06 | Understanding the user part 1

Interview with a high school teacher

In my previous blog entry (“05 // Online interaction scenario: Experience Map”) I wrote about the protopersona Sophie which is based on a real person, her experiences  mixed with my observation. In order to widen my perspective and not only examining the students/university view I am really happy to had the chance to interview Damaris about her online teaching experiences a german high school teacher.

The first question I asked was how she experienced the transition from presence to online lessons. She described that teaching in the first lockdown (around march 2020) was really hard because of the missing software and also missing equipment of teachers and students. Teachers mostly had to hand out printed homework packages and wait for them to be handed in later on. These experiences lead to a better preparation for the second lockdown (december 2020 – may 2021). The school then provided tablet for teachers and rental laptop for students without a device. They could held their lesson via video conferences in the software ‘Jitsi’ and used the platform ‘DiLer’ (= Digitale Lernplattform) for communication and data exchange. Teachers took their time to learn the software by themselves, then teach the students and let them practice the tool  to handle it properly. The teachers also learned how to use a visualiser which is a document camera for digitally recording printed media. 

The learning platform ‘DiLer’ – Developed by a german highschool

Next I asked her if she had to change something of her presence lesson curriculum for the online teaching. Damaris told me, that she had to digitize most of her teaching material in the first place to make online teaching possible. This included not only scanning printed material but also rework existing material to make it suitable. Furthermore she had to reorganise some exercises because group or partner work were difficult to implement in the first lockdown (without online support) but also in the online environment. The communication with students and parents changed from mainly verbal to mostly written communication which took a lot of time. 

I also asked Damaris, if online teaching made something easier or harder for her as a teacher. She answered that sadly there was nothing that online lessons made teaching for her easy. She explained that it was really hard for her to get the control back she needs as an educator. She didn’t know if the student actually work and couldn’t properly evaluate their performances – especially things like oral grades. Her own workload was extended due to the fact that she had to check each student’s (home)work instead of just discussing results orally in the classroom. 

In regard of the class Damaris observed that the online lesson environment worked well for students who already have been very structured and good in the presence lessons. The ones who need more attention from teachers in presence lessons were mostly even more behind in the online teaching environment because they couldn’t handle their self-management. One really interesting fact was that one of the students who was a rather quiet person in presence class started to become more outgoing in the online lectures. Maybe the online environment gave this person kind of a ‘safe place’ to express herself.

The fifth question I asked was if Damaris could imagine a continuation of online lessons or parts of it in the corona-free future. She answered that online teaching/communication could have some advantages in the future. One examples she mentioned was the advantage for getting more easily in touch with parents and having the opportunity to provide parents consultations late in the evening. She also observed that the students were able to develop a lot of new media literacy through the online lessons, which should definitely be encouraged in the future. 

I was really surprised when she told me that the teachers only had a software introduction of online teaching but no coaching for the didactic part of it like for example how to compensate/replace group work. The digitization of high school lessons during the pandemic and also in general times seems to me a bit neglected by the government and lies in the responsibility of the educators. 

By researching about the software ‘DiLer’ I came across the article “5 Fragen – 5 Antworten” with Mirko Sigloch on the platform ‘wissensschule.de’. In this article the authors explains the approach of his school to cope with digitizing of/and education now and in the future. He is sure that the current way of teaching will be insufficient to prepare the students for complex problems in the future. By developing the platform DiLer he and his colleagues wanted to create an open source platform that combines good usability and flexibility for an ideal online school environment. After their launch and testing phase they recognized how many school have been in need for such a platform. They presented the software to the ministry of culture of the federal state Baden-Württemberg but they wanted to hold on to the old structures. In the course of the article, he finally gets very emotional about the current status of digitalisation in school that seems to be rather regressive. His call for a hybrid teaching structure makes sense from my point of view when reading, but I am sure that the advantages of the present teaching structure should not be neglected. This discussion definitely needs more research from my side and I don’t see myself in the responsibility to take a position in it (but I am still curious about the different voices about this boundary topic). I already had a quick look into the theses of Lisa Rosa which I want to examine in another blog post.





0# | Collaborative learning processes

For this blog entry I chose to examine the paper “Collaborative Learning with Interactive Music Systems” from Adnan Marquez-Borbon. It is presented on the website of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME-20). It is a bit off-topic but relevant for the lecture ‘Interaction Design’.

