Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Coordinating Initiation and Response
in Computer-Mediate Communication

Laura Dabbish

December 2006

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: Computer-mediated communication, electronic mail, interruption, task-switching, multi-tasking, attention, focus of attention, computer-supported cooperative work

Communication interruptions make work sociable and interesting, and they support flexibility and knowledge transfer in the workplace. However, interruptions also delay task completion and degrade performance, with negative consequences for organizational effectiveness. When communication is technologically mediated, how can we maintain connectivity while reducing the potential disruption associated with informal interaction?

This thesis examines factors influencing the decision to initiate and respond to communication, and the impacts of communication interactions on both sender and receiver. This thesis advances previous work by considering factors that influence both members of a communication pair. Using a set of laboratory studies, the work presented explores the ways in which awareness displays -- i.e., displays that make visible the task constraints of both senders and receivers -- affect communication timing. Results indicate that such displays are useful for coordinating communication only when the sender and the receiver have a common social identity and joint incentives. Finally, communication decision-making is examined in the context of the most commonly used form of computer-mediated communication to date: email.

The contribution to human-computer interaction is an increased understanding of attention to workplace communication, as well as a set of practical guidelines for the design of electronic communication systems. The results also have relevance in the fields of information systems and organizational communication.

206 pages

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