What we learned from our coverage in the Washington Post

Update 5/6: all product changes referenced in this article are deployed and live.

Pragli was recently covered in an article by The Washington Post. The article covers us negatively, specifically referring to the potential for surveillance / monitoring.

We were disappointed to read this article, as we certainly don’t view Pragli as a surveillance tool. When Vivek and I started building Pragli a year ago, we had been working remotely for almost 2 years and loved the flexibility that remote work provided. We no longer had to waste 3 hours of our lives every day commuting and were far less distracted. But the toughest part of working remotely was by far the loneliness and communication friction that we experienced. Our goal was and is to build connection, not introduce surveillance.

However, all tools can be abused, especially new technology. Arrogance and defensiveness doesn’t help. Facebook, Uber, Google, Zoom, and many other tools have fallen victim to only seeing the bright side of their technology, and not taking into account the negative realities until far too late. We should acknowledge that as a young company we still have a lot of areas where we can improve our product.

In this post, I’ll explain what we learned from the article and what changes we’re making to the Pragli product to empower remote workers.

A quick starting note about the impact of COVID-19

In many ways, the remote work experience has varied tremendously depending on if you live with your family or not. COVID-19 has made this bifurcation even more extreme.

Remote workers who live with their family struggle with all of the Zoom meetings, Slack messages, requests from children, and are generally overwhelmed and not seeking additional social interaction. In fact, they want a tool that can help them manage the faucet so they can just sit down and get some work done.

Remote workers who live by themselves, or with just a random housemate, have never been more alone. They are seeking social engagement in a variety of ways. Some of our most positive experiences with Pragli have come from these individuals who go days without speaking to someone telling us about how much they enjoy having a virtual water cooler.

Designing a product that helps both sides has been challenging, but we believe Pragli can help with both.

Learning #1: Mouse/keyboard presence

Pragli’s goals are to reduce loneliness and encourage frictionless communication. We built Pragli’s avatars to assist - instead of having an always-on video stream, let’s allow the worker to customize their face in the office instead. We view this as a success.

Pragli avatars can be customized in two ways - the default, which is to have mouse/keyboard detection to show your availability, and the facial recognition mode, which is in beta, and uses your camera to determine if you are there or not.

The article represents both negatively. It paints the mouse/keyboard mode as intense and facial recognition as weird.

The reason we introduced mouse/keyboard idle timeouts is because we wanted to automatically show when we were stepping away. Personally, I find it annoying to have to manually set a status. I’d rather have my computer do it for me.

Now you could argue - why have any status at all? For me, the reason was so that Vivek would know whether to click on me to start a conversation vs when to Slack me so I could respond asynchronously. It helps facilitate the correct level of communication.

However, we’ve decided that requiring a form of presence leads to too much potential for surveillance. As a result, we will be adding an option to entirely disable presence detection. This will be configured by each employee, not by the team manager, so each employee has the power to change how they appear.

It’s also worth noting that the article is mistaken about the idle timer - it takes 5 minutes to get marked as idle, not 15 seconds as mentioned. We will add a note to the interface to clarify this.

Learning #2: Facial recognition presence

The article also mentions that facial recognition mode is weird, and it somewhat insinuates that we will be pushing users in that direction in the future. First off, we’ve never had the intention of pushing users towards that option. Facial recognition has always been an experiment to make the avatar more human / life-like, but it was never designed to become our default.

However, it is a bit off. Most people don’t want their camera on all of the time, which is necessitated by the facial recognition mode. On top of that, not many people use it to begin with. As a result, we are removing facial recognition mode as a presence option and making it an exclusively in-meeting option to replace video. We believe that this leads to a more animated and fun experience, while preserving the privacy of the user.

Video avatar will be an alternative to video in-meeting only (not for presence purposes)

Learning #3: Walkie-talkie communication

I previously wrote before about why Pragli communication is modeled like a walkie-talkie - we believe it’s faster. In Pragli, I can just start talking to Vivek, and then he can choose to unmute and respond.

The article notes how one Pragli user would get “barged in on” by their boss and would accidentally barge in on others. We’ve reached out to that user for more clarity. Some of that most likely stems from usability problems, which we’ll address based on their input.

However, some of it comes from the idea of walkie-talkie communication to begin with. So, in the spirit of empowering the employee, we want to give them a new option.

We will be introducing a new concept to Pragli - open vs closed door. Open door communication will still be like a walkie talkie, but closed-door will be like a traditional call. Users can choose if their door is open or closed, and switch between the states whenever they choose.

We are also considering which should be the default. For now, we are planning to keep the open door the default, but prioritize clicking the “closed door” as part of the new user flow, so everyone knows the option exists. If further feedback suggests we should go further and make “closed door” the default, we will do so.

Learning #4: Confusion around channels / rooms

The article states that “Pragli recommends users keep their webcams and microphones on at all times” This is incorrect. We intentionally built Pragli to avoid that and our use of avatars is intended to provide a high level of privacy. However, we have a guess, based on feedback we’ve gotten from users, of where the author got confused.

Pragli is organized into channels, which are sort of like virtual conference rooms. We recommend that you, the user, don’t enter a channel unless you actually want to talk to someone (the #silent-room is a special exception, though that is expected to be joined muted, not passively making sound as suggested in the article). However, several people have mentioned that this is unintuitive - they think they have to enter a channel as soon as they sign into Pragli.

To make it more obvious that we recommend not being in a channel all of the time, we are changing the way channels work. First, we’re changing the name to “rooms”. Second, we are adding a special “Main office”, which is where you will be placed by default. The “main office” will not support audio, video, or screen share - just like in Pragli today when you are not in any room. We’re simply labeling that state so it’s more obvious to users that it’s a recommended workflow.

Last: Let’s continue the conversation

We have made all changes (except default on open-door vs closed-door) already and will have them out this weekend. I’m sure some of you will have opinions. We welcome these opinions, and we’ll continue to use them as data as we strive towards our ultimate goal; a product that reduces the friction for remote teams to communicate with each other and for them to develop a higher level of connection with each other, all while preserving privacy and user preference.

Update 5/6: all product changes referenced in this article are deployed and live.

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