The paper draws a new perspective on how to learn a new instrument – more specifically an interactive digital music system. The designers of those instruments are often the only performers and do not have many copies of their specific instrument. In general they often do not have instructional informations aside from a technical document (if existent) what makes it hard to learn it in a traditional way. The ‘traditional way’ means to first learn the musical notation and then the according application to the instrument. This way means a very linear and structured process of learning. The teacher transmits knowledge, evaluates the technical proficiency, musical accuracy and the appropriateness of style of the student. But this approach ignores the diversity of alternative musical practices and approaches. In an interactive digital music system the musical text and notation are not obligatory central to the practice. It lives from variable and numerous practices and the form of documentation applies to that. The learning process is therefore more complex and probably not tangible with the traditional way to learn an instrument.

The author describes an open-ended, exploratory and collective learning approach to learn a technologically mediated instrument and with that to overcome the traditional way of learning an instrument. The so called ‘socially mediated learning’ process centres collaborative learning and should provide a flexible and adaptable learning environment. This space is unlimited in musical exploration, creativity and bringing in additional musical skills of students. Learning by imitating other learners can lead to the extension of the own capabilities of students. The challenge of collective learning is to keep up the motivation and let the students take responsibilities in their freedom of learning (like setting subjectives). The teacher becomes a guide and is not longer an authority. 

As a method the author developed a new instrument with a 3D printed case, two outward facing speaker, four push buttons controlling pitches organised in a one-octave chromatic scale, two linear soft potentiometer (controlling the pitch & other) and a force-sensing resistor controls the output volume. The volunteers have been three people with traditional music education and extensive performance experience but with no experience in performing with musical technologies or interactive musical systems. They learned to play the instrument in group sessions over a period of six months. 

As a result they actually started to learn from each other, imitated and/or extended each others findings and were learning effectively together. Furthermore they started to make up their own learning structures by noting down individual musical notations as a learning aid. They even started to come up with group exercises and created own compositions in order to rehearse and perform together. The participants developed their own style in playing but also found a way to play together. Even without fixed learning structures they started to self-organise their capacities and activities as well as learning goals which motivated and oriented them. 

Due to the flexible exchange of ideas and techniques the participants found a unified conceptualisation and usage of the instrument. Both, the whole group and the individual learner benefit from the rich learning opportunities in the open and flexible learning structure.

My resume: Personally, I never thought about how we learn to play instruments – even though I myself learned the musical notation and how to play the flute and the piano. Looking back I realise that even as a kid the linear learning structure is very hard to accomplish in the beginning. I am sure I would have loved to learn with such an open and collaborative learning approach that Adnan Marquez-Borbon suggests. 

Keeping in mind, that the approach is aimed for more complex and often unique technologically mediated instruments I am sure, that this structure can be helpful also in other fields of computer-mediated channels like new and unknown software. Since a lot of daily tasks are getting more complex day by day I think we should see a collaborative learning approach as a serious opportunity to enhance not only our learning processes but also ideation processes in terms of innovative design. I currently started my summer job in the area of ‘making’ – means building, tinkering around and hacking all kind of old electronic rubbish in order to create new stuff, new ideas and appreciate creativity from a new, more practical perspective. This kind of practical process also nourishes from collaborative exchange of ideas and knowledge which is in my opinion a really fruitful way of creation. 

05 | Online interaction scenario: Experience Map

In this entry and following entries I want to find out which tools and methods can enhance the effectiveness of online interaction. Due to the ongoing lockdown we are still dependent on managing nearly all of our communication and interactive activities online. Recently I observed that some of those online meetings took a lot longer than I expected (based on previous experiences with presence group work). On the other hand, I have heard from some lecturers that they do not have enough time in online lectures for their content in comparison to presence lectures. So what is the matter with timing in online interaction? As I examined in a previous entry, every online interaction is based on a different occasion, context, and goal. Therefore I assume that the effectiveness of each meeting is influenced by different factors. Regarding my role as an interaction designer I want to find out what are the influencing factors, how they are related and most important: How to improve them in order to enhance the online interactions? To achieve that I am going to examine different scenarios that are based on my own experience, go on with observing similar situations, find out more about theoretical background through secondary research and also do interviews and testings with users.

