For this challenge, we designed for Yixuan, a friend of Wanxi’s who studies data science at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Yixuan is originally from China, and returned back home when the university transitioned to virtual and remote instruction so that she could be closer to family and friends. Additionally, Yixuan mentioned that she felt safer in China than in Cambridge, because China has contained the coronavirus more effectively than has the United States.
Yixuan is currently spending two weeks in mandatory quarantine in a hotel in Beijing, which all people coming into China must do to contain the spread of the virus. Resources like hotels were mobilized by the government to assist with the process of institutionalizing the quarantine. Yixuan spends all of her time in one hotel room, and has meals delivered to her door three times a day. While the hotel is situated in the countryside, Yixuan is unable to actually leave the room and interact with other guests. Yixuan told us that she misses spending time outside, and keeps in contact with her friends and family via WeChat and Weibo. However, she is still busy studying, and she spends time working, attending class, doing indoor workouts, and watching YouTube videos.
Yixuan was in good spirits, as many of her needs were attended to by the hotel staff. Temperature checks were required twice per day — once in the morning and once in the evening — and were to be reported to a nurse in a private WeChat group for hotel guests. All three meals per day were prepared and delivered by members of staff. While it was a bit depersonalizing for Yixuan to witness all communication with the staff in hazmat suits, oddities aside she appeared to be surprisingly relaxed.
We identified three key areas where Yixuan stated certain needs were not being met. The first bucket of needs concerned food. The quality of the food at the hotel varied day by day and meal by meal. Yixuan was unable to decide what she wanted to eat as the menu for the day was set and constrained by the hotel. She wished she had the ability to buy food of her own. We conceived of three solutions around the problem of food. First, we proposed a “Build a Bag” app where you could design your own grocery bag and have it delivered curbside or to your doorstep. Second, we proposed the creation of a platform to connect diners with local chefs to prepare customized meals. Third, we proposed the development of portable/foldable miniature cookware that could be used inside the hotel room.
The second bucket of needs concerned friendship and sociality. Yixuan’s main outlet to the outside world was WeChat, where she participated in conversations with family and friends. She also participated in a group chat with other hotels guests also stuck in quarantine. While they mostly talked about how good or bad the food was for that day, Yixuan wanted to forge deeper connections with fellow hotel guests. We proposed three solutions to address the issue of friendship, including the creation of an immersive VideoPod to enhance virtual and remote communication with friends, virtual activity nights à la Netflix Party, and an online friend matching platform.
The third bucket of needs concerned space constraints and physical resources. Yixuan was unable to exit the hotel room to get some fresh air or venture outside. We proposed a variety of solutions to rekindle Yixuan’s connection with the outside world, including a care package service delivered by drone, an in-room workout station, and a system to safely coordinate exercise and event spaces within the hotel.
Our client ultimately decided that she wanted us to design a combination between the proposals for a friend match and virtual activity nights.
Research and Benchmarking
After deciding to combine the idea of friendmatch and virtual activity nights, we did some research into how people make friends online, which is often through shared activities. We also looked at the way colleges put groups of roommates together for examples on how to bring people together in groups of friends. From both sources, we saw that shared interests, like movies, music, games, or hobbies, can often help predict and catalyze a friendship.
We also looked at examples of how people bring in-person activities online, and ways that online services incorporate a social aspect. This led to some of our benchmarking. For the idea of bringing in-person activities online, we were inspired by NetflixParty, a chrome extension that lets you watch Netflix together with friends. Hubs by Mozilla was another benchmark for us, which is a website that allows users to enter a virtual room or “hub,” where they can do activities and play games with other people in the room.
Besides roommate surveys, we used the benchmarks of Datamatch and BumbleBFF. BumbleBFF is like a dating site like Tinder, except people swipe on friends, giving us the idea for using a dating-like service for friendships. Datamatch is a service at some colleges, which has users fill out a survey, then uses an algorithm to “match” them with potential romantic partners. Datamatch also pays for the first date at certain cafes in Harvard Square, which incentivizes matches to actually meet in person and do activities together. This helped give us the idea of using an algorithm to match friends, and providing incentives for friends to spend time together by giving free access to services online through our site (e.g. Netflix or workout sessions).
The Solution: Meet Friend.ly
Friend.ly is an online platform that connects people around the world virtually. The platform aims to connect users with their quaranteam. Friend.ly aims to promote distancing, but socially. Upon entering the homepage, the user is presented with a quiz to get a sense of their interests and values. The quiz asks questions about your favorite types of music, film, sports, animals, and books. Once the user has completed their quiz, they would be shown both individual friends and communities that they would be matched with. As you can see on the home page, users have the ability to communicate and engage with both My.friends and My.Communities via chats (both messages and video). My.Communities allow multiple apps and websites that users would like to participate in (whether learning languages with Duolingo as a group, Netflix watching parties, shopping online on Asos, or even karaoke with Spotify) to exist under one platform – Friend.ly! Finally users also have access to My.events, a calendar that helps them keep track of their virtual events with friends and communities.
On the explore page, Friend.ly would recommend different communities that the user might be interested in. It also suggests some individuals that share the user’s interest and provides opportunities for them to connect and chat with each other. We hope that these features allow users to explore things they like and also discover some new interests. Under events, there are suggestions for events that are happening right now or are about to start. Users can join these public groups and jump right into the activities.
Each group has a virtual room for members to communicate. The virtual room, like an actual room, provides space for people to do the activities and space for relaxation. On the left side, members can host different activities including watching videos, singing karaoke, and the like. Friend.ly works in collaboration with other media companies and hosts different services such as YouTube, Netflix, online fitness classes, and so on. Members can do these activities synchronously while chatting using text messages or being on video call. They can interact with each other and partake in the experience together.
We predict that Yixuan will derive great sociopleasure from the use of the platform, which is one of among the four key principles of design. Friend.ly is designed to connect users virtually and remotely based on shared interests and values, and we hope the platform will play a role in building strong friendships during such a dark and challenging time.