Social and Cognitive Processes in Interpersonal Communication: Implications for Advanced Telecommunications Technologies

Article excerpt

Interactive multimedia conferencing systems, in which two or more remotely located people can work on cooperative tasks through shared audio, video, and data, appear to be the wave of the future. However, because of great advances in the underlying technology of multimedia conferencing system, many design decisions have been driven by what is technically feasible as opposed to what will best suit the needs of the users. In this paper we provide a framework for the design and evaluation of features in advanced telecommunications products and services which is derived from empirical research on interpersonal communication. We also discuss implications of this research for the development and use of advanced telecommunications technologies.


Recent advances in a variety of telecommunications technologies have revolutionized the ways in which people are able to communicate with one another. Interpersonal communication is being whisked into the 21st century a few years early with the maturation of the set of technologies that enable multimedia conferencing. The ability to interact with people not in the same room via methods other than the telephone has attracted a great deal of attention, resulting in the introduction of multimedia telecommunications products to the marketplace (e.g., videophones and PC-based video systems) and the burgeoning interest, in both the academic and business worlds, in the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). Before long, we are certain to witness great advances in how remotely located people interact to perform cooperative work activities, such as codesigning a product, making marketing decisions, collaborating on an article, and attending classes without traveling to a classroom.

Human factors experts have had significant influence on the evolution of multimedia systems. Some have identified general user interface issues for multimedia conferencing systems (e.g., display quality, interface design, privacy and security issues; e.g., Benimoff and Burns, 1993; Benimoff and Whitten, 1993). Others have evaluated specific systems in terms of usability and other criteria; still others have addressed issues concerning the structures and requirements of work groups that might benefit from advanced telecommunications technologies (e.g., Gabarro, 1990; Kraut, Egido, and Galegher, 1990; Kraut, Galegher, and Egido, 1987-1988; McGrath, 1990). Despite these contributions, however, and despite Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire's (1984) cautions, human factors expertise is often solicited late in the development cycle. As a result, many basic design decisions for multimedia conferencing products have been driven by what is technically feasible as opposed to what will best suit the needs of the users.

Our aim in this paper is to review the growing psychological literature on interpersonal communication with an eye toward identifying principles to guide the design and evaluation of communication-enhancing features in advanced telecommunications products and services. We will use a broad definition of multimedia conferencing -- that is, two or more remotely located people electronically sharing audio, video, and data via either desktop PC or a group room system (see Figure 1 for a sample PC screen configuration). An extension of the remotely familiar audio teleconference, in a multimedia conference participants can not only speak with one another but have the ability to see each other and share documents, on-screen white boards, video clips, and the like.

We conceive of multimedia-enabled conferences (and all teleconferences) as extensions ordinary conversations; thus the design and implementation of successful multimedia telecommunications systems rests on an understanding of what people do when they communicate face to face. Just as in face-to-face conversation (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969), teleconference attendees produce and understand messages (commands, questions, suggestions, etc. …


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