In order to use common methods I wanted to do an experience map. An experience map helps to see the big picture of the customer journey without going too much into detail. It helps to uncover needs and pain points before having a look at a too specific product. As a persona I choose the following person:
Sophie, female, 25 years old, is currently studying for her master’s degree in “Translation and Dialogue Interpreting”. She is really social, loves to cook and bake and lives in a shared flat in Graz. Due to the pandemic she has to follow her lectures at home for one year now. Because translating and interpreting needs a lot of training, practical experiences and good equipement studying online is giving her a really hard time.

Own visualization, Marie Kunzmann, 14.05.2021

I found out that Sophie has a few difficulties which are surely transferable to other students’ experiences. With the recommendation section I could collect some ideas on how to improve her situation. Every experience is based on individual characteristics and the context. Having that in mind I want to go on with methods like the experience map to find out more about other use groups.

https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/user-research/user-experience-mapping/, last review 14.05.2021
– Jens Jacobsen, Lorena Mayer: Praxisbuch Usability und UX, Rheinwerk Computing, 2019

04 | How do we communicate online? part 2

In my last entry I was examining about the paper “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction” of Joseph B. Walther from 1996. In this second entry about it, I want to focus on the hyperpersonal interaction. Nowadays the research of Walther is the origin of the “hyperpersonal model” which basically suggests that CMC (computer-mediated communication) can transform our face-to-face based interpersonal relationships or even surpass them. But why should a relationship without the ability to see or hear someone be more intimate than interacting in real life? 

The hyperpersonal model is based on the classic communication elements: Sender, receiver, channel and feedback. Walther is examining about what happens to each of these elements if the communication happens computer mediated instead of FtF (= face to face).

  1. The receiver: Idealized perception

Because of the lack of social context cues communication receivers tend to search for every subtle social context or personality cue they can find and give them a particular great value – even an “over attribution”. The results are stereotypical impressions built on merger or rather unqualified information cues like misspellings or overdone punctuation (!!!). If the communication partners already know each other, they may already know the paralinguistic expressions and can decode them. And if the receiver likes the sender or even only got a positive impression of her/him in advance (e.g. checking a social media profile or hearing a positive reputation = “I could like her/him, she/he is like me”), the impression or decoding of the received message will be positively affected. In this case the receiver has no interfering or disproving nonverbal cues what leads to a strong idealisation of the sender and their attraction. 

2. The sender: Selective (and optimised) self-presentation

People tend to present themselves as optimal in order to be liked and accepted by others. Asynchronous CMC has many opportunities for self-optimization: Senders can reread, correct and optimise their messages and everything else they send out (like social media posts) to an unlimited extent. With that opportunity senders are able to show themselves in their desired manner and “censor” every unliked or unsuitable characteristic. Selective self-presentation is a natural FtF phenomenon (like preparing for a job interview or dating someone) but the opportunities of CMC enhance it in an already supernormal way. I think most of us know that in terms of social media this can have negative effects like for example presenting oneself as somebody else – maybe even someone more optimal. But thinking of communication only, this can be also a chance for the sender: Filtering everything unnecessarily out and focusing on the message and its expression. 

3. The channel

As mentioned the channels of asynchronous CMC gives the communication participants favourable opportunities to communicate and present themselves in the way they like. For Walther it is incorrect to try to make the CMC experience feel or adjust like FtF interaction because this is not possible to the full extent. The users should rather use CMC for its own advantages. The cognitive load during a FtF interaction is a lot higher than in CMC: It requires a higher level of psychic, sensory and emotional involvement. From this perspective asynchronous CMC leads to more conversational relaxation and a better focus of mental energy on the messages’ content. 

4. The feedback: Intensification loop

The examination of  the last element is for me the most interesting because I was not aware of the following argument. Feedback in the communication interaction is crucial for developing a relationship. In point 1 “the receiver” we saw that the users of CMC tend to magnify every minimal cues they can find, what is also valuable in terms of feedback. In combination with behavioural confirmation (having personal expectations from others and acting in a certain way in order to make them confirm them) this leads to an intensified feedback loop. The involved self-optimisation then leads to a positively enhanced picture of the other communication participant. In other words: By self-optimising our own messages we make our communication partner feedback something positive which then leads again to a positive answer from us. Over a long time, this loop eventually intensifies the relationship.

