By Tim Simpson on 10/7/21 5:29 PM
Earlier this year we ran a survey asking event strategists to rate their and their audience’s digital fatigue. The response was overwhelming … both were feeling quite high levels.
They say numbers don’t lie and that is pretty convincing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve recently welcomed the opportunity to escape digital delivery in favor of collaborating in-person — and it felt oh so good.
When we talk about digital fatigue, two things come to mind: The first (predictably), why are we fatigued in the first place? And when I say “why,” I’m asking what in our human nature is driving our disinterest? The second – if we are building digital experiences, how do we fatigue-proof them? (Thank you pandemic.)
While virtual experiences pre-date the pandemic, the digital “glory days” commenced during some of our darkest. Overnight, we were locked down and locked out of our own lives. Downstream the impacts were big on people, communities and our economy. Financial stressors and fear were in the driver’s seat. Our days, once spent in meeting rooms, classrooms, restaurants and co-working spaces were spent in our homes trying to bake bread, stalking the next Amazon shipment and learning about “murder hornets.” All made worse by the inability to enjoy the comfort of our closest friends or family for fear we would catch or spread Coronavirus. So, we holed ourselves up and leaned heavily on meeting via digital means, like Zoom … a social tool that took centerstage against a backdrop of Doom.
Throughout the pandemic, we started to more closely think about how we spend our time and evaluate what really matters to us. Lack of engagement started to set in and even though we were “connecting,” we mostly grew further apart. My good buddy Greg Bogue said it best … digital was filling a gap, but not the void.
Aside from the emotional stressors — and the obvious flat out missing, seeing people’s faces in the real world — there are a bunch of scientific reasons we’ve grown weary of digital delivery. I asked our own chief behavioral officer, Charlotte Blank, who said, “Zoom fatigue is the result of videoconferencing demanding an unnaturally high amount of cognitive burden to do things that feel effortless and natural in real life conversation. Think: making eye contact, catching a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, and reflecting the emotions of others by nodding your head. These norms are intensified in the always-on video context, and the effect can be terribly draining on our limited cognitive resources.” There’s more about that here if you’d like to dig deeper.
Truth is… WE NEED MORE. We need worthy experiences.
Simply stated, many of our neurological responses are just not aligned with a digital environment. Research shows greater activation of the brain’s reward regions during in-person social interactions than during virtual social interactions.
So why is digital more risky and less reward-y? Experts say unavoidable technical glitches like audio delays are associated with negative perceptions and distrust. Plus, direct eye contact improves connections, promotes likability and helps us remember faces — all of which is skewed during video conferencing as you make unrequited eye contact with your camera in order to appear to be making eye contact with your colleagues who are also looking into the eye of the camera. So no one is actually making any eye contact at all ... and to top it off, your own image is mirrored on the screen. Who wants that?
Seriously, try this on for a second, have you recently met someone in-person who you’ve only met in a digital video meeting? How was that? Well, I recently traveled to our NEXT& event in Seattle where I got to meet close to a dozen colleagues I’ve worked with every day via Zoom or Teams for the last 16-18 months. Half of them I didn’t recognize until they approached me, and the other half I recognized their voices — not their faces — and made the connection. For me, meeting all of them was like I was being introduced to them for the first time despite knowing so much about them, including the color of their bedrooms or living rooms. Weird huh?
And how about those nonverbal communication cues? You know, those things like body posture, subtle facial expressions, and body gestures to prepare responses and gather information about people? These intuitive skills we’ve honed since birth suddenly seem obsolete in a digital world because most aren’t captured on screen. Add to that the physical environment we’re in — which isn’t shared and likely full of distractions — and it’s the perfect recipe for high risk with low reward. Before you know it, you are off that “dopamine superhighway” and on the sad road to fatigue.
So What’s the Solution?
When Mr. Miyagi told Daniel-san in the epic 80’s classic, Karate Kid, "Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life! Whole life have a balance, everything be better," little did he know his sage words would serve as a critical lesson for everyone seeking to create greater engagement in the digital experience..
The fact is, balance in the digital experience has been — and remains — way off center because of an over emphasis on doing what the designing organization sees as most important rather than that of the actual consumer of the experience.
The key word = BALANCE.
Do me a favor, grab your smartphone. What model is it? Do you know anyone who has the iPhone 1 (otherwise known as the First Generation)? If you do, they probably have it in a back-lit picture box sitting on a shelf in their home office. At the time of writing this, the iPhone 13 is open for pre-order. And why are there 13 generations? Because people’s wants, needs, desires — their PREFERENCES — change. Great product designers and marketers understand that it’s people who create the condition for technology to be pushed and elevated. We fail to apply this same logic to our event experiences and have especially dropped the ball in digital.
So, if you want to beat the fatigue, start with understanding who you are designing for!
You’ve got to know your audience’s limitations. Disconnect from the idea of what a meeting or event should be (or has to be right now) and get connected with what your audience wants. Find the balance of what your audience will tolerate, what they believe are the greatest value drivers, what they believe is achievable and then go all in on that! Create the balance.
Digital fatigue is real. The overload is real. If you’ve read to this point you know, much of it is a result of our biology and the limitations of technology. Maybe someday, through radical evolutionary changes in the metaverse, we can exist on a digital and physical plane … but for now we have digital and we have in-person— two distinct realms— with their strengths and their weaknesses. The common denominator is people.
So, why is knowing your audience the only antidote to digital event fatigue? You aren’t crafting your experience for avatars. You are designing for people and if we have learned anything in solutioning over 200 different digital experiences, it’s that no two audiences nor any two organizations are the same.
Now, go forth and unlearn what you have learned! We’re ready to help you battle against digital fatigue and transform your digital event into a brag-worthy, people-centered experience. Get in touch with us to explore solutions.
Tim Simpson is Design Studio's Brand & Engagement Chief Strategist. The cornerstone of Tim’s career has been his ability to create transformational experiences for brands of all types.