Rhythm Of Conversation

Rhythm of Conversation --- RichardGabriel Nov 2001

. . . you are laying out the design principles for a textual electronic communication system and desire to make the most congenial system you can for the type of use it will be put to . . .

	   * * *

Different conversations have different rhythms. Sometimes the exchange is slow, with time to think between each reply and a desire to carefully consider each letter and its appropriate reply. Other times the exchange is fast and furious, with ideas sent as fast as possible, perhaps for the purpose of getting quick action, deciding a relatively unimportant matter, or to have a fun, fast exchange.

It is easy to accidentally discourage the natural rhythm of the conversation by offering or emphasizing inappropriate behavior and interfaces. For example, in a communications system that assists fastpaced conversations, it is useful to have aggressive auto-completion, spell-checking and spelling correction, a palette of emoticons or other special abbreviations---in a fast exchange, these can both speed up and enhance the quality of the message. In a slow-paced conversation, the writer is interested in reflection and in creating a good-looking, well written letter. In such a situation, having indicators popping up displaying mistakes or auto-completing are distracting and therefore discourage the natural rhythm and frustrate the writer. In fact, in such cases tools for checking things like spelling should wait in the wings until the writer is ready for them rather than intruding on the process.

Another example is the use of pen and paper. In such communications, the physicality of interaction forms part of the rhythm of conversation---the act of moving a pen on a scratchy piece of paper reinforces the intimate and delicate human-to-human nature of the conversation. The physical motion requires more time and encourages thought before writing, as does the difficulty and ugliness of trying to erase ink. In this case, the deliberate difficulty of using the mechanism of interaction encourages a welcomed rhythm.

Some conversations are specialized enough---such as calendaring---that non-local conversations about when and where to meet are best mediated through specialized programs that handle such conversations.


Different software should be available that is suitable to the style of conversation. Do not force a slow-paced letter writer to suffer from auto-completion or spelling correction while he or she is typing: Doing so distracts the writer from thinking about the message. Provide fast-paced messagers facilities to communicate quickly with as few impediments as possible; in fact, try to provide shortcuts to try to assist the writer in getting the message across rapidly. Also be aware of the intrusiveness of the message delivery system, so that people awaiting a quick turnaround are sought by the system while those waiting for a slowly written letter are interrupted when they might be working or resting.

	  * * *

Physical mail requires the recipient to visit a mailbox or post office. Physical mail is inherently a slow-paced medium, and so the slow pace is part of the experience of the exchange. When an email program detects or is informed that the user is writing a deliberate letter, it may make sense for the email program to suspend intrusive attention-grabbing behavior, while in the opposite case where a quick exchange is underway, notifications and the like would be welcome and should be enabled, either automatically or easily.


Last edited December 26, 2002
Return to WelcomeVisitors