Did you see Apple’s demo of their fancy ski goggles Vision Pro headset? Technically impressive, for sure, yet somehow it assumes most people will be using it alone in their unrealistically spacious and tidy apartments (or willing to look like robots when interacting with their own kids). Yes, the outside screen that interacts with people around you is neat, and I like the way the headset shows a human entering your field of vision (does it work with cats, I wonder?). But Apple’s vision of the future of entertainment is you, sitting alone on your couch, making the world around you disappear. Speaking as an introvert, I can see why that’s an appealing promise, yet I wonder whether we really need another personal computing device – Apple is calling this one a spatial computer – that makes it even harder to share your screen with others? Why isn’t a spatial computer something everyone in the space can use, together?

A similar trend is emerging with generative AI tools: they are predominantly single player and mainly focus on increasing individual productivity. It’s just you and a computer, helping you contribute more to the GDP, like the good consumer and worker you are.

Criticisms of capitalism aside, I get it from a product owner’s perspective. It’s easier to start with single player experiences because multiplayer systems tend to have more complex architecture. But if we can somehow convince ourselves that our products require custom-designed web forms, we have the mental flexibility to think beyond personas acting individually from their couches, stuck in the era of personal computers.

After all, the internet, a collaborative layer for our individual user experiences (UX), is now nearly ubiquitous. And if you do your UX job well, you will inevitably identify relatedness and belonging as needs of your personas. And this makes me wonder what products would we build if we shifted our focus from the individual to the collective, if we emphasized collaboration over personal productivity, if we prioritized collaborative experience design that nourishes our need for relatedness first and foremost?

Why relatedness matters

According to self-determination theory of motivation, autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the three basic psychological needs that motivate and engage us, and consequently lead to our well-being. Yet, relatedness is often relegated to a back seat when our focus is on the individual. And if we happen to have the resources to throw some relatedness in our product design, we tend to prioritize competition over collaboration – looking at you, Apple Watch, constantly trying to convince me to compete with friends, – which can deepen our loneliness and isolation.

I have a theory that getting relatedness right is what made TikTok so successful. The TikTok algorithm excels at surfacing content that fills our need for relatedness and belonging, and the app’s format and editing tools encourage content creators to show themselves in a more authentic way that feeds into the relatedness. In contrast, Instagram’s format rewards picture-perfect staged content that is aesthetically pleasing yet feeds our insecurities and makes us feel like we’re not doing enough with our lives. The power social media platforms hold over our lives shows that our need for relatedness is so great that we put up with social media platforms trafficking our data and attention just so that we can feel we’re not alone in the world and that people care about our vacation pics.

So, why then do we still design products for people who sit alone on their couches and dream of increasing their personal productivity? Because that’s what we are taught we should do. That’s what the language we use tells us we need to focus on. User needs. User goals. User as a single unit. Yet what these single units – also known as humans – thrive on is collaboration. We didn’t evolve into humans because we were more individually productive than other species; collaboration and cooperation is what enabled us to build couches at scale. Yet, as product designers we’ve been increasingly thinking about the needs of individuals.

Collaboration is our superpower

We’ll soon be in big trouble unless we figure out how to reclaim collaboration as our superpower. The world we live in demands creative solutions to immensely complex challenges, too big for the mythical lonely genius on the couch to tackle on his own. So instead of focusing on (single) user experience design, let’s start talking about collaborative experience design. How do we design tools and technologies where collaboration and our need for relatedness are not just an add-on?

For instance, instead of using generative AI to write emails that other generative AI will summarize for the recipients, what if we focused on AI tools that facilitate communication and collaboration? Take on the tedious parts of human coordination, enrich our group conversations with novel questions, help us to communicate better with each other. And by better I mean with more empathy and care, by being more inclusive of all participants, not necessarily more productive or efficient. We’re going to need these skills to figure out what it is that we actually want to align our AI systems to.

Collaborative experiences are not new. Tools like Mural, Miro, Figma, and GitHub already make it possible to work remotely and in more diverse teams than ever possible. And there’s a lot we can learn from Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), where groups of players have to work together to defeat a dungeon boss who is way more powerful than any one individual player. Climate change, systemic injustices, AI risks – these are just some of the bosses we’re going to have to figure out how to beat together.

In addition to supporting collaborative features, collaborative experience design should be inclusive. Good collaborative experience design should support both collocated and remote participants. Not get in the way of in-person interactions, yet make remote collaborators feel welcome as well. Again, we need that diversity and inclusivity to face the bosses who pose a threat to humanity because we can’t all afford to fly all over the world to meet in the same room.

What does a focus on collaboration look like?

… and here is where I invite you to fill in the blanks on what collaborative experience (CX) design might look like. We already have some great tools at our disposal, but I challenge you to bring CX design to products you might not see as inherently collaborative (yet). Dare to ask questions such as:

  • Are we nurturing collaborative experiences or isolating individuals?
  • Can we help people develop skills they need to face the challenges of humanity and better understand the complex systems they’re part of?
  • Can we design functionality that invites collaboration, supports empathy, and fosters a sense of belonging?

By asking questions like these, we can collectively, collaboratively challenge our default assumptions about “users”, embrace collaboration as our superpower, and co-design products that will empower humanity, rather than feed into the rat race of individual productivity.