The 'imitation bias' in media design

Today, at the CSCW course, we had a good discussion about the 'imitation bias', a phenomenon studies in Human-Computer Interaction. The imitation bias is the false belief that a medium is more effective if it is more similar to face-to-face interactions. For instance, it's believing that adding video is better than simply having audio communication. Either this lead people to think that WAP is better than SMS for interacting with others using cell-phones. Well, more bandwith makes not always better products.“The richer the better” or “The more face-to-face like the better” have not been confirmed by empirical results. It’s difficult to invent something new and simple. Few points we discussed this morning: Concerning the audio+video versus audio-only, there is a wide bunch of studies which shows that adding video is not always fruitful, for instance:

  • Chapanis and colleagues (1972, 1975): The studies revealed that adding visual information did not increase the efficiency of problem-solving, or produce higher quality problem solving
  • Anderson, A. H., O'Malley, C., Doherty-Sneddon, G., Langton, S., Newlands, A., Mullin, J., & Fleming, A. M., & Van der Velden, J. (1997): They concluded that VMC with eye contact may encourage participants to “overuse” the visual channel, which may be counterproductive.

In general, those studies (among others),video has no major impact on task performance. Few excerpts from Pierre's course:

Compared to high quality audio-only systems, the presence of video does not have major effects on task performance, unless that work is inherently visual. Besides, video conversations are still more formal than Face-to-Face (F2F) but people prefer them to audio only conversations. Another important thing: there is strong evidence that reducing audio quality to incorporate video is highly disruptive of conversation processes.

Still, video can make meetings more satisfying for the participants by easing the mechanics of conversation, helping them understand nuances in meaning and mostly enabling them to track the remote participants’ presence and attentional state. One of the most obvious finding is that people like to see each other when they interact, especially when they do not know each other well: regardless of any cognitive benefit video may provide, people like having it.

Anyway, the last point is that we survive to video problems more easily than to audio problems. Audio is often the bug.