If we were sitting opposite each other, how many different ways might you evaluate my level of attentiveness to our conversation? You might consider:
- Am I looking at you or out of the window?
- Am I leaning forwards or sitting back?
- Did my expression change when you said something to me?
- Do I have a phone or a magazine in my hand?
- How loud is the background environment?
In a fraction of a second you would be able to judge how ‘present’ I was in our shared environment using a complex mixture of body language, tone of voice, prior experience and understanding of our situational context. It is something most human brains are very good at. They can assimilate vast quantities of data into a single nuanced summary and measure it against a library of previous experiences to judge how you should act in the moment.
It is a skill which remains beyond most digital systems.
There was a time when ‘presence’ was the next big feature in digital. A significant part of users’ nascent digital identities was tied up in the content of status messages they posted to services like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or how often they were seen to be active online. New expressions emerged to describe it, like ‘I’ll see you on the green dot’, referring to how friends would look for the little glowing icon used by the likes of Google’s GTalk when someone was online.
Network operators were particularly excited about the commercial opportunities of presence. In the early and mid-2000s I lost count of the number of analyst presentations I sat through as operator executives and their technology suppliers made pronouncements about new subscription services which would automatically indicate when the person you were calling was in a meeting. As with a lot of things sold to network operators in the 2000s, the only people who made any money from it were the suppliers – and only if they managed to sell out before the industry realised what a red herring this really was.
Presence as a product, then, was a nonsense. Understanding presence as a notion, however, is something essential to good experience design.
It is all around us in the physical world:
- Is there a car in the driveway?
- Are the chairs still stacked on the restaurant tables?
- Have they turned their phone face down?
Giving users the opportunity to express their presence in indirect ways helps digital experiences of all kinds feel more natural. This will vary greatly from application to application and sector to sector, but there are some universal principles we can follow to start down the path to good design:
- Accuracy. Inaccurate presence information is not just useless in the moment, it erodes trust. Some users will abandon their faith in ‘presence’ after just a single mistake. If you do not know the presence to be accurate, do not share it.
- Neutrality. Define a neutral state which can never contain an inaccuracy and revert to it when the user’s presence is uncertain.
- Efficiency. It must be easier for a user to change, or confirm suggested changes to their presence, than not. The easier it is, the less uncertainty over accuracy and the less need to default to neutral.
- Ambience. The language, visual or otherwise, used to convey presence should be understood by the intended audience at a glance, even with partial attention.
- Identity. Presence should be tied to the user, not a device. Build it to be natively multi-touchpoint, so that it may be controlled from and expressed in many places.
- Nuance. Embrace the subtlety, complexity and cumulative nature of presence. Allow users to express themselves in multiple sensory dimensions.
- Embedding. For presence information to be valuable, it must be possible for the user to share it in the widest range of places.
There’s inspiration everywhere in the real world. My personal favourite: smoke from the chimney of a country pub on a winter’s day. Sometimes you smell it before you see it and in an instant, you’re reassured they’re open and there is going to be a warm meal to fuel you for the hike home.
(And yes, there is a reason behind my choice of header image for this article. Answers on a postcard, if you like.)