Instant messaging is seeing increasingly widespread use in both leisure and work contexts. Several studies have illustrated problems associated with the textual chat interfaces typically used in instant messaging clients.
In this thesis, we prototyped alternative interfaces for conducting instant messaging conversations, attempting to create an interface which would increase the perceived conversation quality in multi-threaded conversations. The final prototype, TopicMessenger, let the users divide the conversation into explict topics by placing messages in separate panes in the user interface. We believed this functionality could reduce problems associated with multi-threading and make conversations more coherent, while remaining easy to use.
TopicMessenger was compared to StandardMessenger, a version of the software without any special features, in an experiment with 35 participants. The participants in the experiment were students aged from 19 to 30. The conversations in the experiment were placed in a non-professional context, and participants discussed leisure topics ranging from travel to music. Both two-way and four-way conversations were conducted. In a conversation, different users were given different topics to focus on, in order to provoke multi-threaded conversation.
Through log analysis, questionnaires and open-ended group interviews, we found that the conversations in TopicMessenger had less multi-threading and users felt they were interrupted less often while using TopicMessenger. Four-way conversations using TopicMessenger were perceived as more coherent than four-way conversations in StandardMesenger. Users described the topic functionality as easy to use and useful, and expressed an intention to make use of topic functionality if it is made available to them.
In conclusion, we consider the usefulness of explicit topics in a more structured context, and argue that topic functionality would be a useful addition to commercial instant messaging clients.