Kevin Cheng  

Does Communication Everywhere Improve Communication?

August 19th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

[1]: “Is anyone listening? WiFi and the new ADD”
[2]: “Speaking With WiFi”
[3]: “Clickety Clack Move on Back”
[4]: “Attention Def”
[5]: “Making Sense of Design”
[6]: “Mass Distraction”
[7]: “Jerk-O-Meter”

Techie conference goers might notice the phenomenon that some veteran speakers have been talking about. There’s questions around whether conferences should permit WiFi access within the actual speaker presentations raised by [Jeff Veen][1], [Doug Bowman][2], and [Eric Meyer][3].

I’ve noticed the effects they’re talking about and certainly found myself distracted at times to the point where I completely missed chunks of presentations. As much we [think we are multitaskers][4], there’s a [limit to what we can process][5]. Given that, I think it’s worth looking at the problem in a wider context than just conferences. How has technology’s enabling of communication anywhere and everywhere affected us in the context of traditional activities? How do they interplay with each other?

Let’s take a look at some typical examples of instances where a potential conflict in space and presence exists.

###Wireless in Social Settings
The most prominent conflict is one many have experienced - being physically in the presence of someone but then one or the other becomes engaged in a phone, SMS, or IM conversation. Physically, they’re there with you but their actual presence is elsewhere. Over a year ago, I mentioned an interesting thesis called [Mass Distraction][6], from some students of the now defunct Ivrea Institute of Design, that aimed to call out when the phone user was not “present” in an overt manner. The fact that we need reminding of the fact that we’re neglecting the immediate space around us.

###Wireless in Business Setting
It’s becoming increasingly common to bring laptops to meetings. Granted, it’s incredibly convenient to be able to look up anything immediately, to reference materials, and to get some work done if the meeting slows down. The only problem is that once you start working or worse, instant messaging, it’s hard to come out of that when the meeting is applicable again. “What do you think of us relocating you to the South Pole, Kevin?” “Wha- uh … sound good!”

In internal meetings, this is already problematic but it’s particularly pronounced in client settings and business settings involving differing corporate cultures. In a meeting I was involved in with a client in Hong Kong, the three consultants (myself included) sat at the meeting taking notes with our laptops (and messaging questions and comments to each other). On the other side, not a single one of the clients had brought laptops with them, opting for print outs of agendas and notebooks instead.

###WiFi vs. Phone
We’ve reached a point where we’re not just competing with face to face communication, but even against other wireless medium. If you’re having a phone conversation with me and find my response time rather delayed, I’m probably surfing or instant messaging at the same time. If you really want to be sure, you might try using a [jerk-o-meter][7] on me to see if I’m paying attention.

###Taking it Anywhere
Being able to communicate everywhere doesn’t mean we are _required_ to do so but it can be hard to maintain the self control to not do so. Answering phones during movies, taking your laptop with you to the toilet, sending SMS in the car … it’s gotten out of control and ultimately it’s our own responsibility to get it back under control.

The question is, what does under control even mean? What should and should not be acceptable? Where are the lines to draw on when it’s ok to be in two places at once?

19 Responses to “Does Communication Everywhere Improve Communication?”
Curt Sampson wrote:

Well, I’m not surprised that people do this, since most meetings I go to are badly run. I rarely go into a meeting where everybody agrees (or even anybody knows) just what we’re supposed to come out with. So inevitably someone starts off on a long tangent relevant to only a few other people (or, often enough, only himself) and nobody shuts him down. The natural reaction is to, if possible, find something useful to do, which you can when you have a laptop in front of you.

When I run meetings, I make sure everybody knows what we’re supposed to produce at the end of the meeting, and I have a timer. When the bell goes off, the meeting ends, and you schedule it again the next day if you didn’t produce your goal. This tends to help people focus on point of the meeting, and halt long meanderings that are going to cause the meeting to fail.

Robby Slaughter wrote:

Technology isn’t really affecting the quality of communication, it’s just making communication faster and communication problems more nakedly apparent. Social scientists and dedicated workers alike have been studying and bashing meetings for ages, but now that we have laptops and wifi we can *really* measure their usual banality.

