Video Calling: the future of the past?
Why aren’t we all video calling each other? Almost all laptops come with a webcam and microphone, and for those that don’t, they are not expensive to buy.
Anyone with these and web access can use services like Skype, ooVoo or Yahoo! Messenger to video call for free.
So with such a low barrier to entry, why aren’t we all doing it, all the time?
Surely it has to be better than a phone call? You can not only hear the person, but see them too. Along with jetpacks and hover cars, video calls are part of 50s sci-fi destiny.
Now, many Smartphones also have the capability. But even Apple’s famed ability to make people want things they didn’t know they wanted, or that didn’t exist before, hasn’t resulted in their Facetime video calling app taking off.
Not a usability issue
This doesn’t seem to be a usability issue. Whatever the idiosyncrasies of individual services, so long as you have no hardware problem with your camera and microphone, it is pretty straightforward to set up and use
Some specialist users need additional features. Deaf users who can sign – a group obviously very keen on video calling – use ooVoo. It has a higher refresh rate, so deaf users don’t lose the nuances of their signing gestures. But otherwise, the audio and visual quality of video calling is more than adequate.
A user experience problem
So, if it isn’t cost, or complexity, or usability that is stopping us from video calling each other, it must be a problem with the user experience – actual or imagined. As part of User Vision’s World Usability Day for 2010, we conducted an examination of the user experience of video calling.
We briefly interviewed participants about their attitude to and experience of telephone calling and video calling. We then conducted a short video call, from different offices at User Vision. We then asked participants to sum up the experience and to rate it across a range of scales:
- Was it a distraction seeing the person or did it give extra information?
- Was being seen more unsafe (exposing) or more safe (seeing the real person)?
- Was a video call more or less scary that making a phone call?
- Did they feel more distant from the caller, than with a phone call, or closer?
- When, part way through the video call I stopped looking at them, and started writing notes about the call instead, were they annoyed or pleased?
- Did not keeping face-to-face contact matter or did it matter?
- Did they prefer making a phone call or video call?
Overall the results, averaged across all participants, didn’t deviate much from the neutral rating, as you can see here:
But averages can be very deceiving. Separating out participants who said they like using the phone from those that don’t produces two very contrasting pictures. Within our limited sample, there was a very marked difference of opinion about video calling between people who liked making phone calls and people who don’t.
People who like phone calling also tended to like video calling, and with one exception, all the scale indicators moved to the right-hand side.
They found it:
- Gave them extra information
- Neutral on the safe / unsafe scale (from a bit unsafe on average)
- Less scary
- Felt closer
- Important to keep eye-contact
- lightly preferred it to phoning
People who disliked phoning had quite an opposite profile
It would seem that, for people who dislike making phone calls, video calls are an even worse experience: the only exception was around taking notes.
About half way through the video call I stopped facing the caller and instead started taking notes, so the caller saw the top of my head as I looked at the desk to write.
I wasn’t sure what it would be really like. Just an extra dimension to phone calls which are already stressful enough.
People who liked phoning really disliked this. Since they were enjoying the extra closeness and extra information, they disliked the break in contact implied by not looking at them any more.
This is despite my attempt to replicate what I might do on a phone call as I took notes: i.e. making lots of “ahummm” and “aha” sounds, and even responding with follow-on questions that demonstrated that I was really listening to, if not looking at, them.
People who disliked phoning were not bothered when I started taking notes. They already disliked the call to such an extent that it did not much matter. This might be partly because one of the things they disliked about video calls was not about seeing me (frankly a mixed blessing), but more about seeing themselves.
They really didn’t like seeing themselves at all. In contrast, some of the people who liked phoning were quite enamoured with seeing a thumbnail of themselves. It would be interesting to eye-track this part of the test.
Nearly but not quite like a conversation
Why the difference between those who like and dislike phone calls? Perhaps the clue is that, in our sample, those that dislike making phone calls generally prefer face-to-face conversations.
Video calling is nearly, but subtly not quite like normal face-to-face conversation.
It didn’t feel like a normal conversation. I felt a barrier.
