by Nan Yang

A Small-scale Social Platform Overcomes Time Difference and Isolation

What is it?

The novel Coronavirus has caused many of us to adjust to a new normal in our behaviours, our interactions, and our ways of living.   As the majority of our experiences adjusting to this new normal have been individual, especially considering the necessary social isolation, we sought to understand and solve a specific problem of one of our interviewees. 

With this challenge, we focussed on designing a product that was directly inspired by the needs of an international student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Xinyi Zhou.  Zhou is receiving her masters degree in Landscape Architecture this year, in the class of 2020.  Although she is from Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China, she is currently living in Cambridge in Harvard housing.  Normally Zhou has a roommate, but due to the pandemic, her roommate went back home, leaving Zhou alone. In synthesis of her interview, we pulled out 3 major challenges that she is currently facing due to the COVID-19 lifestyle changes. 

Need 1

First, Xinyi Zhou emphasized food related issues of maintaining a strong food supply and cooking for herself, describing herself as not a very good cook. From this information, we ideated a foldable and convenient shopping cart that allowed for new means of transportation while operating with an iphone holder.  In addition to this product and potentially alongside it, we ideated a food pantry and recipe app that facilitated cooking and meal plan according to what the user had in stock. However, after some research, we found similar platforms and products to currently exist.

Need 2

Another need state Xinyi Zhou touched upon was how to fill her new free time.  Zhou mentioned recently purchasing an expensive electronic keyboard that if not in quarantine, she would not have purchased.  From this, we derived the idea of a teach and learn virtual community, facilitated by an app or website platform that would connect various individuals with others to engage and share skills of all kinds.  This idea was promising and directly applicable to Zhou’s need for social engagement as well as steps in learning a new skill. Although this was not the product that we ultimately decided to build out, it helped us come up with our final idea, focussing on how to better facilitate virtual communication and connection, especially during the time of COVID-19. 

Need 3

The third need that Xinyi Zhou demonstrated in her interview centered around social interactions or lack thereof.   Being an international student who cannot go home or spend time with friends locally, Zhou explained her new felt experience of social isolation.  As many of her family and friends are overseas in China, communication is not easy due to time zones becoming a prevalent issue in connection. In addition, Zhou mentioned feeling overwhelmed and unsatisfied with her engagement on social media, explaining how all the news and shared information can make her feel sad or ruin her mood.  Out of these challenges of timezone difficulties and overwhelming social media in real life social isolation, we came to the idea of Globally, a small-scale social media platform that is focussed on connecting the user with close friends and family, especially those who are located in different time zones.  

Prototype: Globally

Main Concepts

The essential features of Globally directly target Xinyi Zhou’s issues that she made clear in her interview and in her feedback.  These features include:

  • Calendar sync between users
  • Interactive visual globe
  • Sharing of personal experience/mood (optional)
  • Direct connection with a small group (i.e. only close friends and family)
  • Across time-zone schedule setting within the group
  • Various options for communication and connection (ranging from virtual games to video chats).  

Interactive Globe

The first feature we designed an interactive globe for Xinyi to build connections with her loved ones in which she and her invited friends could see and share their live status, locations, weathers, and emotions. To make this process less time consuming, users could decide whether to access the screen-using of other apps on their phones.

Interactive Schedule Carousel

Besides, within smaller groups, we also created a live-time carousel for group members to check on each other’s local time, weather and availabilities.

In these interactive interfaces, Gloablally avoids the overwhelming burden and accessive time consumed using the ‘endless scroll’ feature of many other social media platforms.

Cross Timezone Scheduling

Lastly, the app also makes across-timezones-scheduling easier. By syncing calendars, it would visualize the overlapping of users’ schedules and would highlight the time that works for all of them.  So that users could select an activity (such as virtual board games, and video chatting, etc. ) and send the request to group members. Once approved, it would sync to all of their calendars according to their time zones.

Reducing the anxieties of isolation and distancing through having the world at your fingertips, Globally helps you check in on your loved ones and by making it easy and efficient to schedule times to check in with each other.  Additionally, as Zhou explained how social media was not helping her social isolation but rather making her feel overwhelmed, we concluded that there is a substantial need for small-scale social media that is focused on authentic and personal sharing.   Globally encourages you to connect on a smaller, more intimate level, providing the option to share your mood, your daily activities and location through an interactive globe.  Rather than using the ‘endless scroll’ feature of many social media platforms, Globally avoids excessive sharing through an interactive global visualization in the front page of the app.