In order to enhance my research to more recent findings I include Walther’s recent viewpoint of the hyperpersonal model. If you are interested in this topics I recommend watching the following talk from the year 2018:

Computer-Mediated Communication and Hyperpersonal Interaction (2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQEHU5ryPfQ

In the video Walther brings up some studies he did in the past. The insight I gained from one of them is that by trying to convince someone via CMC one is also convincing yourself about that topic. With that in mind we could go on with that and argue that self-optimisation should result in an optimised picture about our self. Assuming this were indeed the case this could not lead to an intensification loop but an self-optimisation loop in terms of presenting yourself without any communication partner (like posting something on social media): You optimise your image online and then try to even perfect that – just because that is the picture you created about yourself beforehand. Would this mean that computer mediated communication not only “hyperpersonalizes” your interpersonal relationships & communication but also enables you to transform into the person you aiming to be? Would this self-optimisation loop be endless and therefore become a disappointing and energy consuming delusion? 

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0160.xml#:~:text=Computer%2Dmediated%20communication%20(CMC),%2C%20and%2For%20video%20messages (last review: 02.05.2021)
– Joseph B. Walther: “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction”, 1996, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009365096023001001
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQEHU5ryPfQ, 2018 (last review: 02.05.2021)

03 | How do we communicate online? part 1

In terms of researching communication models (specifically online) I came across different perspectives which in my eyes are worth examining in my entries. I found a lot of literature about online communication from the years of approx. 1990-2000 which mainly focused on the differences of online and offline communication. Even Though there are further researches in recent years I find this fundamental quintessential for completely understanding my topic.

Computer-Mediated Communication or short CMC is basically describing human communication via networked computers. This communication form can be synchronous or asynchronous and is used to exchange text, audio, and/or video messages. The number of participants can differ from one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many. The separation in synchronous or asynchronous communication is of great relevance in the term of CMC. Synchronous communication like via video or audio calls includes all participants in real time and happens simultaneously. As soon as the sender does not receive an immediate response from the receiver the communication is asynchronous. Examples for that would be mails and text messages. 

Early research focused on how the communication channel ‘computer’ changes our communication and how it differs from the way we used to communicate. At first, relatively negative aspects were highlighted, such as the lack of socio-contextual information (I touched on this in the first semester). Alternative models later emphasized that the user adapts to the limitations of the channels and develops alternative strategies (such as the use of emoticons). Furthermore it became clear that the boundary between the real and the virtual communication was more and more blurred and is now becoming interactive instead. But how does this affect our way of communicating? What are the advantages? The disadvantages? 

To find out more about this question I started with early research about CMC. I read the paper “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction” of Joseph B. Walther from 1996. In this paper, the term CMC includes only text-based communication. The main research question asked if CMC causes a limitation or liberation of communication and interaction. 

One common sense at that time was that CMC is highly impersonal, task-oriented and can only stay on an informative level due to the lack of social context cues. Alternative findings showed a contrasting picture: CMC was stated to be just as personal as FtF (face-to-face) interactions or even surpassed them. This was especially a conclusion of the examination of virtual communities, online friendships and online dating. With these perspectives in mind CMC seemed to have no consistent effects because of the contrasting results at that time. Walther wanted to identify common elements that play a role in all these outcomes. Therefore he first examines about the terms interpersonal and impersonal interactions regarding CMC:

Text-based CMC seems to be more impersonal because of the lack of nonverbal / social context cues. The message receiver cannot alter the mood of text messages and needs to interpret it. Alternative findings show that the user starts to adapt their communication to the limitation of only written communication and finds other cues in punctuation or language. Walther comes to the conclusion that CMC is not certainly less personal than FtF interaction but requires more time investment. The effective outcome of a CMC conversation is dependent on the familiarity of the participants and the conversation context (mediated, non-mediated). Regarding group work he suggests that it could be helpful to start the first brainstorm project phase via CMC and come together for the evaluation and decision phase in real life. In his point of view the first phase of brainstorming ideas can benefit from the non-hierarchical and more or less anonyme structure of CMC because each idea receives the same attention. For him, the second phase of evaluation and decision making needs more social context cues because the discussion enters a more personal level.

