Social software needs to be designed with social sidetone

19.47, Thursday 8 Oct 2020

I feel like all social software needs the equivalent of sidetone to help small groups work together.

Sidetone is the ambient sound picked up by a phone mic, and played back softly into your ear. It’s almost imperceptible, yet, as Wikipedia describes: Absence of sidetone can cause users to believe the call has been dropped or cause them to speak loudly.

You don’t need sidetone to talk to someone in the same room. It’s something that’s only required when the two of you on the call are not sharing a physical context.

SEE ALSO: I’ve previously wondered whether virtual reality needs a smell to keep you anchored to reality.

I’m interested in social sidetone.

In this year of remote working, what social feedback is missing? What can be provided artificially to stop a small group going off the rails?

(In a way, this is the opposite to yesterday’s post about isolation and divergence.)

Abstractly, what is sidetone? We could say it’s something which is

  • a sensory anchor to a particular context
  • artificial, yet takes advantage of human cognition to slip in unconsciously
  • a calibrated yard stick, so you don’t do too much or too little
  • standing in for what a physical context provides by default.

Where could social sidetone be added? Two ideas, off the top of my head.

On a video call, when you’re speaking so you’re big on everyone else’s screen, but everyone else is tiny so you can’t really see them…

How about a large pair of artificial eyes that appear at the top of your screen, staring directly at you? That would probably stop you rambling or picking your nose.

Bonus points: make the pupils a representation of the aggregate attention of the group. If people start to drift, the eyes droop. If someone puts their hand up, the artificial pupils jump around to try to catch your eye.


When you’re collaborating in a Google Doc, as a replacement for a meeting, and for some reason it never quite gets finished.

I’ve noticed this as a common pattern.

And please note, for colleagues past, present, and future reading this, I am as guilty of falling into this pattern as anyone else! My view is that it’s inherent to the design of the software.

In an in-person meeting, everyone has a shared sense of when it’s early in the meeting, such that it’s ok to bring in new ideas, and when the meeting is coming to a close, so everyone keeps their mouth shut unless they’re tidying things up.

We get those cues from the clocks on the wall and in our pockets, and from the body language of other people.

Now, working on a doc together can run over a much longer period than a 1 hour meeting, and that’s actually great – but the working group misses that shared understanding of time, energy, impatience, whatever it is. I feel like the working group would benefit from having a mutual “arc,” however long it is.

Thinking about sport… When a game is divided into quarters, it’s pretty easy to get a handle on the tempo the tempo. First quarter play feels different from fourth quarter play.

So how about this:

  • when you start a new Google Doc, you set a collaboration time a the top: an hour, a week, whatever
  • the toolbar shows the current quarter: 1, 2, 3, or 4. People know if it’s time to chat and get alignment on goals, or time to finesse and wordsmith.
  • in the toolbar, there’s an animated progress bar that shows how long is left till the end of the current quarter. That provides the urgency.

If you like, use DEFCON levels. (Yes I’ve talked about a website creating shared focus with DEFCON levels before.)

Anyway. Social sidetone. Don’t know. Could be an interesting new UX pattern for the software we’re all living and working in today, and if you’re designing such software then you should have this as a point to consider. Or could be dumb.

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