Some time ago, I attended a brainstorm session for a new co-working space and was placed on the community management team.

Just throwing a bunch of people together in a space doesn’t make them a community. So what does? It was our role to think about how to ease interactions and help members connect with one another.

Facilitating interactions

Have you ever entered a co-working space or attended one of these social networking events and felt so anxious you couldn’t connect to anyone? I know I have.

Because I was going through a phase of increased social anxiety at the time of the brainstorm, I started thinking about how difficult these environments – in which you’re expected to connect, but left to your own devices – can be sometimes.

Most events and spaces are designed for confident extroverts. In reality, this group consists of a ‘lucky few’ while the rest of us are either introverts, shy, or coping with some level of social anxiety.

Based on that, we started building some simple interventions to make it as easier to talk to someone – even when you’re feeling socially awkward.

Our solutions were hardly original (I included them below this post in case you’re curious), but the concept that sparked them is worth discussing. It ended up on our title slide as: [b]Design for Social Anxiety[/b].

We all suffer from social anxiety

Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. In some cases a crippling disability, social anxiety is something we all experience to some degree. Every person in the room is a little bit nervous about meeting new people for the simple reason that we’re biologically engineered to do so.

When we visit these places and feel uncomfortable, we might think we’re lacking the social skills. But it’s not us that is failing, it’s the design.

Relating to Design Thinking’s extreme users

If you design with social anxiety in mind, you will include everyone suffering from more serious anxieties, while also benefiting everyone experiencing a milder version by giving them an easier time connecting to others.

I realized that this approach corresponds with the IDEO/’s concept of the ‘extreme user’. They recommend, when developing a product or service, to learn from and design solutions for your extreme users. “An idea that suits an extreme user will nearly certainly work for the majority of others.”

“When you speak with and observe extreme users, their needs are amplified and their work-arounds are often more notable. This helps you pull out meaningful needs that may not pop when engaging with the middle of the bell curve. However, the needs that are uncovered through extreme users are often also needs of a wider population.”

Design for social anxiety

I believe social anxiety awareness could help us design more meaningful and inclusive experiences.

My friend and fellow co-working fanatic Pier Stein was present at the brainstorm night and started incorporating what I had coined design for social anxiety into events he was organizing. “I never thought of it, but it makes a whole lot of sense. It’s like building an elevator”, he said, “they make sure it has a capacity of 1500 or 2000 kg even though it states a max of 1000 kg”, and in reality, will rarely carry more than 200.

We all crave realer connections and more meaningful conversations. But we don’t all know how to spark them, or simply can’t muster the courage.

Imagine the interactions and experiences we could facilitate if we would create events, spaces and services consciously keeping this in mind? What would happen if we would design for social anxiety?

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and if the concept resonates with you, please pay it forward so we can spread the word and make a change.

With love,

PS: Some of the ideas we had to facilitate interactions were:

  • onboarding each member by introducing them to 3 existing members they have something in common with;
  • having little signs on which members write welcoming prompts like “interrupt me anytime to chat about …” or “I can help you with … ” or “I’m looking for help on …”, and place them next to themselves where they’re working;
  • set up a matchmaking pinboard for people ask and offer services for example for networking but also language exchange, peer to peer learning, gym or special interest buddies;
  • hang posters with generic but meaningful conversation starters such as “what’s your favorite thing about today?” or “what’s the one thing you want to achieve today?” around public areas such as coffee machines or bars;
  • placing unusual or interactive items around the space to spark movement and conversation.