Friday, April 12, 2013

I Know You Know I’m Busy

Imagine that you are busy. Now imagine that the phone rings. It seems reasonable to assume that you would be less likely to answer the call at that point than if you were available. Phone calls, like any type of communication, are established via a negotiation between the initiator of the communication and the recipient.  The person placing the call chooses when to place it, and the person receiving the call chooses whether to answer it. One way a busy person can partake in the negotiation is to ignore incoming calls. Surprisingly, however, it turns out that people are actually more likely to answer the phone when busy!

Alex, my husband, discovered this while studying Lync, an enterprise communication tool created by Microsoft. Lync helps people connect by inferring its users’ availability and projecting that information to other Lync users. For example, if I have a meeting scheduled on my calendar, the system will infer that I am busy and represent that information graphically anywhere a Lync user might encounter my name, including email messages and IM windows. Below is the “To:” line of an email message being written while I am available and Alex is busy:

Presumably when the system infers someone is busy, that person is less open to interruption. Who wants to answer the phone while they are doing something else? But when he analyzed the large-scale usage logs kept by Lync, he found just the opposite: when the system thought someone being called was busy, that person answered the phone 67% of the time, compared to only 44% of the time when available. In other words, according to the data, if you were to call Alex and me right now, he’d be much more likely to answer than I would be because he’s busy.

The two of us decided to explore this apparent contradiction by surveying hundreds of Lync users to learn more about how they use availability state when placing and receiving phone calls. We found that the seemingly counter-intuitive log data arises because callers care a lot about the recipient’s availability when placing a call. Nobody wants to call someone who the system says is busy, so they only do so when the topic is really important. Recipients thus perceive incoming calls to be more important when they are busy than at other times, because they know the caller chose to call regardless of their being unavailable. Call importance is a primary reason people answer the phone, so the shared knowledge that the recipient is busy helps to explain why people answer the phone more when busy. Evidence from the survey supporting each of these results can be found here.

While previous research has focused on how availability information impacts the people initiating communication, this work is the first that we are aware of to show that a recipient’s communication decisions are impacted by the fact that they know that their availability state is visible to others. It also presents the first large scale log analysis of the use of availability state in communication to our knowledge, and reveals some of the really surprising things that can be learned from studying behavioral application logs. Communication systems can build on these findings by providing richer ways than currently available for phone call recipients to participate interruption decisions.
Related papers:

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