Of course the paper is a bit older and nowadays group work is not only limited to only CMC or FtF interactions. But I think it could be worthy to think about it a little closer since I came from a working background with old structures of endless mail and meeting conversations and discussion with no conclusion. Do we always choose the right media to communicate? Could we enhance our meetings with evaluating our communication channel from another, more thought through perspective? We are so used to communicate via text messages and sometimes forget that everyone has another ‘decoding’ system for it. For example exclamation marks: Sometimes we use them more or less unintentionally but they can have a major effect on the sender’s interpretation of the intonation. Just look at this sentence and reflect how you read it and how you felt while reading:

  1. I don’t think so!!
  2. I don’t think so.

I could bet that the first sentence feels more aggressive than the second one did. Or did it didn’t bother you at all? I will never know, because my decoding system will always differ (no matter if in a large or small scale) from others. The same goes with the usage of emojis. Some of them seem to have a single minded message but can be decoded in different ways. An example for that can be the winking smiley 😉 For some it is just a blink of an eye, for others something ambiguous and for some it is even a passive aggressive gesture of provocation.

https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0160.xml#:~:text=Computer%2Dmediated%20communication%20(CMC),%2C%20and%2For%20video%20messages (last review: 18.04.2021)
– Joseph B. Walther: “Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction”, 1996, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/009365096023001001

02 | Online meeting occasions & activities

Why do we meet and what do we do during the meeting? A subjective point of view.

In this entry I want to examine the reasons to meet online ( – I know that they are often very individual and personal, but I think that there are currently some common reasons). In order to clear my mind, I made (again) a mind-map to collect every common and possible reason to meet online and the activities during. The mind-map is showing my own current observations and experiences from a subjective point of view.

In the mind-map I made a separation (blue-coloured & blue background) between “official” and “private” meetings which could also be described as formal and informal meeting occasions. For me, a formal meeting is for example at the workplace, in education or anywhere else where you come together with anyone other than your friends and family like colleagues, acquaintances or even strangers. But why make this separation? Imagine going to such a ‘formal’  meeting: The place, the people, your feelings. Would you act like in a private meeting with your best friend? Probably not. Therefore I think it is crucial to think about the meeting occasion in order to come up with the best design solution for the associated interaction tool. Within this separation, a further gradation can be identified (blue-coloured). It shows the possible meeting categories such as lectures, workshops or events as well as a meeting with a group or 1:1 with only one friend. The activities (green-coloured) around them show that the separation into formal and informal meeting occasions is not enough and has to be more specific on a deeper level. All these activities include specific needs and require individual consideration in upcoming design solutions.

If you have a more objective look at those activities, you can recognise that they are mostly redundant. This basis could be helpful in terms of creating an interaction tool that meets the most common and being individually adjustable for specific needs later on. Let’s sum up the mind-map in a list to find the common activities.

Before the meeting (could also happen during the meeting)

  • Checking own video (background, angle, lightning)
  • Checking own audio input (quality, device)
  • Checking the screenshare possibilities
  • Checking the chat possibilities

While the meeting

  • Using own video (turn on&off, switch background, use filters)
  • Using own audio input (mute&unmute)
  • Receiving video of others (adjusting video interface, checking who’s speaking)
  • Checking audio of others (quality, volume)
  • Using the screenshare possibilities
  • Using the chat possibilities

Official meetings

  • Lecture, workshop & talks (mostly work meetings; either in groups or 1:1)
    • Audio & Video input of lecturer/speaker/moderator
    • Screensharing
    • Interactive work (polls, whiteboard)
    • Give feedback (reactions, questions)
    • Receive feedback (reactions, questions)
    • Discussions with all participants (via audio or chat)
  • Event
    • Audio & Video input of speaker/moderator
    • Livestream
    • Give feedback (reactions, questions)
    • Receive feedback (reactions, questions)

Private meetings

  • Group
    • Expressing emotions/reactions
    • Receiving emotions/reactions
    • Interactive tools (polls, games, plan activities)
    • Talking / discussions (simultaneously)
  • 1:1
    • Interactive tools (polls, games, plan activities)
    • Talking about personal issues (simultaneously)

All these activities have different reasons and goals within the digital interaction of web meetings. In order to reach a user friendly interaction tool it is necessary to provide the user an effective, efficient and satisfying way to reach their goals (referring to the Usability ISO Norm  92411). Because of the variety of the activity goals, I decided to group them in the following way:

The users input

  • Checking own video beforehand (background, angle, lightning)
  • Checking own audio (quality, device)
  • Using own video (turn on&off, switch background, use filters)
  • Using audio output (mute&unmute)
  • Screensharing/Livestream
  • Expressing feedback (emotions/reactions)
  • Insert a chat message

Active interaction between user and communication partner

  • Interactive tools (polls, games, plan activities)
  • Talking / discussions (simultaneously)

