Social Software

Weird context shifts caused by IM on hiptops…

I’m having a crisis of etiquette caused by what I believe to be bad user interface design. Basically it works like this. I look at my iChat buddy list (to the right) and I see a big list of people who are ‘green’ (indicating availability), ‘orange’ (indicating absence or idle-ness) or ‘red’ (indicating explicitly ‘away’, but still contactable if necessary).

Now my expectation of people on my iChat list is that if they are green they are currently using their computer at this precise moment. They’re actually looking at the screen. Which means that a ping to them should be incredibly unobtrusive but noticeable and should involve the absolute least number of keystrokes / interactions to be able to tell someone you’re busy and/or start a conversation with them. Actually, iChat doesn’t really handle that totally brilliantly in a range of ways, but the aspiration should remain. The ping should be non-invasive but immediately cognitively recognisable, and a response should be as simple as possible. It is with the understanding that the recipient’s experience will be something like this that we are able to ping our friends or colleagues without feeling like we’re being necessarily rude.

Except that this presumptive understanding of the experience of the person at the other end of the connection is starting to deteriorate. At least three or four of the people I have on my IM list are now accessing their IM via their hiptops. This changes the experience immediately – firstly because the recipient is now not necessarily engaged in a looking-at-a-screen-like activity. They could be walking in a fish market. They could be chatting to their mother on a phone. They could be driving a car. Secondly in order for them to react to the messages they’re receiving they have to physically move the device to a place where they can focus upon it. The casual ping is immediately an intrusive one. And then – of course – they have to find a way to respond to the ping – either by using slow phone-style or fold-out keyboards, or by changing their presence. None of these actions are simple or quick enough to make the experience of using a hip-top and responding to messages on a hip-top comparable with responding via a computer keyboard.

All of which would be fine if it wasn’t potentially difficult to distinguish between a person being rudely invasive and a device that encourages potentially invasive attempts at social intercourse… And if it wasn’t – in turn – difficult for the person sending a message to distinguish between a long silence that resembles some kind of ‘shunning’ activity and a long silence that is merely a consequence of circumstances or the difficulties in getting to your messaging. On both sides there are social problems that emerge because the behaviour of the interfaces is confused with the behaviour of the people at either end – the software/interface actually makes the person at the other end seem rude – and purely because there is a disparity between the social engagement one thinks one is engaging in and the consequence it might have.

The software attempts to compensate for this a little bit. Most of my friends that are using hip-tops use some kind of status message to convey that they are mobile – which would work more effectively if you couldn’t easily hide the status message to free up screen real-estate. In the meantime, the signifiers that actually tell you that someone is online completely overpower the signals that indicate their mobility.

So what’s the solution? Well ideally – since you’re looking at another form of engagement you’d distinguish it from the more conventional uses for IM. A separate scrollable container at the bottom of the screen or another buddy-list (a la the Rendezvous window) would compensate for some of these impediments – although probably at the cost of adding in more complexity. Probably the simplest solution would just be to revisit the particular presence indicators. In iChat then there might be two options: firstly an improvement of the portable devices to accurately reflect ‘available’ and ‘idle’, and secondly the creation of a new form of presence to go alongside ‘available’, ‘idle’ and ‘busy’. Either would be a useful corrective feature which could alleviate the social clumsiness of mobile IM.

Do other people have experiences like these? And if so, how do you resolve them? Do you leave it to social convention to work through problems like these, or is a simple UI or technological solution more simple? Any and all thoughts gratefully received…

15 replies on “Weird context shifts caused by IM on hiptops…”

The point you have made seems so obvious but has not been mentioned as much as you would assume. The same problem exists on all the chat clients. I have to resort to appearing of line to certain people, and then one of them pointed out they had downloaded a hack so that they could tell I was blocking them. What can you do?

When it’s set to Busy, you’d better be either dying or on fire
Tom has a good post on the weird context shifts caused by IM on hiptops. On both sides there are social problems that emerge because the behaviour of the interfaces is confused with the behaviour of the people at either…

I was just thinking about this today. All the HipTop folks need to do is allow their IM clients to set a status line. Then iChat would show “on the bus” or “mobile” or whatever. A shame the HipTop OS is closed source, or someone would have fixed this already.

Actually, there is a way to find this out in iChat, although it is not the most graceful way. Just hover over someone’s name for a few seconds and it will display their AIM name as well as their status. Hiptop users will have the additional line “Mobile (Hiptop)” underneath that.

I’ve noticed I actually get more pings to my IM when I am mobile… must just be a coincidence, but my Treo maintains connectivity and I don’t think there’s any distinguishing factor in my status. I can certainly reply, but I definitely miss the initial ping often enough which probably makes my buddies think I am ignoring them…

Hmm… I use an AIM program on Linux called Gaim which already does show me if someone is logged in with a cellphone by placing a little cellphone icon next to their screenname. So the support is there, but Apple just needs to add it to iChat. Have you played around much with Adium X? It’s still in beta, but it’s an OS X program based on Gaim so it might do something funny with icons too.

Yeah – it sets a status message, but that’s functionally useless. Mostly people’s status messages when they’re actually indicated as available are trivial – indicating physical location or song-playing or mood or something abstract and personal. So yeah – although it does tend to display ‘on hiptop’, it puts an entirely unexpected burden of attention onto the person on the computer, who will be expected to determine that they should behave in a different way despite the absence of significant and noticeable signal to that effect.

I use a separate AIM address for my hiptop, so people can distinguish the two.
The hiptop itself shows when others are on a hiptop, but it doesn’t show any status messages, only away ones, so you lose the context they give there.
Also, I tend to chat with people via the hiptop when I’m on the train.

I haven’t had the experiences you have with mobile contacts, but I’ve had similar ones with people whose status messages don’t necessarily reflect their availability. What it comes down to, however, is that making assumptions about a contact’s environment, state of mind and availability based on the limited information the average IM client offers you is just plain wrong. The assumption that because someone doesn’t respond in a timely fashion means they’re ignoring you seems to be a widespread one (I held it as well until I thought about it), but really, think about it. You have absolutely no idea what is happening on the other side of the connection, so unless you want to use a real-time method of communication (like video or audio), the technology is not at fault, only the mindset of the users.

plasticbag on hiptop chat
Tom wonders about hiptop chat availability: I’m interested the perception that not responding to someone’s message is somehow rude. I…

I think the issue is not how one’s status shows up in desktop IM clients, but why one would be signed onto a mobile IM client while driving a car or shopping in the fish market or speaking to one’s mother. If you’re not in a position to receive instant messages, then why sign on in the first place? Between text messages and email on the phone and (gasp) telephoning, it’s not like you’ll be out of touch.

Lots of points…
It is a MAJOR over site for iChat… I actually am looking for a hack or script that would change the color of a mobile device in my buddy list. That would work and shouldn’t be too hard.
Now, It was very aggravating when just getting my mobile forwarded. Because people haven’t learned to hover or the list… you see someone on and click click send.
Then you find out IF you get the “i’m on my mobile” auto reply. Too late. And I have stupid friends that will then proceed to type 5 lines in five individual lines… they dont realize that each line they end IS A TEXT MESSAGE !!! that adds up quickly.
One “buddy” even has the audacity to type a few extra lines like “oh”
“your on that stupid hell mobile again”
“i hate that”
“i try you later”
…couldnt all that have been said in one.

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