Tom Erickson
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Babble: Supporting Conversation in the Workplace

Paper for the CSCW 98 Workshop "Designing Virtual Communities for Work"

Fall 1998

Erin Bradner, Wendy A. Kellogg, and Thomas Erickson

IBM T.J. Watson Research Center

For the last year our group has been developing and using a prototype system called Babble that supports text-based conversation (either synchronous or asynchronous) and provides awareness of the presence and activities of participants. After using the system for a year, we began deploying it to other groups to see how (and whether) it would be adopted. In this paper we briefly describe Babble's design and the rationale behind it, and then discuss the results from the first six to eight weeks of deployment to five groups (as well as our own use) within IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center.

About Babble

The design of Babble has been shaped by the following assumptions:

  • Structural cues - e.g., the ability to see how a conversation has unfolded across time and participants - can enable newcomers to recognize norms and conventions of a particular conversation thus enabling them to contribute more effectively.
  • Social cues - e.g., audience size, who is listening, how actively people are participating - can focus participation and make conversations more engaging.
  • Work groups, ranging from three or four people to several dozen people (all of whom know one another, or generally know of one another) are likely to draw on social and structural cues as a result of their social dynamics and shared activities.

Babble is a chat-like, communication tool that allows conversation to be threaded (by user-defined topics) and persistent (held on the server until the topic is deleted), and that provides a rudimentary representation of the participants and their activities vis a vis the conversation. It uses a client-server architecture and TCP/IP to connect conversational participants.

Babble provides structural cues by supporting persistent conversation - textual conversation that persists over time and across sessions. Persistent conversation has a number of characteristics that are particularly valuable in the work place: besides providing structural cues, persistence enables conversations to be "mined," and allows newcomers to be quickly brought up to speed. Babble provides social cues by using what we call a social proxy: a minimalistic representation of the group using it. Figure 1, an example of our first social proxy, shows the participants in a conversation as colored dots, gives an idea of whether they have recently 'spoken' or 'listened' (dots drift to the periphery with inactivity), and shows when people leave or join a conversation. This social proxy, although simple, gives a sense of the size of the audience and the amount of activity in a conversation at any point in time. In addition to supporting focused conversation, by providing awareness of who is coming, going, or otherwise active, the social proxy supports the digital equivalent of impromptu hallway conversations (individuals can be contacted by clicking on their dots).

The Babble Study

Six workgroups at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center participated in the study: the Babble design group, a computer science research group, a market research group, a human resources group (all organizationally-defined groups), a professional cohort, and a social cohort. Table 1 gives an overview of the characteristics and usage of the different groups.

Table 1: Babble Study Summary

Group Name Nature of Group Size Is Group Co-located? Months of Use Was Adoption Successful?
Babble Design
Software design


Yes, but with 2 remote members


Human Resources
Technical recruiting


Mostly co-located (with adjacent offices)


Science (CS) Workgroup
Software engineering


Mostly co-located (with non-adjacent offices)


Market research


Mostly co-located


Summer interns at Watson


Not co-located


Professional Cohort HCI people
at Watson


Not co-located


Too soon
to say

* Number of cohort members who actually tried the system.

The first author used face-to-face interviews, computer-mediated interviews, questionnaires, and participatory observation to collect data. These techniques were used to gather information about group composition and dynamics (prior to Babble adoption), as well as ways in which participants and groups used the system. Groups which were still using Babble on a regular basis after a month of deployment were considered to have successfully adopted Babble. Follow up interviews were conducted with both groups which adopted and groups which failed to adopt Babble.

Preliminary Findings

Babble encourages informal expression. Our informants told us that they were less careful about punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical aspects of writing when using Babble as compared with email. They saw the (perceived) informality of Babble as an advantage - allowing them to express ideas which were not yet fully formed or to make statements that they were not sure were wholly accurate, without offending others.

"When you are in Babble, it seems like a more relaxed atmosphere and you don't have to watch your spelling, you don't have to have your sentence structure perfect and all that. The [e-mail] system we are using, ... you feel like everything has to be correct because you feel like someone might print out that note and show someone else." --Recruiter

"I think [Babble is] less formal. I treat it less formal. I wouldn't write mail about someone else's bug unless I check very very carefully that it is indeed in their code. It's funny but it's OK to write things that are not 100% finished. ... It's not that thought through ... half-baked ideas are OK. Somehow it's much more like conversation." --Software Engineer

Babble minimizes the social overhead required for information exchange. People in the workplace walk a fine line between what they see as necessary socializing (such as inquiring how someone is "doing" before making a work request) and the desire to be productive. One of our informants said:

