Our agency iiD has spent a good deal of time researching and designing digital “spaces” for Gen Z to interact with each other in new ways.

At our design firm we’ve learned a lot about how design can affect human relationships. Digital products and experiences that help sustain friendships have a better chance to succeed. Time and again we’ve asked ourselves, “Can we design friendship for young people?”

Talking with my kid over breakfast

If being an adolescent isn’t complicated enough, trying to begin and maintain friendships across physical and digital spaces can make things a lot harder. Take for example, at the moment I’m listening in on a conversation between my wife and my 12-year-old daughter who is having a “problem” with another 7th-grade girlfriend repeatedly commenting on Instagram about why my daughter is changing her eye color in her selfies. My daughter after asking her in real life to stop commenting in this way now has deleted all of her friend’s comments. Is this how friends should act? Will she lose a friend if she “communicates” this way in digital? Twenty minutes of my wife and my advising her later, it’s still not clear and we’re all tired of talking about it.


What is friendship in the year 2016?

The Oxford dictionary defines “Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.” However, that is pretty vague and gives little idea of how to design better friendships. Digging a little deeper, we learn from child psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore that young people benefit from friendships by learning self-esteem, problem-solving, how to cope, and more importantly empathy for others. Kennedy-Moore describes three key ingredients of children’s friendship formation: openness, similarity, and shared fun.

Our work designing digital products and campaigns for young people begs the question of whether their digital behavior with mobile apps and social media can throw an emotional wrench in the works? A related and important question is whether parents and educators are prepared to act as much needed guides in helping their children navigate friendships into these digital spaces including texting, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Kik, Youtube, and many more?

Our journey began with studying respect

Our process to understand what friendship means to young people began with a project called the Respect Effect, a mobile app our firm built for San Francisco-based non-profit Futures Without Violence over the past two years. My own role in this has been to provide human-centered design research and strategy and user experience design for the platform. The Respect Effect mobile app engages teenagers with positive daily challenges to highlight actions that promote healthy, respectful relationships while preventing digital and dating abuse. To learn more about young people’s outlooks on relationships and digital lifestyles, we collaborated with Futures Without Violence to conduct a series of participatory design sprints with teens in high schools in San Francisco. We found the sprint method was effective in getting youth participants to discuss what respect means to them in different kinds of relationships and to actively sketch a variety of app design ideas, which lead directly to prototypes, testing, and the final product. Ultimately, the app when it launches in Fall 2016 will be an engaging way to make respect “cool”, much like Instagram or Snapchat for a cause.

Respect Effect app

‘Respect Effect’ app

What we’ve learned from this research (explained in depth here) is that young people draw no distinction between their physical and digital lives. Yet how they should act in digital has become confusing and even alarming as incidents of bullying, digital harassment, and dating abuse? We know that 1 in 4 dating teens is abused in digital spaces. An even more alarming yet believable stat is 52% of teens abused in digital are also physically abused. As the Bully documentary (Lee Hirsch, 2012) shows, negative and harmful adolescent behavior is happening in schools and neighborhoods across the U.S. in plain sight. Combine physical bullying with an “out of sight” digital space, the challenges for teens, parents, and educators may seem insurmountable. In the face of these problems our work on That’s Not Cool, which was awarded the Webby Award for best Charitable Organizations/Non-Profit, has been especially poignant and meaningful. Other related iiD projects have included I Am a Witness and currently The Bully Project and Peace First.


That’s Not Cool site

 How can designers make an impact on friendship?

In the face of all of this doom and gloom, how can my 12-year-old daughter stand a chance of having a healthy, natural relationship with her friends and soon boyfriends?  Even if you’re not a bully, how one expresses oneself through a faceless text or email can be trickier than a face-to-face interaction with complementary body language and full accountability. Taking Kennedy-Moore’s research to heart, we believe the three ingredients 1. Openness, 2. Similarity and 3. Fun is ideal for designing digital products to support young friendship.


1. Designing for openness

Focusing on the first ingredient to friendship, openness basically means that a young person needs to be able to express “Wanna be my friend?” A younger child may actually use these words but “cool” tweens and teens often need more complex signals by expressing kindness, according to Kennedy-Moore. In digital, this generally means liking or commenting on someone’s photo on Instagram or Facebook. But by intentionally designing with friendship in mind, a designer can structure the experience and task to actually be about expressing and spreading kindness. This is just what we attempted to do with the Respect Effect and the I Am a Witness campaign’s Send Kindness board, to enable young people to support their friends when bullied.