The output of the communication partner

  • Checking audio of others (quality, volume)
  • Receiving video  (adjusting video interface, checking who’s speaking)
  • Using audio input (adjust volume)
  • Screensharing/Livestream
  • Receive feedback (reactions, questions)
  • Receive chat messages

The list shows that most activities can be divided into input and output which suggests that simultaneous interactive communication options are somehow lacking. This matches my findings of last semester: Online meetings are mostly not simultaneously what causes communication issues. While reflecting my findings, I recognised that the division in input and output reminded me of the Shannon-Weaver communication model and the variations of it2. Therefore I would like to go on with a deeper look into communication models as well as use case scenarios and other usability methods in my next entries. As usual I’d love to hear about your experiences with online meetings. Feel free to write me 🙂

1 http://www.handbuch-usability.de/iso-9241.html (last review: 29.03.2021)
2 https://lehrbuch-psychologie.springer.com/sites/default/files/atoms/files/roehner-schuetz_probekapitel_2.pdf (last review: 29.03.2021)

[Meeting] Spaces | 03

What means space and how does that affect us?

Have you ever thought about the environment during a meeting? Maybe only if you are bored or if the environment is disturbing or distracting the participants. But what if the space plays a bigger role in the sense of the ‘human’ aspect in web meetings? Geographical distance is usually the main reason for holding a web meeting. This includes that there is no physical meeting space at all. How does this influence the meeting? When we meet in presence, we immediately have the sense of coming together as a team or at least as a group. 

In the last blog entry I wrote about proxemics and environments and how this subconsciously influences our communication. I found out, that in web meetings:

  • relational space does not matter
  • personal hierarchy is not visible
  • side conversations are not possible (only via private chat messages)
  • environment do not seem to matter even though they can influence the meeting situation and communication
  • front view of all participants is not natural (unless you are a lecturer) and differs from presence meetings

In comparison to the other mentioned points in my last entry, space and environment make out one of the biggest differences between presence and digital meetings in my opinion. I think they could be a crucial part of making a web meeting experience more human. But how? Let’s have a closer look at the meaning of ‘room’ and ‘space’ or the german words ‘Raum’ and ‘Platz’. Definitions or translations of these words look really diverse to me. In my research I focused on the german research on ‘Raum’ as it describes best what I mean. I will use the english word ‘space’ to make the text easier to read. The Duden has seven different meanings of space which range from physical to mathematical to hypothetical meanings. Space is a much discussed controversy in philosophy and physics. Especially the philosophical and sociological aspects seem to be important in regard to my topic of meetings and communication. 

There used to be two main concepts about the meaning of space: The absolutistic and the relativistic. The absolutistic room can be seen like a container which is either empty or filled with humans, things, spheres or characteristics. The division between space and matter results in the assumption that spaces exist independently from actions. In contrast to that the relativistic space concept sees space only as a result of relations between bodies. That means that the space only exists through actions what exclude the influence of physical spaces. 

Following the hypotheses of M. Löw, the two previous named concepts have to be seen in combination. Löw’s concept of space is called the ‘relational’ spatial model and represents the ‘duality of space’. The concept follows the assumption of a space as a result of actions but simultaneously as a legal, social, cultural and spatial structure of actions. This means, a space needs actions to exist but also consists of its own structures that enable or limit those actions. A space can be seen as a structure and not as a certain dimension or unit.

In this point of view we can notice that a space is not necessarily dependent from a physical space and results from our own actions and relations. With this in mind we could also say that space is something completely imagined – if we want to. Furthermore the concept mentions that the structure of a space itself has an influence on our actions and relations. Sticking to the idea of an imagined space: Do we naturally give the space a structure even if it is not a real place? Or do we try to adapt it to the structure of a comparable, real or at least visual space? 

When we imagine the look, the smell and the taste of a lemon and then imagine biting into that lemon, we usually feel our body reaction to that without physically experiencing the situation. It also works with spaces: Imaging a really nasty autobahn toilet, we automatically start shaking in disgust. These examples only work because of our previous experiences. If we never tried biting into a lemon, we do not know our reaction to it. In our imagination it could taste sweet or even salty which results in another physical reaction. 

In this point of view, we could assume that the imagination of a certain place is related to our previous experiences with that kind of space or related structures. We also can assume that the imagination of the room can lead to something like an imagined reaction. But what does that mean for (online) meeting environments? Everyone of us met someone somewhere before. We know how to greet each other or keep the right personal distance to our meeting partner. We usually know how to use the objects in the meeting environment: Chairs for sitting and a table to share food or to look at the same piece of paper. We are used to the background music in restaurants, the ambient noise of the park or the silence in business meeting rooms. But what about online meeting environments? No matter which meeting we are in, we usually stay at the same place (or we at least search for a quiet place). Does this affect the meeting? And if yes, how?

