The “channel blending” (vs. multitasking) phenomenon — and opportunities

Um, this is “shadowing”… not stalking!

A little while ago we did some exciting research with Sony using a novel approach to studying mobile communication. I recently presented a paper about this work at the 2012 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work — CSCW 2012. In our study, we identified small groups of friends and family who like to stay connected and we video-recorded them for a half-day as they went about their activities. It’s challenging enough to video-record people as they move among many locations, often in public places, but we also arranged to have different researchers record each member of the group all at the same time. So we were able to capture each person’s point of view as they connected, engaged, and disconnected with one another, sometimes through technology and sometimes face-to-face.

Of course, when they got together in person that meant we’d have multiple cameras recording them, which the CSCW audience found amusing based on the photos I showed:


Through this study, PARC identified a phenomenon we call “channel blending”, which, in contrast to multi-tasking, is the blending together of interactions and content across multiple channels, devices, and places into a single, coherent conversation. We identified a gap in current communication technology, which generally supports one-to-one or many-to-many interactions, assuming that each person is alone in a space with a single device. Yet we found that many interactions were conducted among small groups of people of 2-6, who often connected with multiple people in each space using multiple devices, sometimes re-sharing content they previously shared over another channel. We showed videos that demonstrated channel blending, and pointed out how a “pivot person” usually had to do a lot of work to integrate the comments and content coming from multiple sources to make sure everyone was included and engaged in the conversation.

You can see the slides below or in our Slideshare channel — they illustrate, rather than summarize, the points, so you’ll need to read the notes beneath each slide. There were also three videos in the talk, which just appear as static images in the slides, but the speaker notes should give you a sense of what they showed!

You can also read the full paper here.



2 thoughts on “The “channel blending” (vs. multitasking) phenomenon — and opportunities

  1. Matt Trubow

    This was an interesting read for me and I felt that it did well to demonstrate “channel blending” as a label for a phenomenon that appears obvious once highlighted by the PARC/Sony research team. Blending communication and allowing varied levels of interaction seem to be predominant factors in the natural progression and convergence of technologies. It’s evident, based on the big players in the current digital landscape, that great efforts are being made to make “channel blending” a more cohesive and organised social function.

    From a professional perspective, channel blending is one of the most important aspects to our collaboration with others around the world and contributes greatly to the efficiency level we are able to achieve. Previously I would have been guilty of referring to these activities as multi-tasking. I think most companies will overlook or ignore channel blending as something other than traditional multi-tasking until a prolific new technology allows them to clearly quantify the benefit.

    What will be interesting is how this will be embraced in the world of academia where testing is presently a memory based process. Channel blending in this type of environment would dramatically change the playing field.

  2. Ellen Isaacs

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Matt. What I love most about doing ethnography is that it helps you to discover those “obvious” things that are hidden in plain sight, and this was a great example of that. It’s easy to see everything as multitasking, since it looks a lot like channel blending, until you focus on *what* people are doing with the technologies.

    We, too, are looking forward to seeing how the big players (and maybe others) develop offerings specifically designed to support channel blending. Our client was excited by the opportunities it suggested, so we’ll see what comes next…

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