Google: Here’s how to make your next video chat less terrible

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco are all adding new features to their respective products to square up to Zoom’s newfound dominance of video conferencing in the coronavirus lockdown

Facebook wants Messenger Rooms to beat Zoom, Microsoft is playing catch-up on Zoom’s 49-person grid view, and so is Google Meet.   

Despite competition driving improvements in video-calling technology, people have quickly discovered the wonders and pitfalls of talking to multiple colleagues and friends on video calls. 

But while each product has its own strengths and weaknesses, there are a few things users can do to improve the experience.  

Google user-experience (UX) researcher Zachary Yorke has outlined five key things people can do to improve video calls, especially when more than two people are participating, which in turn reveals how each product copes with people talking over one another.

The first tip involves understanding that milliseconds matter in face-to-face communications, and these milliseconds matter even more when using video-conferencing tech. Video chat is impacted by network bandwidth and by the way people are isolated and can only look at a grid of faces on a computer screen. 

Yorke recommends slowing down your speed of talking to avoid accidental interruptions. And in the case of small group calls, people should stay unmuted so they can provide verbal feedback, such as confirmations like “Okay” to help demonstrate engagement. 

According to Yorke, this is important because network and technology issues at least doubles the time it takes for a person to hear what another person said. 

“When the sound from someone’s mouth doesn’t reach your ears until a half second later, you notice. That’s because we’re ingrained to avoid talking at the same time while minimizing silence between turns,” he writes. 

“A delay of five-10ths of a second (500ms) – whether from laggy audio or fumbling for the unmute button – is more than double what we’re used to in person. These delays mess with the fundamental turn-taking mechanics of our conversations.” 

Another key tip is to remind others on a group call to hand over the ‘talking stick’. This one is important for group productivity and decision making because conversations on calls aren’t as dynamic as in-person group meetings, where it’s easier to read visual cues from others’ body language and gestures.

Computers have always been valued because of their capacity to enable multitasking. But that’s a weakness when it comes to video calls. Regarding visual cues, Yorke notes it’s important not to switch to another tab when on a call because others will notice they’ve lost your eye contact. 

“We feel more comfortable talking when our listeners’ eyes are visible because we can read their emotions and attitudes. This is especially important when we need more certainty – like when we meet a new team member or listen to a complex idea.”

Yorke also suggests people acknowledge that distance can exacerbate trust issues among team members and that remote teams are more like to lay blame on someone rather than explore the situation at hand. This, in turn, harms teamwork and performance. 

“Have an open conversation with your remote teammates about your preferred working styles and how you might complement each other,” writes Yorke. 

Finally, Yorke offers a reminder that we all need human interaction between colleagues that isn’t strictly about work. 

“Making time for personal connections in remote meetings not only feels good, it helps you work better together,” he writes, adding this should happen at the beginning of meetings. 

“Carve out time at the start of a meeting to catch up and set aside time to connect with colleagues over virtual coffee or lunch breaks.”

For anyone interested in researching the science behind why remote meetings don’t feel the same, Yorke has posted a list of links to relevant papers that discuss the subject.