A few years ago, we decided to find an easier way to make plans with friends.

Up until then, we were using email, text, and various social media platforms to coordinate. But using those platforms to gather everyone’s preferences made the whole process a lot of work. As planners, we needed to kick the conversation off, ask for input, and then do the job of hunting for agreement among everyone invited. Coordinating get-togethers shouldn’t be so painful.

That’s why we started on the path that would develop into Sujjest.

With a problem to solve and a big opportunity to improve how we make plans as a group, we got to work. Soon enough we landed on approval voting as a method for gathering suggestions and integrating them into a group decision. But something else happened while we were off brainstorming and building.

Right around that same time in 2016, Gabriela Tonietto and Selin Malkoc, then at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, published a study that found coordinating social time with friends can make otherwise enjoyable activities seem like chores. In fact, just the act of scheduling a specific time and place—giving structure to supposedly free time—can negatively impact our collective enjoyment and anticipation of an event.

So, not only is it a challenge to plan/coordinate an event, but if you do create a plan and invite people, they’re more likely to cancel on you. A block of time on your calendar set aside for your social life often ends up being viewed more like work or a task than a fun get-together. Given all that, how can you plan a successful event when the simple act of setting a specific time might make it feel more like a chore for everyone?

A different way to make plans — open, clear, inclusive

In 2018 we wrote an article sharing out findings from a google survey aimed at determining the main ways people make plans together. The results revealed that most people prefer talking things over until a plan presents itself to the group. It probably comes as no surprise that the main difficulties people face making plans with friends are a product of the main way in which they choose to make those plans: by talking, which includes communication by email, text, and chat systems.

The urge to talk things out is only natural. We’re a social species and we stand the best chance of remaining so if technology brings us together by seamlessly enabling that type of collaboration. But to achieve this in an online world we need tools that allow our normal social dynamics to cross physical boundaries.

Starting with a prompt

From our own experiences of trying to coordinate events, we know that the urge to socialize is often totally independent of what the group will eventually do together. The time, place, and even the chosen activity of an event are mostly secondary to connecting with one another in the big scheme of things. But we still need a natural way to decide the details together.

“Where should we go to lunch?” is a common prompt between co-workers. A prompt is any question or subject that participants can respond to by suggesting options and voting. For example, “Where should we meet for dinner?”, “When to have the family reunion”, or “Next book for our book club”. In Sujjest, every group decision begins with a prompt in just the same way.

Starting with a question or subject keeps things open and is much less prescriptive than simply sending an invite out. It spurs people to suggest options rather than immediately becoming another item on your calendar.

Communicating ideas and preferences

Even when you’re able to connect with everyone via text or email to gather their ideas and preferences, it’s still a major chore to pull all that back together into a cohesive plan that fits for everyone. When groups are physically together and talking through the same plans, they simply throw out ideas and others can nod in agreement or express their disinterest with all the nuance that face-to-face communication affords.

By going with a voting method instead of mimicking a conversation, Sujjest eliminates the need for any one person to integrate preferences, and makes it easy to see all the options under consideration at a glance instead of wading through a lot of back and forth replies.

Anyone invited to help make a decision may add options — it’s not necessary for one person to make all the suggestions. Then those options will show up under the prompt, on the race track where the option race takes place.

Then everyone taps as many options as they like toward the finish line. In that way, an option’s position on the track shows what’s popular and closest to becoming a decision.

Enabling everyone to decide together

In order to end up with a concrete plan, we also need some definition of what will constitute a decision. After all, the goal here is to end up with a real plan to follow. Simply polling people is not the same thing as having a set time and place to meet. In this way, Just knowing everyone’s preferences alone is not enough for us to reach an agreement.

Just as the position of an option tells you how many people have voted for it, the position of the finish line shows how many votes are needed for an option to win, becoming the group decision. And just as everyone in the group has equal control over the position of each option, everyone in the group has equal control over the position of the finish line.

The finish line always starts just below the rightmost step of the racetrack, meaning that everyone in the group would need to agree to get an option across it. Everyone may lower the finish line one step, which allows the group to decide with fewer of the participants in agreement on an option.

Tools that bring us together and build connection

There are already a ton of tools out there to help us with scheduling. But it’s clear that scheduling isn’t enough and when overly-specific it can even be detrimental, turning the whole endeavor into a chore for everyone involved.

We want Sujjest to be a starting point for people to generate authentic real-world experiences with one another. It creates a simple space for everyone to share their ideas and make decisions together quickly. Hopefully, by combining the type of brainstorming you’d do with people in a room with the power of approval voting visualized as a game-like race track interface, we’ll be able to create a more human experience that brings us together.

Whether the process of making plans with friends is itself enjoyable or not has a major impact on whether we bother to reach out and make those plans in the first place. And with typical planning methods, the larger the group, the more of a slog it can become to coordinate people’s availability and preferences. We designed Sujjest to reduce that friction, taking the burden of coordinating off of whoever initiates the session, with the ultimate goal of getting groups together more often.

If the time you’ve set aside for friends has ever started to feel more like a chore once it goes on your calendar, please sound off in the comments below.

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