to our ability to understand scope when we move all that goop of process and narrative into a computer. When all the correspondence, designing, thinking, sketching — the entirety of the creative process — happens in bits, we lose a connection.”

This observation reflects what Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd found after interviewing hundreds of teens about their online lives. “Teens aren’t addicted to social media,” she observed. “They’re addicted to each other. They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.” Humans crave social interaction, so tools that blur the online and offline worlds tie in to this basic need.

In the age of proliferating screens, meaningful connection is more valuable than ever. As Pope Francis, an unlikely critic, recently reminded us, “The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good[…] The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.”

Creating a great user experience and building real community both take work. By using technology to enable a more integrated online and offline “total experience,” perhaps we can foster a little more serendipity, trust, and positive impact in the world.


About the Author

Katharine Bierce

Katharine Bierce is an innovation broker in business-driven social innovation and technology for social good. She enjoys finding interdisciplinary ways to make the world a better place. Katharine can also be found on Twitter at: @kbierce

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1 Comment

  • Webbernaut Reply

    I think this is a great idea (incorporating offline with online). But only for sites that can utilize it properly. For example the online dating, after all doesn’t dating only really happen in the real world. Maybe this will help transition people into actually meeting in person, online dating is really only an icebreaker and you can’t actually date someone behind a computer. So bringing this offline element might help people transition out of the oxymoron that is online dating.

    But like any popular technology, more and more companies will feel like they need to jump on the band wagon. I mean do I really need Facebook showing me where my friends are offline? Can’t I just call them or text them on my own? Seems there will be tons of privacy issues going on with this and Facebook is already stepping on huge privacy issues to date.

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