Conference talks are quite similar. If the speaker isn’t engaging, you won’t pay attention. Laptops + Wifi actually force the leader to make their talk more interesting—you now have to give a presentation that is actually more exciting than everything available on the internet!

This is a tall order for presenters, but as everybody knows, most presenters are horrible anyway. Technology might actually help us to learn more by requiring us to step up the challenge of being more interesting than the technology itself.

Step wrote:

Curt, sounds like a great suggestion for meetings. My old boss used to start almost every meeting by saying “Who are we, and why are we here?” Unfortunately, he sometimes limited it’s effectiveness by not really insisting we had a good answer to that before we did anything else (sometimes because he called the meeting and didn’t know what his goal was :P ). I think one new skill that will become more and more important in business is the ability to “turn off” multiple communication channels effectively. “There’s no such thing as multitasking” says another of my coworkers, “some people just switch back and forth between tasks faster than others”.

Laurie wrote:

I think that whether laptops and/or wifi are permitted in lectures, meetings and so on is a big unanswered question, with a lot of social implications.

When I was an undergraduate, no one had laptops and so in lectures you either listened, made notes on paper, doodled or gossiped (in writing) with your friends, gazed into space, read something else or slept. In general, though, even if you were writing a note about what happened last night or dozing, you heard some of the lecture and some of the material went in. Now, the classes I took are full of kids with laptops and in many cases internet access. Now, that is a huge source of information, which is probably coming thick and fast at you. You can’t take it all in (email, IM going on and you are web browsing, say). There is no way you have any spare CPU cycles left to absorb the lecture material. Maybe this is a comment on boring lectures - but frankly a lot of educating stuff can be a little dull whatever you do about it. A good speaker has more of a chance of keeping his non-PC-equipped audience awake, but if the class has laptops, even a great speaker is likely to be fighting a losing battle. Oh look, an email from Dad, I look at it, I’ve lost the thread of the lecture (OMG it’s hard math, I can’t possibly catch up) and that’s it. Personally I think undergrad lectures might benefit from a laptop ban. Really, most students are not under so much pressure that they need to do laptop-tasks whilst in lectures (and if they do, they aren’t getting full benefit of either task or lecture and would be better off prioritising).

Conferences are much the same, but perhaps one can argue that (a) more people there are busy and have other stuff to do, (b) not all sessions or talks are relevant to all attendees. But laptop use does reduce the attention paid to the speaker regardless of speaker-ability + topic. Which is sad. Frankly, if you have ever found yourself presenting two years’ work to a hall of people most of whom don’t even look at you during your intro (which you have carefully crafted to be interesting, witty and to contain the abstract of your work so that people can tune out if it isn’t for them), you will know how much you want to yell at them: Listen to me! Or get out of the hall, so I can address those who care! And when someone who clearly has not listened to anything you said decides to take up your 10 minute question period with a rambling irrelevancy, meaning that useful dialogue with those who care about your work is impossible, you wish that laptops weren’t allowed. A sleeping audience is more pleasant than a surfing one. (OK, rant over, but really it is annoying! I’m a stage-trained young female grad student in an extremely male-dominated field working on a genuinely interesting and unusual topic and I have given witty and dynamic presentations in a skirt and been ignored by 50% of the audience who are too engrossed in their screens - I can only imagine how much worse it must be for the other speakers)

I heard a few weeks ago that in a meeting situation, you have 10 seconds in which you can be distracted before you are out of the meeting. I.e. theother participants shut you out, and you lose the thread and aren’t properly involved any more. I think there was some science behind the 10s time. Anyway, checking your email is often going to be 10s +, as is almost any other laptop task. So you are out of the meeting very quickly and frequently.