In a face-to-face conversation, we move in and out of contact with the person we are talking to. We establish eye contact and then break it, and then re-establish eye contact in a certain rhythm. If you break this rhythm the conversation becomes uncomfortable: staring continually into someone’s eyes is likely to seem “creepy” and feels intrusive and weird. Not looking into someone’s eyes at all is likely to feel remote, that there is no contact, or that the person is somewhere on the autistic scale.
In a video call, you have to keep looking straight at the person you are talking to. If you disappear off the screen or look away – like at the desk – you break contact.
On the other hand, ironically, you can’t actually make proper eye-to-eye contact. To properly “show” your eyes you have to look at the camera, but if you’re looking at the camera, you’re not seeing the other person, so actual eye-to-eye contact isn’t possible when video calling using normal webcams.
Both too much and too little
This failure to accurately mimic how we behave in face-to-face conversation is made worse by video calling both giving us too much information and too little, at the same time.
You get too much information about the other person as they are the only thing you can look at: their face, their facial gestures – other than yourself, which for some participants was also too much information.
It felt awkward. I didn’t know the norms. Felt I couldn’t be as short or blunt as I can be on the phone.
Where there is too little information, is the lack of peripheral vision provided by the camera. We only see a very limited field of view.
We cannot see the context of the call, nor shift our focus on to something that momentarily gains our attention – so you can’t look out the window for a moment on a video call.
Several participants reported that this all-or-nothing level of visual information got quite tiring after a while.
You can’t behave like it’s a phone call
Thus the things you can do on a phone call to rest your focus cannot be done on video call. You can’t look around when the other person is talking. You can’t take notes.
You can’t gesture to a colleague that you’re gagging for a cup of tea on a long call. You have to focus, focus, focus on the video caller, or they will think you are being disinterested or rude.
As noted above, for some people seeing themselves was quite painful, and they would put a lot of effort into looking anywhere other than at themselves – an effort they felt must be too apparent to the other person, leading to what they imagined was a stilted conversation.
Whether it was or not, this extra level of focus, on top of trying to maintain a conversation, makes it very tiring and anxious for such people.
It was peculiar. I sensed myself up in the corner. Odd looking at it. Felt the urge to lean in (to the screen) so I couldn’t see myself
Even amongst people who were fine about seeing themselves, there was a lot of concern about how they looked, or how what was behind them looked. Irrespective of gender, hair got mentioned a lot.
It would seem that a lot of phone calls when working from home are made in dressing gowns, with little attention to personal grooming!
When using smartphones, participants did mention one human factors issue: tired arms. Because of the necessity to maintain face contact, the phone camera had to be held out to be pointed at your own face at all times, and your arm eventually got tired doing this.
Despite all these issues, there is one group who you can be disinterested in and rude too, or get tired by, and they will still forgive you. And perhaps the one group you are so interested in that you want to maintain a sustained focus: your family.
By far and away the biggest group that people used services such as Skype to video call, was family members who lived remotely. Actually, in most cases in our sample, it was the only group that people regularly video called or had tried to video call.
So for family, being too close isn’t difficult – indeed, it is welcomed, and ruptures in contact are more easily forgiven, which makes them the safest group to video call.
Video conferences are different
As a side note, I should mention that everyone who had experienced video conferencing said that the experience was very different. It was much more like a natural conversation, if slightly stilted by time lags and low refresh rates, with most of the time you staying out of the conference limelight, until you had something to say.
Repairing to video calling user experience
Based on our limited study, some issues need to be addressed to improve the user experience of video calling:
- The camera needs to be mounted within the eye line, to allow proper eye-to-eye contact
- The camera needs to have a wider field of focus, so that people can move in and out of contact in a more natural way
- The differing norms of conversations also probably need to be respected: a personal conversation is different from a public one; a whispered conservation is different again.
The importance or the distraction of seeing yourself within the call needs to be investigated. We don’t normally see ourselves in real life, so why is it a default to see a picture of ourselves on a video call?
Finally, the test nicely highlights the difference between a usability problem and a user experience problem. The hardware and software worked fine. It’s the experience that causes discomfort.
So, despite it being free and pretty easy and widely available, it seems likely that we’ll probably only video call our distant family. My own family at least don’t mind staring at my face for a long time.
Thanks to everyone who took part, and to those who watched and chipped in with animated conversation afterwards, helping to make User Vision’s World Usability Day such a big success.