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Availability

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The interface pattern for managing and displaying availability may also be referred to as “online presence indicators” (OPI). They provide a way for a user to display to other people (either the public, or their contatcts, depending on the rules of the system) when they are available for contact and when not.

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A small set of icons can be used to indicate at a glance who is available, who is idle, and who is away. The interface may optionally sort the listed people by availability, as in this Yahoo! Messenger window.

Contents

Problem

Users need to see who else is online, available and open to contact.

Use When

Here are four typical use cases for online presence indicators:

  • A person wants to determine whether their friend is online.
  • A person wants to see who is available for contact.
  • A person wants to see if their friend is available for communication.
  • A person wants to show that they are busy to their contacts.

Solution

Allow the user to visually identify themselves in one of three possible states - "Available", "Busy", or "Offline". Additionally, the client - if technically feasible - can identify the user as "Idle" if she is away from the computer for a set period of time:

Available The user is signed in and is available for contact. If the Busy and Idle states are unavailable, the OPI defaults to this state, more broadly defined as the Online state. An application may permit the user to reveal availability manually or it may be set to display “Available” whenever the user signs in.
Busy The user is signed in, but declared themselves as Busy. "Busy" refers to two separate contexts that, in turn, relate to the diametrically opposed impetuses for IMing: focused intent and serendipity. One refers to actual busy-ness, requesting others to abide by those associated social mores. (e.g., a user sees someone set to "Do Not Disturb": the user knows they're contactable, but will only contact when necessary). The other refers to a form of explicit idle-ness by explaining a user's potential delay in response, which otherwise may not be adequately explained by the Idle state below (e.g., "Stepped Out", "Not at My Desk", "Out to Lunch"). Setting oneself as Busy bears no functional significance, and serves only as a social announcement. It is represented by the international "No Entry" sign.
Idle The user is signed in, but the client observes that no keyboard or mouse activity has happened within a set period of time (the Windows client for Yahoo! Messenger defaults to 15 minutes). The user has the option to override this setting - thereby always appearing as Available or Busy.
Offline The user is not signed in, or has signed in as "Invisible."</entry>

Adopt a set of consistent icons for these three (or four, including “Idle”) states. Studies show that stoplight colors (red, green, amber) don’t map well to these choices, even though they are widely used among IM applications. This is mainly because while “Available” can be easily mapped to “Go” (green) three of the states (Busy, Offline, and Idle) are all equivalent to “Stop” (red) and none of them map particularly well to “Slow Down / Proceed with Caution” (amber).

Stealth Mode

An automated system that is too transparent or honest may put the user into awkward situations, such as when they wish to be available to some, but not all, of their contacts. Hence, you might find it useful to provide a stealth mode, the ability to sign in as “Invisible” and hence not automatically reveal oneself automatically on connecting to the application.

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You may offer your users (as Yahoo! Messenger does) stealth options that can disguise the user’s true availability, as way of managing attention and interruption, and selectively determing whom to appear present for.


Yahoo! Messenger, for example, enables a granular selectivity, by which you can appear Invisible to only specific people, using this procedure:

  • The user clicks their contact's name while pressing the Control (Ctrl) key to highlight the contact. This automatically opens a pop-up menu.
  • The user selects Stealth Settings.
  • The user clicks Permanently Offline.

This contact will thereafter never see the user you as online unless the user changes this setting. (To remind the user, the contact appears in italics on the user’s Messenger List.)

(Messenger offers a similar feature for whole groups.)

Rationale

Revealing availability is the fundamental building block of online presence. Providing your users with dead-easy ways to do this facilitate the sense of presence and availability that helps a social system feel inhabited by real people with realistic comings and goings.

Open Questions

What's the overall value of being online, if users can still receive offline messages? What's the overall value of being busy, if there's no direct consequence, other than serving as a visual note to others?

Yahoo! OPIs

Yahoo! employs online presence indicators in a variety of contexts - in Messenger clients, across other Yahoo! properties, and outside the network (in the form of "badges"). For a user, they primarily communicate two concepts: whether they themselves are signed into the Messenger service, and whether other users are signed into the Mesenger service.

Online presence indicators are a foundation of the Messenger product: All IM experiences across OS's and devices must represent "online" and "offline" contacts in a manner that is visually consistent across clients, but still tailored to the clients' individual aesthetics.

The disc indicating that the user is online and available is yellow (and not green). The disc indicating offline or unavailable is gray. This derived originally from the Yahoo! smiley icon, but has been rationalized as symbolizing the sun and the moon, day and night, being awake versus being asleep.

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Yahoo!'s visual system for OPI aims to emphasize the binary nature of being online vs. being offline. Using the streetlamp metaphor introduces curious ambiguities around Busy (red) and Offline (gray), and introduces a false notion of Idle (yellow) as an intermediary state between Available and Busy. The discs also intend to be interchangeable with the smileys as appropriate, and might well be using a visual metaphor that is, perhaps, more culturally independent.

Sources

Much of this pattern is derived from the work of Matte Scheinker at Yahoo!