Why do we have laptops in meetings? I’ve worked in a variety of companies and countries, and in environments where 0, 30-70 and 100% of the participants in meetings have laptops with them. Except meetings where large documents or diagrams had to be consulted, which were only available electronically, in general the laptops caused the meetings to be longer and less productive. (There is an exception, which is where one or two people who are very socially-aware have laptops with them. They do not use them, until a meeting point comes up where some more info is needed; then, they withdraw from the discussion to google (or whatever) for the info, which they then contribute to the group. No email or background web browsing going on otherwise.) Laptops do encourage one to think “i’m bored, let’s surf” or “i’m busy, this meeting doesn’t seem important to me, let’s do email”. Now, this is ok if the participant in question is genuinely in a meeting where they aren’t required (begs the question - WHY? who invited them, why did they agree to come, why don’t they excuse themselves and go get work done?). But in general you get some proportion of attendees who aren’t fully involved. Now, if they are left out of the talk altogether, you miss out on their input which might have been relevant. And perhaps you are left struggling to get them to contribute because you need their input, but they haven’t been paying attention so don’t know what to say. If they try to contribute a bit, they again haven’t been following the discussion so probably slow down the progress as they either catch up or lead things down dead ends. It’s a problem. Do we need laptops in meetings? OK, you can take electronic notes ready to be emailed out later.

But are those notes any good? Generally you are going to reformat/re-order them before you mail them out, so the time-saving over typing up hand written notes is minimal. And frankly handwritten is still more efficient for most of us - you can use arrows and stuff to indicate things, you can probably see what you meant yourself even if your coworker cannot read your scrawls. If you really need live electronic minutes, one person (the scribe or secretary) takes a laptop in and the rest don’t. Wouldn’t that work?

The practice of using laptops in meetings varies across companies, industries, countries. When I’m meeting with senior, very smart people, in my experience they are much less likely to be footling with a laptop than more junior, err, drones. That’s not to say they aren’t taking notes or refering to other material - they tend to have an organiser or (paper) notebook with them.

I agree with Step - the ability to turn off is important, and I think that not many people will be good at it. (NB: this applies to turning off email notifs and IM when you have to get some work done!)

Kevin Marks wrote:

The key variable is whether the laptop users have a shared space to work in.
The problem with speech is that only one person can do it at a time; used carefully, typed reactions enable multiple parallel contributions.
An IRC channel can add a lot to a spoken presentation, as others can annotate or rebut.
SubEthaEdit enables collaborative note-taking, which can enhance a conference presentation, or meeting minutes, as you don’t all end up taking your own notes, you converge.
A wiki page can be collaboratively updated to provide shared meeting minutes and goals.
All 3 of these can be combined with a projector to let the non-laptop users view their results.
I gave a talk on Microformats at Bar Camp on Friday night, which was Live streamed, and had an open irc channel so remote people could ask questions and comment along wit those in the room. This added a lot to the presentation.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I agree with Laurie (and other posters too). Something that strikes me with children’s TV, in particular some from the US, is how short an attention span it panders too - very short scenes in dramas etc. I’m not sure what’s cause and what’s effect. My wife’s a teacher and has told me that teachers have been advised to keep changing tack in classes in order to invoke a fresh attention span in the children. The frequency with which they need to change has been increasing over the time she has been teaching.

If we have such an attractive alternative when in meetings etc. to paying attention, we will be increasingly tempted to say that the meeting’s too boring or not relevant enough - the bar we set for the primary task to have our attention will get higher and higher. As Laurie says, often what’s important isn’t easy on the brain or instantly appealing but that doesn’t stop it being important (sorry - that sounds so worthy). You can’t IM or surf you way to understanding differential equations and so on.

I agree with Kevin (Marks) that it can benefit everyone to enhance traditional media with electronic ones, but I know there have been many times when the temptation in a long phone meeting to web surf has been too strong and I delude myself into thinking I can do both.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Speaking of tuning out in meetings, Hans over at our sister comic Bug Bash has his own insights.

David Heller wrote:

Regarding the whole conference/Wi-Fi issue.
First I think to say that I think the problem is overstated. At the presentations I do, I barely notice anyone typing away, and when I do, I take it as flattery (yes, I often live my life next to a river in Egypt) and just assume they are taking notes.

