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How Do Immersive Experiences Impact Women’s Mental Health?

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This International Womens Day, Lana Caster, user experience lead at North Kingdom / NoA, explains why we need to design digital spaces that are safe for women and don’t enable the same toxic, abusive behaviours of the physical world

How Do Immersive Experiences Impact Women’s Mental Health?
When considering the future of digital experiences, it's imperative to assess how harassment is manifesting in digital spaces, how it impacts our mental health, and how to design solutions to shape positive behavior.

In the physical world, women make constant efforts to prioritize safety. In digital spaces, we are prone to the same dangers, like harassment, and have been for a long time. It has serious consequences on our mental health - even leading to depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior. 

The most prevalent forms of online harassment today include: offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threat, harassment over a sustained period of time, and sexual harassment. The severity in attacks disproportionately increases in threat if you are a woman, if you are under 29, if you are LGBTQ+, and if you are not white. 

I knew we were still facing an uphill battle when some guys started disturbing me in a virtual reality (VR) game lobby - saying what they were going to do to me until I cut off their audio. I told this story to a friend, and in response, he asked me, ‘well, what was your avatar wearing?’ The same outdated, shaming question which has stained the cases of those who have dealt with physical abuse. As if our self expression is a trigger or justification for harassment. 

It’s clear that the same toxic behaviors and ideologies are being brought with us into digital spaces - but as the creators of interactive experiences - we are in a position to enact change.

I am a UX designer at North Kingdom, a digital agency based in Sweden - a part of NoA. In our position working with brands like Google, EA, and Riot Games and creating new digital campaign initiatives or product strategy, we have a critical role in integrating safety-driven protocols into our early research and design thinking.

When we discuss the future of all digital spaces, it needs to be viewed through the lens of how an increase of immersion can heighten the experience of harassment. Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that covers virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality experiences and can offer even higher levels of interactivity with content - mixing our digital and physical worlds. 

When we design for this tech now, or even discussing how the metaverse will develop, a clear trend has arisen of how to create a virtual representation of ourselves. Our digital identities, our bodies - even your contact and profile pictures - will be visualized and materialized in more three dimensional forms. In the past years virtual reality has been established, and we are starting to understand how virtual spaces can affect our perception of self. It is referred to as virtual embodiment: perceiving your virtual avatar as your actual self. This concept has been proven with a prolific study known as the Rubber Hand Illusion which demonstrates how our brains recognize its body ownership beyond just our physical selves when combining different senses. 

Understanding the psychological effect of this impact implores us to design with safety as a first priority. Not only in XR spaces, but across our work in digital. 

Every brand has a responsibility to audit how their digital touchpoints are impacting their audience and create solutions. The relationship between the level of control given to users to modify and own the parameters of their own safety, in conjunction with the responsibility owned by the platform to monitor and eradicate instances of harassment, is the core foundation of my upcoming research.

There’s a line companies are trying to walk between moderation and censorship, but hate speech is not the same as free speech. Every website, app, and digital platform has their own mandate to craft community guidelines and social responsibility which sets an expectation of behavior from the platform onto their users on how to behave within that given digital space. How can we then shape positive behavior?

The ambition is to create a framework of guidelines to lead our day to day work where inclusive and safe design practices lay the foundation of strategy, creative, ux, design and development. Where we facilitate conversations between our team on how we feel impacted. Having people who are female-identifying designing digital product, service, experiences brings these considerations to the table. We need to listen to each other's experiences and create safer spaces. 

If you see your brand’s user data indicates your audience is overwhelmingly male, then the next thing you should ask yourself is why? Is it really that women aren’t interested in engaging with your product or brand, or do they not feel safe to. Because it could be that you're missing out on a drastically wider audience because there aren’t enough tools to safely engage on your platform. And then a cycle continues that we do not consider how to adapt for these users because we see they are not as present, then they continue to be excluded. 

Safety considered in design is better for business, better for your users, better for everyone.

If you would like to see more cases and examples of this type of work being done, I will be discussing this topic in a SHE talk for this year’s SHE Conference - one of the world's leading events focused on DEI, sustainability, and innovation.

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North Kingdom, Tue, 08 Mar 2022 10:30:00 GMT