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…