Thank you for reading! If you have any thought, idea or comment on that topic (or just for chatting), feel free to contact me – I would be happy to get in touch 🙂

space, room, environment, online meeting, web meeting, web conferencing, telecommunication, online communication, connectivity, remote communication media

Martina Löw: The Sociology of Space: Materiality, Social Structures, and Action (2016)
Gabriela B. Christmann: Zur kommunikativen Konstruktion von Räumen (2016)
Johannes Moskaliuk: Zoom-Fatigue – Drei Erklärungsansätze, warum Videokonferenzen so anstrengend sind
https://wissensdialoge.de/zoom-fatigue-drei-erklaerungsansaetze-warum-videokonferenzen-so-anstrengend-sind/; last review 17.01.2021

[Non]verbal communication | 02

Verbal and nonverbal communication in web-meetings

In order to give my research a framework of theoretical background, I am going to have a closer look on the sociological context of communication. Regarding the topic of web-meetings I want to find out, which communication channels we are using in presence meetings and which of them are used in web-meetings. Hopefully this will lead to the outcome of finding out what makes meetings “human” and which parts of it are missing in web-meetings. 

Having a look on the way we communicate includes the research on verbal and nonverbal communication. What is exactly the difference between those two?

Verbal communication is often defined by communicating a message through one single channel: the usage of words. This happens distinctively meaning in a linear way. As soon as the words are written or said, the verbal communication ends. Meanwhile, nonverbal communication uses multiple channels such as physical action, sound appearance and motion to convey a message by combining them. This simultaneous usage of channels happens continuously. This means, that nonverbal communication happens without a spoken word and rather unconsciously. Next, nonverbal communication is often independent of any specific language or dialect. If we smile for example, it will be automatically understood as a friendly gesture (if this is the initial meaning).

We use regularly kinesics, haptics, appearance, proxemics, environment, chronemics, paralanguage and silence while communicating nonverbal. 

The study of how we use body movement and facial expressions. 
Example: A raised eyebrow as a sign for disapproval.

Most web-meetings are held with video streaming. Sometimes with all of the participants can be seen and sometimes only the main speaker turns the video in order to give the rest of the participants the chance to concentrate and to enable a stable connection. What we see is often the head and parts of the upper body. According to that, we could have the chance to read a facial expression and some movement of the upper body. We slightly can assume the body posture and can see the hand and arm movement from time to time. Do we actually need to see the lower body of our meeting partners? Usually we sit on tables while talking to each other and are used to read the body language in the upper body areas like face, hands and overall body posture.

The study of touch
Example: A firm handshake as a sign of confidence.

Touching each other in online meetings is definitely not possible. The only thing the participants touch is their own input devices such as a mouse, trackpad or keyboard. We need them to write a comment or mute and unmute our microphone. Therefore the haptic input devices are connected to the meeting but do not really differ from the usual interaction with the computer outside of the meeting. What would happen, if we are able to send a small vibrations in order to greet  to each other?

The use of personal appearance, objects and artefacts to communicate
Example: Wearing a suitable outfit or constantly playing with a pen.

Turning on the video gives us the chances to check the appearance of our meeting partners. Does the outfit fit the meeting occasion? Web-meetings are often held in homeoffice environments, so the web-meeting dress code often does not exactly reflect the office styling. How does this affect the actual communication? If we are looking at an informal meeting occasion we can observe the usage of filters and background in order to dress up. This often leads to funny moments and can be easily understood without verbal communication. In addition to the ‘fashionable’ appearance also the natural appearance can be seen through video communication. The participants show themselves only from the front and in a sitting position in usual web-meetings. We do not get any information about their body height, the way they walk into the room and sit down or the side and back view of their appearance.

The study of the use of interpersonal space
Example: We get uncomfortable if somebody enters our personal space unexpected or unwanted.

