Our work on collaborative tools for increasing task performance was accepted to CHI'23

Live Typing: Increasing Social Presence in Messaging

Imagine being able to see the words appear as someone types, giving you a sense of where the conversation is heading and reducing the anxiety that often comes when someone is taking forever typing.

Have you ever been caught in the suspenseful moments of waiting for a reply, your mind racing with speculation over what the other person might be typing? The lack of instant feedback, tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues can often make texts feel like navigating a conversation blindfolded. Despite the undeniable convenience of sending a quick text, there’s an emerging trend of anxiety surrounding those seemingly innocuous ... or the nerve-wracking notification that Zainab is typing . This surge in digital unease stems from the inherent limitations of messaging, which falls short in delivering the rich, nuanced communication we experience in face-to-face interactions.

In the 1980s, Daft and Lengel introduced the Media Richness Theory, which suggests that the effectiveness of communication is closely tied to the richness of the medium being used. Different mediums vary significantly in their ability to convey information, with face-to-face interactions being the gold standard for transmitting complex messages. To bridge the gap created by the text’s inherent simplicity, people have developed a repertoire of techniques. Repetitive letters, for example, can emphasize a statement with a playful elongation—(sooooooo?)—while an excess of punctuation can convey a heightened emotional state—(no way!!!!!!). These tactics, often termed paralinguistic cues, strive to inject some semblance of tone and emotion into otherwise flat text.

An even more colorful solution are emojis and stickers, which provide a visual shorthand for emotional expression ❤️🐱❤️. Yet, despite these creative efforts, texting still struggles with conveying social presence - the feeling of being connected in real-time. To address this, we now have system-driven features like typing indicators and read receipts. While these innovations offer some semblance of immediacy, they nonetheless fall short of mimicking the fluidity of live conversations. Typing indicators, though useful, often create an awkward “in-between” moment, leaving users hanging as they await a reply and read between the lines—sometimes quite literally.

To tackle the shortcomings of conventional messaging systems, we developed new typing indicators and conducted a research study with 24 participants. Our team investigated the impact of these new indicators on collaboration and task performance. Unlike standard indicators that simply notify when someone is typing, rich typing indicators display text in real-time as it is being composed. We employed a blend of quantitative metrics and qualitative feedback to examine how these dynamic indicators influence user interaction.

We found that more expressive typing indicators significantly enhanced the perceived richness of communication among users. Real-time visibility of text as it was being typed fostered a deeper connection between individuals. Seeing your partner’s responses in real time made the interaction more engaging and meaningful. These typing indicators served as a critical bridge, compensating for the lack of non-verbal cues and enabling users to forge stronger bonds with their conversation partners. Imagine the reassurance of glimpsing into the other person’s thoughts and intentions as you both navigate a messaging conversation. This subtle yet powerful feature transforms simple text exchanges into a more intimate, intuitive form of communication.

A significant finding of the study highlighted the profound impact of our typing indicators on users’ perceived sense of co-presence. Co-presence is the feeling of being together with someone, even when you’re miles apart in a digital space. The typing indicators amplified this sensation in several meaningful ways: they served as a form of validation, promoted active listening, and heightened communicative engagement, ultimately fostering a deeper connection between users.

Participants said that the heightened presence of the indicator would have been helpful in times when they felt lonely and needed to connect for help, making these indicators highly suitable for therapeutic sessions.

Read our full paper here.