Facilitating State Management in Instant Messaging Systems
Digital communication has become an important factor in both personal and professional settings, as friends or collaborators are often spread in different physical locations. In addition to phone calls or meetings in-person, companies and individuals have started to rely on instant messaging (IM, e.g., Skype or MSN). It provides an easy and fast way to send chat messages or make video calls, allowing for responses in real time. Overall, these systems provide two benefits: (1) Quick but important questions can be answered instantly without making a potentially disruptive phone call. (2) IM facilitates a more lightweight communication in physically distributed workgroups. However, IM may also be disturbing: Many people neglect changing their state to match their current work situation, mostly because this involves switching windows and thus the current focus of attention. As an alternative, IM systems provide mechanisms to set the state automatically. For example, if there is no keyboard or mouse activity for a certain period of time the state is changed to away. Nevertheless, the fact that states are often incorrect makes others simply ignore them.
To get a deeper understanding of the current issues with IM systems, we conducted an online survey. Based on the results, we built a tangible object – the StaTube – that lets users both change their own state (by rotating the top-most ring) and observe the states of their favorite contacts (with each ring glowing in a color encoding the state) in a peripheral and ambient fashion. In this way, users become aware of the states of others over time (and get a feeling of state reliability) before accidently interrupting them. At the same time, the tube reminds and assists users of setting their own state accordingly. We conducted an insitu evaluation and found that peripheral interaction makes adjusting the state easier and therefore leads to more accurate presence information. Additionally the direct visual overview of contact's availability creates better awareness.