But for a moment lets assume its there and there is something to do about it. I ask anyone who has every complained abot the issue, what they have done to change their presentations to take advantage of the technology? I have seen once at a conference 2 years ago, where Wi-Fi was used during a plenary as a means of getting questions from the audience AND holding a conversation about the panel at the same time. While it was MacOS centric, I have to say that while I couldn’t participate I did feel its effects and they were quite positive. It really made the whole plenary feel more engaging, more democratic/populist, and well a better experience. This happened at the DUX 2003 event.

I have also led meetings where we used similar technology to share notetaking, which led to much more complete (and much more entertianing) notes.

Yes, there are distractions, but it also seems to me, that there is also some neat opportunities here as well.

Rich Webster wrote:

I was just at the Blog Business Conference. It was an interesting thing to have people blogging about sessions as they were happening.

While every conference has its low points, when logging in and updating the blog (and checking email, and doing a brief iChat) might be worthwhile, I almost missed the biggest swag item, because I was doing it. I didn’t hear the announcement: Microsoft was providing computer bags with a copy of the Beta of the next IE. Of course, it’s something I’ll give to someone who isn’t embarrassed to carry the MS logo around with them…

Simple fact, some people multitask better, but everyone’s performance degrades while multitasking. And if one of the multitask efforts suddenly requires total attention (viewing nudity, or violence, for instance) the other tasks simply fall apart. This has been studied extensively.

MUser wrote:

How will Vodafone devices change the conference settings in the future?

For starters it may allow loved ones & friends to tune in from afar if the talk is inspiring.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Kevin Marks’s comments are interesting. I was in the aforementioned presentation when some participated via IRC remotely and I agree, that’s fantastic (Marks was too modest to give a plug to Microformats - the topic of the presentation). The question is, does everyone in the room need their laptop on to facilitate that? What about situations where only some have their laptops and this whole discussion is going on and the audience that decided to respect the speaker and leave their laptop closed get excluded out of?

SubEhtaEdit is great for note taking collaboratively. Again, what about those not involved? In the Hong Kong meeting example I gave, we did use SubEtha but it was also used to convey questions to each other and acted as a “back channel” often causing those running the meeting to lose their train of thought (and the client to potentially wonder what’s going on in that edit window because they weren’t a part of it).

I’m certainly not saying communication advancement hasn’t permitted some incredible collaborations and ability to be “present” somewhere when you normally couldn’t be. I use it all the time to communicate with loved ones as MUser points out. But the good examples are often those where it’s still being “present” in one place, like Vander Wal being present at BarCamp despite being in DC or where everyone involved is present in both and no exclusion is happening.

Daniel Szuc wrote:

Its becoming increasingly difficult to switch off. Attention is limited and technologies that can manage disruptions more effectively in the future will win - whether it be dealing with IM’s, emails, subscriptions etc

Mitch Krayton wrote:

I have read this thread with interest. I have been selling technology solutions for more than twenty years so I am a true believer that technology can enhance our business experience. They are wonderful tools. How those tools are used can benefit (build a house) or harm the user (smash a thumb).

That said, I am also a Toastmaster and a professional speaker and there is a bond that occurs between a speaker and a live audience for communication to happen. The speaker scans the room making eye contact with everyone to build that bond. Without eye contact, their is a void. Staring at the backs of devices instead of eyes prevents communication from happening.

People come to meetings for two reasons. They are told to go or they volunteer.

If you are going against your will and refuse to engage, then technology is not the problem.

If you volunteer to go, then you no doubt have an interest in what is going to be said and done in that meeting. Why then would you tune it out?

If you could get the data itself remotely, you probably would do so via PDF, webinar or delayed video. I have done this many times.

The big reason you physically go to meetings is the social interaction. To be close to a celebrity or an authority. To hear realtime feedback of others to either affirm or challange your point of view. The people sitting next to you and the people on stage are depending on that to enrich the experience.