Web-meetings are usual held in distance, so personal or relational space does not really matter. Each participant is has its own virtual space on the meeting interface. Beside the “only one person is talking with video input” situation, each participant gets an equal placement in the conversation. For example there is no group building by standing a bit nearer to each other. Therefore, we can assume that in comparison to the presence meeting there is no personal hierarchy because the participants can not show off their relational space between them. Does this make web-meetings even more impersonal or is this supporting a more equal conversation? If we think of a meeting situation of participants around one big table, we recognise, that we can not concentrate on all participants at the same time. We are not able to check the facial expressions of the neighbours next to us if we are not looking it them. In web-meetings environment we are confronted with the front view of all participants. In the presence meeting we maybe start a small side conversation with the person that randomly sits next to us. Beside the non-existence of multiple audio channels it is not usual in web-meetings to start such personal side conversation. Also it is not possible to address a message to a certain person through eye contact or other gestures, this has to be communicated verbally.

The influence of the current space we occupy
Example: A messy room or desk distract us from focused and concentrated work.

Imagine you plan a date. You probably think about your own appearance or possible topics to talk about. What you definitely will think of is an appropriate place to go to. Environments matter and can influence the nonverbal communication – even in group meetings. In web-meetings, the participants meet in a virtual space. As I mentioned before, there are usually no specific placement order. In comparison to that, presence meetings are strongly influenced be the conditions of the environment. Do we sit on a round table equally and can face each other directly? Or do we sit in a lecture hall and are facing the lecture but not each other? Are we influenced by the sound environment of a crowded restaurant? In my point of view the aspects of space and environment seems to be an important topic that is only barely touched in current web-meeting tools. Often there is the possibility of changing the background of the own video appearance. But that usual happens individually and intensifies the feeling of separation. The ‘together mode’ of Microsoft Teams brings all participants equally together in one virtual space what creates a sense of nonverbal cohesion. How does such virtual spaces affect the nonverbal ‘human’ aspects of web-meetings in detail?

The study of the role of time in communication
Example: Being on time creates another picture than being late

Regarding web-meetings with a lot of participants and/or with a lecturer, time can be an important considerable aspect. We can check the appearance of the participants mainly with their video or audio stream. Otherwise we can not be sure, if they are really joining the meeting and participate or listen. This affects especially the beginning of the meeting. Also breaks differ from presence meetings: There the participants are free to recharge energy on their own or to use their breaks to connect and reflect the information with each other, web-meetings do not naturally give the opportunity to network or connect. This also true for the end of the meeting, unless there is a follow-up meeting with certain participants.

The influence of vocal characteristics
Example: The meaning of a verbal communicated message can be inverted by vocally expressed sarcasm.

As long as the audio is turned on and the internet connection is stable, participants of web-meetings are able to register paralanguage aspects of the speakers verbal communication. But as soon as they write comments in the chat, this aspects can not be included. Nowadays we therefore use emojis to underline the certain meaning of our written message. Sometimes, we even use only emojis to express our reaction and give our interlocutor the chance to detect our nonverbal communication characteristics.

The influence not use words or utterances
Example: Stop speaking in an argument can be a sign of resignation

Refusing verbal communication and being silent on purpose can be as effectual as the spoken word itself. In web-meetings the participants are often asked to mute their audio while not speaking. This can lead to a lack of participation: Turning the microphone on and off can be exhausting after a long timespan. If the video streaming is not possible, the muted participants also lead to a lack of reaction like hearable laughter or other auditive reactions. This can lead to a somehow silent meeting and end in a rather unemotional meeting vibe. It could be an interesting point to research how to ‘overcome’ the web-meeting silence in the case of bigger participant numbers.

In conclusion, video and audio streaming can already convey a lot of nonverbal clues. But there are also a lot of constraints that interferer them like muted microphones or seeing only the front view of participants. In my opinion there are already good solutions for some constraints and also a lot of potential so explore new ways of improving the communication possibilities and the human aspects within web-meetings (e.g. environment, reactions).

Thank you for reading! For the next entry I am planning to get an overview on the current web-meeting tools on the market. If you have any thought, idea or comment on that topic (or just for chatting), feel free to contact me – I would be happy to get in touch 🙂

Survey of Communication Study/Chapter 3 – Nonverbal Communication: Laura K. Hahn, Scott T. Paynton, Humboldt State University
https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Survey_of_Communication_Study/Chapter_3_-_Nonverbal_Communication last review 05.01.2021

non-verbal communication, verbal communication, kinesics, haptics, appearance, proxemics, environment, chronemics, paralanguage, silence, online meeting, web meeting, web conferencing, telecommunication, virtual communication, connectivity, remote communication media