From Zoom Rooms to doorways on my desktop

14.16, Tuesday 15 Jun 2021

Zoom Rooms are called rooms but they don’t feel like rooms. I’ll tell you what does.

I was speaking at Tweakers Developer Summit a couple weeks back – three talks on consecutive evenings. (Probably overambitious, and I was exhausted but there’s something that intrigues me about this experimental format, which I why I tried it, and I learnt a bunch. It worked! New narrative possibilities abound!)

Let me lay out the facts of the speaker experience first:

  • A few days ahead of the event, I received a link to my virtual room.
  • I could visit the room and make it my own. So I could change the layout presets, turn features like Q&A and polls on and off, upload docs to present, rehearse and so on.
  • At this point, the doors were closed. General attendees, even with the link, would not be able to enter. At the bottom of the screen, there was a timer showing when the event was scheduled to start…
  • On the day of the event, as the time approached, I could see people entering an anteroom one by one. A waiting area. They got a countdown and a splash screen (which I think I could also customise) while I, from my room, got to see a list of people queuing up.
  • When it got to about 40 people, I hit the button to go live, and everyone in the anteroom was brought automatically into my room. (I could have waited till the timer reached zero, but instead I opened the doors with about 30 seconds to go. It was neat to have that touch of agency.)
  • Because everyone entered at the same time, instead of trickling in, I was able to make this into a threshold event – no slow start here waiting for people to arrive, but a fun and immediate “hey, welcome!” and a high energy experience to kick things off.
  • During the talk, I positioned my slides full screen – and my face also full height, right next to the slides, but narrow. (The chat occupied a sidebar on the right.)
  • At the end, I said thanks and goodbye and ended the event on my own terms by closing the room again - without waiting for a clock to run down, or fumbling for the “hang up” button - and the attendees were moved out to the “thanks and please rate” exit screen.

What made this feel like a room vs dialling-in? Here’s what:

  • It was my own persistent room that I could customise, welcome people to, and so on. I had a calming 10 minutes sitting in my own before the talk, breathing and waiting, comfortable in knowing that all the tech was working, and watching people arrive.
  • I was able to control the end-to-end audience experience because of good threshold design. Throwing back the curtains to bring everyone in was a wonderful moment! Great energy and no dead air. So there was good attention to liminal places and moments (the anteroom, the “go live” button). Software regularly ignores these. And in this case it made the event feel like a place.

One other feature I liked: I was able to communicate both information and energy simultaneously. Virtual events are hard because the speaker’s face carries so much emotional energy, and it’s often relegated to a tiny box. But you also need slides to riff off and give attendees an anchor. The non-traditional layout of this platform (my face in a tall but narrow window, portrait style, next to the slides) really worked. (I’ve talked about the interplay of slides and speaker before (7 July 2020).)

Kudos to the underlying events platform, Let’s Get Digital, for some thoughtful design choices that made a difference.

So we could extend these ideas to video call software…

Could Zoom Rooms be persistent and customisable? What if I could set background wallpaper, and hook up a Dropbox folder to appear in an interactive panel? What if we could all do that together?

Could Zoom pay more attention to thresholds? Like, could the “waiting for the organiser to start this call” screen be a place to gather, somehow? Could it include a mirror to check my hair, or a transcript of the last call to get up to speed?


I’m more interested in leapfrogging to something else: the OS.

Social features should be part of the operating system.

(Here’s where I wrote about this before: Multiplayer docs, webcam fashion, noisy icons: three ideas (20 Nov 2020).)

In this case, I’m imagining that each video chat room is a window, just like a filesystem directory window. I can drag and drop documents into it, and they are immediately shared with the participants.

Of course if I drag and drop a person out of the video chat window onto another document, that document would immediately become shared. Give it a special border to distinguish it. We can both edit it; both of our cursors are visible.

Each room has an icon on my desktop (or I can file them away). Double click the icon, and it opens the meeting right away.

Now I’m inspired by the 1981 Xerox Star, the highly influential early “desktop” user interface. I’m especially taken with the way the printer appeared as an icon on the desktop, as this lengthy retrospective explains:

In Star, printing is invoked via the Copy command: users simply copy whatever they want to print to a printer icon. No Print command is needed. Similarly, the function Send Mail is handled via Move: by moving a document to the Out-basket.

Let’s do the same and have the meeting room icon double as the anteroom. As people join the call, I can see their tiny avatars appearing over the icon. If I long press or hover my cursor over the icon – ambient noise, the muffled hubbub of people waiting. Perhaps they should even be able to knock. A doorway on my desktop.

So a challenge to Microsoft, Apple, Google: what are the OS-level hooks required for third parties like Zoom (and even web-based services) to integrate like this?

Follow-up posts:

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