I would agree that using technology as part of the architecture of meeting, like IRC or WIKI note taking is fine, but only if all the participants were notified of this prior to the meeting and all the participants can use the technology. It would be ground rules of the event. That is fair.

So why isn’t this done more often?

If you are a speaker and try to use a simple overhead projector, you will know that this one, well used technology can be botched up more ways that thought possible. Setting up more complex technology in temporary rooms adds not just to the complexity but the cost of the event.

In the long run it is the content, not the technology or process that is critical.

The problem with technology in meetings is that ground rules for its use are not set and there are many people without the technology in the meeting who cannot participate. This creates different classes of attendee. The speaker is obliged speak to everyone in the room, not just the few with computers. The people with computers must therefore have the respect and discipline to turn off their devices and engage in the meeting on common grounds.

Cell phones, PDAs and laptops are wonderful tools and it is wonderful that they are portable. So are power tools, but you don’t use those during a meeting either.

Portable communication tools let us connect to and from anywhere. That is wonderful. But they also remove us from the here and the now. Not focusing on the events of the moment is a user problem.

If I schedule to have a meeting with you and you attend, and then take a unscheduled cell phone call from an uninvited guest, you are not just being rude, you are being disrepectful of the person you are with.

When this happens to me, and regretably it does, I get up and leave. This shocks people into either focusing on the meeting at hand or we terminate our business until there is focus.

It is rude to ignore someone or to interfere with someone elso who is talking. Plain and simple. Why go to a meeting if you are compelled to be someplace else. There is no urgency I have ever found that can’t wait the 30 or 45 minutes while you are in the moment focusing on the meeting.

As to bad presenters, I say this. There is no meeting you attend that you can’t find a few nuggets to harvest. (Even a lousy presenter may have good information or offer to show you ways how not to do something).

Being bored or disconnected is an intent of the listener not the speaker. Engaging in complex or difficult ideas is work for a listener. Work you get paid to do (as does the speaker).

The speaker is only there to impart an idea or stimulate thought. Tuning this out prevents that from happening. Having handy distractions from work does not get the work done. In fact, it can have tragic consequences when key information is not carefully verified and then projects go forth on bad data.

When I speak to a group, I offer written ground rules for use of technology. I have my presenter invite all those with portable devices to either turn them to silent or take their technology out into the hall so as not to distract others. The people that remain in the room expect nothing less than undistracted attention.

So using the technology as a planned component of a meeting is great. But when it is not part of the procedure, attendees with technology must have the self-discipline to take it outside or better yet, turn it off.

Remember you only need people and ideas to hold a meeting. Technical tools are always options. Opting in or out is the responsibility of the user.

You might be delightfully surprised and actually learn something without technology getting in the way. Even better, you might have actually helped someone else in the room learn from your contribution.

It is that social component that makes meetings work.

Robby Slaughter wrote:

Mitch: I don’t believe people go to meetings to get information. In fact, I personally can’t stand having someone fire off facts that are merely informative—I’d rather read, as it’s much faster and I can skip over what I already know.

Instead, I go to presentations for inspiration and interaction. Great presenters facilitate a level discussion and thinking that can’t leap off the printed page. This is rare occurence and exceedingly difficult to do—but impossible to ignore, no matter how pressing other engagements seem to be.

Please—everyone bring every possible distraction you can to meetings. This will force only to have them when they are absolutely necessary, require speakers to be of the highest quality, and make the experience all the more rare and meaningful.

Roland Carriveau wrote:

Contrary to popular belief people do go to meetings and presentations for information. I would have to take Mitch’s point on that one.
In every meeting I give there is always a few whose hands continually goes up and require endless explanations and attention. I believe Lap Tops and other distracting devices are probably a good alternative to this behavior, so is Ritalin. You may have a point.

Dave wrote:

Hey everyone … 2 weekends ago I was giving a presentation at the IDSA National Conference, and a great and relevant event occurred during my presentation on the history of IxD. Someone sends me a photo from their phone over bluetooth. Seriously, I had no idea it was going to happen. More here:

Stu Collett wrote:

An interesting article, thanks Kevin.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?