Social Distance
TheOnline.Town for Coffee Hour
Coping with Social Distancing Dilemma

Whether you are looking to meet a future business partner, trying to find some new friends after moving to a new place and starting a new career, or escaping the stress of the day with a quick social break, the coffee-hour is exactly what you need. Coffee-hours are ubiquitous in professional settings and provide some much-needed informal social time. Unfortunately, the experience of being able to walk around and talk to lots of different people casually has been mostly lost with to the recent move to online virtual life. There are simply no services which  attempt to recreate a coffee-hour virtually, and using virtual meeting rooms such as Zoom have proven to be clunky in this regard. We found Online Town which attempts to recreate some of the aspects of real-life socializing within a virtual meeting room, however we found many ways which it could be improved to specifically make a virtual coffee-hour more effective. Below is a description of our prototype virtual coffee hour, and an outline of the process we used to create it.

Office Coffee Break
Problem Space
Coping with Social Distancing Dilemma

Coffee hours, and similar events, are important and functional events in many different settings. There is no dedicated virtual coffee-hour service, and the alternatives, like the virtual meeting room Zoom, have major problems when used as a platform for social events. For example, only one person can talk at a time and everybody is listening. People tend to be very shy on Zoom because talking puts the spotlight on you in front of everyone. Also, it is impossible to converse with and move between smaller sub-groups which is a natural part of interacting with real people at these types of social events. Online Town gives users an avatar which can be moved around a virtual room, and the video feeds of other people will show up when their avatar is in close proximity to yours. We felt that this had potential but it currently is not effective enough. Other features must be added to help address some of the social concerns specific to virtual communication. There were also some glaring usability flaws with Online Town which made it not very useful for coffee-hour type events.

Virtual Team Meeting
Contextual Inquiry

We performed a contextual inquiry by recruited two small groups of people to see how they used Online Town to interact in a more socially realistic virtual environment. The tasks were chosen to reflect an informal social event such as a coffee-hour which is great opportunity for meeting new friends and which is sometimes a good networking opportunity. By observing how they reacted to the virtual environment, we were able to note some breakdowns in the design of Online Town.


Because Online Town is rather simple and socially oriented, the task list is not very long. However, the tasks were revealing of many breakdowns which could be improved. Some of the tasks were:Join a room after receiving the room link

  • Explore the virtual environment

  • Enter your name

  • Try to get to know basic things about each of the other users, as if you are just meeting them.

  • Try to have a longer conversation with one of the other users

  • Repeat the previous steps with a different virtual environment

  • Exit the room

App User

Klinzman Vaz, 24

Profession: Second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins university

Location: Baltimore, Maryland

Bio: Loves to play football and management consulting


Saloni Singh, 25

Profession: Second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins university

Location: Baltimore, Maryland

Bio: Loves to play chess, online games and PHD aspirant


Ann Carter, 26

Profession: Employed at JP Morgan Chase, Austin

Location: Austin, TX

Bio: Loves to hike and meet new people


Cameron Guernsey, 25

Profession: PhD at Johns Hopkins university

Location: Austin, TX

Bio: Likes to stay indoors and runs a Small Business from home

User Persona
Online Class
Major Findings of Contextual Inquiry

Following are the major pain points of users

Work Models
Sequential Model

Based on the contextual inquiry, we created a sequential model which outlies various triggers and steps users took to accomplish specific tasks. Important aspects and breakdowns were discovered which formed the basis for the new features and improvement of existing functionalities to revamp the user experience with Online Town platform.

sequential model.png

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Affinity Diagrams

Affinity diagrams are an excellent method to make sense of all the information from mixed data, such as facts, ethnographic research, ideas from brainstorms, user opinions, user needs, insights, and design issues. Affinity diagrams or clustering exercises are all about bundling and grouping information. We clustered our ideas under four significant categories, social grouping, participation, and design problems.

Social Navigation and Grouping

This section of our affinity diagram describes some of the problems with Online Town compared to the physical act of walking around to different people, groups, or activities while participating in a real coffee hour, and it is the most important section. The major features proposed are the addition of a minimap, private rooms, and games. The minimap helps give the user a sense of where everyone is, where people have grouped up, how many people are participating, etc, and allows easy viewing each person’s bio, and easy movement to different people. The private rooms are a way to go have a longer conversation with someone without the distraction of the rest of the crowd. The games are all multiplayer and the fun and excitement can act as an icebreaker. All of these features help to make navigating the virtual environment more similar to real life.

Affinity Diagram - Social Navigation and

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Social Distance
Key Features

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Online Class
Video Prototype

We created a video prototype using PowerPoint and voiceover to showcase the proposed features. We shared that prototype with multiple potential users for evaluation and asked for their feedback.

Creative Thoughts
Prototype Evaluation

We showed our video prototype to 5 students at Hopkins and asked for their feedback on the design.

Positive Feedback

​Users reported mostly positive feedback to the features.

  • Users thought that the prompt to enter a short bio in the beginning, and the ability to hover the mouse over others (and the map) to see the bio was helpful to reduce the awkwardness of approaching other people.

  • Users thought that the activities such as games and movie-watching would be very effective ice-breakers and would make users more incentivized to join the virtual coffee-hour.

  • Users also thought that the map was very helpful for reducing wasted time and making the overall experience less frustrating.

  • Users appreciated the ability to talk to a large group at the same time because that seems very "realistic".

  • Users appreciated that the meeting and private rooms are customizable as far as privacy is concerned.

Concerns and Suggestions

Users reported few concerns and suggested few tweaks to enhance their experience

  •  Users understood the value in being able to move away from the audio and video of a crowd users to have a more directed conversation with someone. However, one user thought that the current design would not get used because it doesn’t seem natural and might even be awkward to ask someone to enter a private room. ​​

  • Some clarifications in the design are needed for conveying the functionality. For instance, one of the users questioned the use of "Push to talk" button, another user was confused about the functionality of chat feature i.e., whether it is a global or a local chat and one user asked if they can watch people playing games and chat with them without participating in the game.

  • Additional features were suggested by some of the users e.g., "away from keyboard" indication, ability to experience without an invitation link, and AR/VR options.

Working Cafe
TheOnline.Town for Coffee Hour

Our first prototyping iteration provided clear improvements to Online Town for the purpose of hosting a virtual coffee-hour. Based on the user feedback we received, the most effective aspect which we focused on was improving the ability to connect socially with new people in a variety of ways, such as with the inclusion of a bio, the ability to play games, and the ability to easily view the room as a whole with the map. These features facilitate a more realistic feeling of participation. Our private rooms idea seems address an important concern, however we may need to come up with an separate and entirely different way of having a longer and more in depth conversation with someone because we received some negative feedback about the social implications of a private room. Additionally, according to most of the negative user feedback, it seems that we need to address the user interface and how we present our features in future prototypes.

Team Meeting
Meet the Team

Amama Mahmood

Computer Science

Johns Hopkins University

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Nick Greene

Computer Science

Johns Hopkins University

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Tejas Arora

Engineering Management

Johns Hopkins University