How it fits into a larger context

Overall, the many different features of Globally are focussed on addressing the personal issues of our client, Xinyi Zhou.  However, in this time of social distancing, personal isolation and the global issue of a pandemic, Globally would likely fulfill many need states of people around the world.  With social media’s excessive spread of information, it has evolved away from intimate connection and direct communication.  Now, more than ever, we must figure out ways to truly connect with each other virtually, especially when it comes to our loved ones that may be on the other side of the world.  

Link to our presentation:

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Margaret Sun April 13, 2020 - 4:05 pm

The interface is incredible, and I love how easy it makes scheduling. Whether it’s for online classes, discussion sections, or simple meetings, we often have to go through several rounds of When2meet (the most despicable app, in my opinion), checking time zones, and being aware of common meal times and sleep times across geographic locations. Blunders here can make people feel overlooked, or cut social time short. The ease with which Globally bypasses these difficulties may very well increase the frequency of online interactions, as we don’t have to feel like a “burden” scheduling with friends. Of course, adding security measures would be important to protecting the information users input into the app, but overall, a great project!

Wanxi Yang April 13, 2020 - 10:33 pm

I think this is a fun design and the user experience seems like a gaming experience. There are two risks I can see. First, how do you give people incentives to put in their availabilities and time schedule in general? Second, the interface you showed for matching people’s availability seems a bit overwhelming for me. Are there more intuitive ways to match people so that they don’t need to think?

Lucy Golub April 14, 2020 - 1:23 am

I have friends from many different time zones, and it definitely can be tough to schedule a time to keep in touch. This idea would really help. It seems like a mix of a “close friends” instagram but with more meaningful connections. I wish this were real so that I could better keep in touch with people I miss.

Sally O'Keeffe April 14, 2020 - 2:43 am

I love the graphics/ interface of this! I also think this is really relevant and necessary. Maybe some people are more familiar with the time zones of their family members but I am not really. Such a better interface than adding different time zones by hand in the clock app. It’s also so cute to see where your different family members and friends are on the globe. Snapchat has something similar but I much prefer your 3D rendering. This app would also be so useful for group meetings and planning conference calls. I think this could be taken to the corporate level as well as to schools right now if any are interested in adjusting class times.

Danielle Green April 14, 2020 - 4:01 am

I would use this app in a heartbeat! Recently with the global outbreak of coronavirus, I have been need of a platform that seamlessly connects me and my classmates around the world. For example, When2Meet doesn’t have a feature where you can set time zones by individual user (as far as I’m concerned it’s just a general timetable). If you’re stationed in a different time zone, you have to manually convert the selection of times by adding and subtracting. I feel like we can more effectively streamline that process. Globally seems to fulfill that need. Your graphics are really strong and distinguished. The interactivity of the prototype just adds to its dynamism and quality of engagement. Within the platform itself, I really like the focus on animation/illustration as opposed to text. I like the use of the globe as your point of reference. It conveys a sense of universality and connection. The project just radiates warm and wholesome vibes. You did a great job here!

YUNING ZHANG April 14, 2020 - 9:48 am

It looks like an advanced version of Zenly but multi-functional and more interactive. Timezone, weather and virtual connection are all features/ information easy to obtain and embed, while combining them in a scheduling app makes it incredibly useful especially under the current situation. Also like the design of your interface, which is cute and clean, and easy to read. I would suggest doing more research on people’s preference for experience/mood sharing, since the app is focusing on intimate connection, which could be different from other social media.

Ying Zhang April 15, 2020 - 12:29 am

The ui design is really awesome and I enjoy it a lot! As an international student staying at Cambridge during this COVID-19, I think this app will definitely bring a lot of comfort to me and also bridge the intimate connection with my family. There are a lot of app that broaden your social realm while this app allows you to stay focused and I think it is a really great way to lower the anxiety level during this period of time! Overall, really nice job!

Kongyun He April 16, 2020 - 5:33 pm

This app would be super helpful and make life a lot easier by visualizing the time difference between places. Sometimes it can be hard to make arrangements with people on the other side of the globe and checking time zones online can be annoying.

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