But what are other such ways to show kindness in digital? Here are a few ideas:

We know that Gen Z responds positively to imagery and emojis are a great way to express positive, emotive feedback in place of facial expression and body language. Apps, sites, and games that use emoji as a communication device are sure to win.

Code of Conduct
Many games and apps call this the “community rules” that require users to accept before they can join the fun. One that comes to mind is Yik Yak’s community rules. While rules may help set expectations for how users are to behave, interaction designers should be careful about being too rigid or authoritarian.

Rewards for Kindness
Foursquare had points and badges for check-ins. Kahn Academy has points and levels for progress. In the same way, apps for teens could give rewards for how kind a user such as points, badges, levels, unlocked content and privileges. There could even be physical swag for overachievers. Incentives could get carried away, as you can imagine users “competing to be the nicest”. But if they’re used as a fun, complement to an engaging social activity, they give positive feedback for how to be friendly.

2. Designing for similarity

Since the early days of BBS and The WELL, communities have been around for like-minded people to connect and share. With the rise of the social network, traditional communities have been replaced by Facebook groups and pages. However, with many young people moving to public Instagram or private social apps like Snapchat, Kik and WhatsApp, the digital space where younger users can seek out people who have the same interests, values and sensibilities have become harder to find. With this challenge in mind, there are currently terrific opportunities for app designers to help young users connect by similarity. What does this look like?

First of all, we need to think about what kids are interested in and can find similarities with. Fashion, games, music, celebrities, entertainment, sports are just a few. Next, we think about where this experience would live. One word. Mobile. Any thought of doing a web-based forum should be eliminated. Instead, quick and “snackable” user-generated content feeds based loosely around an interest is where we’re headed. Is this Instagram for fashion? Or Yik Yak for music? It could be a hybrid of any existing functionality. Or it could be something new that hasn’t been invented. Whatever it is, going back to the original purpose of designing for similarity (and friendship), the social app should bring kids together in a new way and make them feel like they belong, like a club or a circle of real people who may not be 100% the same but have something they connect around and have other young people they identify with.

In surveys by LifeCourse Associates, it was found that teenagers are extremely anxious about being criticized on social media such as Instagram and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad. Social app Wishbone currently ranked among the top 10 social apps sees those anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to take pictures in which they look beautiful or where they went on vacation. Users just make funny polls to talk about celebrities, makeup, and bands. It is about your tastes, not your identity. Again, this app’s success points to using tastes to connect teens by similarity.

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3. Designing for fun

This space is clearly the most commonly available for Gen Z today. It is dominated by online gaming with a full 72% of teens playing video games on the desktop, console or mobile in 2015. According to Pew research, teen gamers play games with different types of people – they play with friends they know in person (89%), friends they know only online (54%), and online with others who are not friends (52%). It should be noted that gaming is more popular for boys (84%) compared to girls (59%).

Heightening this online game experience is the many games that use voice chat to increase user proximity to each other. 71% of boy gamers use some form of voice either in-game or Skype. This voice chat feature is certainly a way to foster friendship, making communications more personal and intimate (versus emotionless text chat). For our own new app designs, we find in voice a clue for how to young users closer together.

What if we want to design a fun user experience for young people, which isn’t a console game? Let’s suppose we want to combine the first two elements of openness and similarity to give us the best chance of designing an app for friendship. What would this look like? Where would this live (mobile would be my first guess)? What would be the task at hand (content sharing, communications, competing, etc.?) What would be the social interaction (voice chat, likes, comments, other?) And last and probably most importantly what would be the magical sticky idea that brings the fun to the app? So many questions and each project will have its own set of design solutions.

From designing friend to social impact

Apps, games and social networks that help build authentic friendships have a better chance for survival and have a competitive advantage over other platforms. But beyond growth hacks for startups, there is the more compelling and significant question of how designers can enable young people to form and sustain truly healthy friendships while at the same time helping to prevent social injustice from occurring in their increasingly digital lifestyles.

Design of any kind is an honorable pursuit but designing to empower young people to have healthier relationships at such a key stage in their development is more than just another client project, we believe it’s a meaningful public service. In the same vein, our current project the Peace Challenge created in partnership with non-profit Peace First, a community to empower youth to launch their own peace movements is taking us on a journey of understanding what social impact means to young people and how to help them succeed in their passion for causes, volunteering, and activism. I see this project being the culmination of our work designing friendship. Instead of only helping youth have better one-to-one relationships, it will enable them to learn to solve problems and eliminate social injustice on a global scale.

Why do any of us become designers? I believe at the heart of this is an essential optimism. Designing deliverables are how we get paid. Improving people’s lives and making the world a better and healthier place is why we design.