"So when I go to [my assistant], because you have to have a proper human interchange when you do that, usually I have to start with a little chat first, a little conversation, then 'how is everything? Good.' And then you get to: 'Could you do this for me?' ... But I think Babble has the potential for cutting off some of the extraneous noise that maybe you don't want. Nobody wants to lose time on those kinds of things, but on the other hand we don't want to run around like robots. So there is a balance between 'how's everything going?' and getting on to the next task." --Recruiter

Another informant commented:

"Sometimes you know it will be shorter if you don't go see a person because then you will just start talking. I know [my manager] uses the phone sometimes like this. He knows if he comes, it will take longer. So he calls, even though he is just around the corner. It's true, I sometimes use Babble just so it will be short." --Software Engineer

Babble allows unobtrusive, asynchronous broadcast of information. Babble provides a way for group members to convey information asynchronously with minimal attentional demands on co-workers. Thoughts, requests, questions can all be posted to Babble without inundating others' mailboxes or interrupting work. The ability to "overhear" conversations taking place between group members lifts the burden on speakers of explicitly deciding who needs to be kept informed. Our informants told us:

"That's what I like about Babble. If you have a bright idea, sometimes you can stick it right in the topic and it doesn't matter if some one else reads it [right away], so time goes away, which is fabulous." --Recruiter

"[Babble] is used to ask a question of everybody if somebody needs something ... not even very urgently, but it is a very unobtrusive way of asking everyone for help. ... It's a very convenient way to write to one person and have it passively available for other people to see. ... It is very fast and gives immediate response [from other people] without being intrusive, which is a balance that is hard to get." --Software Engineer

Babble allows remote members to keep in touch and quickly reestablish context. For most of our study groups, the desire to communicate with remote colleagues was a critical factor spurring Babble adoption and use.

"I felt like I had an open communication line with [a remote colleague] that way. Even more than big systems. It seemed a little more personal." --Recruiter

"When people are away, it's great. It's a place where we recorded things when [our manager] was away. Now ____ is in Germany and Babble is how he communicates and how we communicate with him." --Software Engineer

Issues for Virtual Communities at Work

Our experience with Babble suggests that informal, asynchronous, conversational systems fill a communications niche that is currently lacking in many work contexts. E-mail is seen by Babble users as a relatively formal medium which demands a higher standard of accuracy and writing quality; because it may be forwarded or printed, it is seen as, potentially, a public document. The informality supported by Babble may increase the speed of concept production and facilitate dissemination and iteration of nascent ideas. Similarly, productivity may be enhanced by reducing some of the "social overhead" incurred with other forms of communication.

Many informants felt that having an electronic place including "just the right crowd" was useful for communicating things that they would not communicate in other written forms. We believe that this is one of the most important aspects of Babble: it can be used as a place for unguarded discussion among people who know one another, who understand the contexts within which their remarks are being made. Hyperbole, misattribution, inaccuracy, etc., are a fundamental part of how people talk with one another, and they play an important role: they promote response, and cause people to push ideas farther than they would otherwise. Creative, out-of-the-box, thinking arises from playful struggle, from exaggeration, from jumping up and down on top of a soap box, from trying to reconcile contrary ideas, tensions, etc. With an important proviso: all this has to take place in a safe and trusting place.

The notion of a conversational environment as a "trusted place" is an interesting and challenging one. How - technically, socially, and organizationally - can we balance the need for a safe and trusting place with the organizational imperative to share information? One decision facing us as designers is how and to what extent do we "design in" norms and social conventions. For example, if we build in technical mechanisms to provide privacy, in addition to the usability impact, we also eliminate opportunities for participants to show that they can be trusted, or to rely on others to respect their privacy. The Babble prototype currently has no technical features for controlling access: anyone who has access to the client could, in theory, enter any Babble space. In two of the groups studied, privacy became an issue when a group member invited an "outsider" to the environment. But, because Babble makes users visible, this resulted in the group noticing, commenting on, and ultimately discussing how to deal with this issue. We believe that a greater understanding of how to design systems that permit our social mechanisms to come into play is of great importance in community design.

About the Authors

Erin Bradner is a PhD student in the CORPS (Computing Organizations, Policy, and Society) program at UC Irvine. During a summer internship at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in 1998 she carried out this study of Babble's deployment and adoption.

Wendy A. Kellogg and Thomas Erickson are Research Staff Members at the IBM Watson Research Center and are members of the Babble design team. Both have organized and participated in numerous CHI workshops.


Tom Erickson

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