Brown CS Blog

What Are You Typing? Enhancing Digital Communication Through Rich Typing Indicators


    by Zainab Iftikhar, Brown CS PhD candidate

    Imagine being able to see the words appear as someone types, giving you a sense of where the conversation is heading and reducing the uncertainty that often comes with messaging.

    The Limitations of Messaging

    Have you ever found yourself anxiously waiting for a response, unsure of what the other person is typing? The absence of immediate feedback, tone, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues can sometimes hinder effective text-based communication. Hence, despite the convenient nature of messaging platforms, there has been a rising anxiousness around the . . . or Zainab is typing . This anxiousness can be attributed to the low richness associated with messaging.

    In the 1980s, Daft and Lengel posed a Media Richness Theory stating that the effectiveness of communication is influenced by the richness of the medium used since different mediums vary in their ability to convey information, and certain media, such as face to face, are more effective for conveying complex messages. To compensate for the leanness of the text, people use multiple approaches. For instance, repetitive letters can convey emphasis (sooooooo?), while punctuation can show excitement or anger (no way!!!!!!). These approaches are known as paralinguistic cues. Apart from that, there’s a rise in emojis and stickers for emotional disclosure. However, such approaches still lack social presence, calling for system-driven approaches like typing indicators and awareness mechanisms. Effective as they may be, awareness mechanisms lack synchronous communication and can often miss the “in-between” during message composition.

    Enhanced Communication and Closer Connections

    To address the limitations of messaging, a research study, titled, “Together but not together”: Evaluating Typing Indicators for Interaction-Rich Communication, by Brown CS Ph.D. students Zainab Iftikhar, Yumeng Ma and faculty member Jeff Huang employed both quantitative and qualitative methods to study the impact of rich typing indicators on collaboration in communication. Rich typing indicators refer to features in messaging interfaces that display text as it is being typed, offering users more real-time visibility into the ongoing conversation. By assessing subjective workload and considering users’ experiences, the researchers sought to understand how these indicators could enhance communication.

    The findings of the study revealed that more expressive typing indicators were perceived as “rich in communication” by users. The visibility of text being typed in real-time allowed for a closer connection between individuals. By seeing the words form as they were being written, users could anticipate the direction of the conversation, making the interaction more engaging and meaningful. These indicators acted as a bridge to fill the void created by the absence of non-verbal cues, enabling users to establish a stronger connection with their conversation partners. Wouldn’t it be reassuring to have a glimpse into the other person’s thoughts and intentions while you’re both engaged in a messaging conversation?

    Increased Perceived Co-Presence

    Another notable outcome of the study was the impact of rich typing indicators on users’ perceived co-presence. Co-presence refers to the sense of being together with someone, even in a digital environment. The heightened co-presence of these typing indicators was reflective in multiple themes associated with real-time text visibility: for instance, the indicator was validating, encouraged active listening, and was highly communicative, fostering connection. Imagine feeling as if you were physically present with the other person, despite the physical distance.

    Participants stated that the heightened co-presence of the indicator would have been helpful in times when they felt lonely and needed to connect for help. These components are highly effective for therapeutic sessions, and there might be room for richer indicators to be embedded in text-based therapeutic communication. Our study is composed of a problem-solving scenario that can be reflective of a problem-solving therapeutic setting like CBT, where users are geared to think of negative events in a problem-solving way.

    Customized Indicators for Relationship Maintenance and Task-Based Communication

    The research also indicated that there may be specific benefits in designing customized typing indicators for different types of communication. In relationships where maintenance and connection are crucial, rich typing indicators could play a significant role. These indicators offer reassurance and help individuals understand that their partner is actively engaged in the conversation. Similarly, in task-based communication, customized indicators could be designed to provide updates on progress, deadlines, or other relevant information. This customization can aid in improving clarity, efficiency, and collaboration in task-oriented discussions. Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to collaborate with someone on a project and wished you could see their progress in real-time, or receive immediate updates on important deadlines or tasks?


    Messaging has revolutionized the way we communicate, but it lacks the richness of face-to-face interactions. Have you ever felt anxious or uncertain while waiting for a response, wondering what the other person is typing? The study on rich typing indicators sheds light on the potential to enhance digital communication by incorporating real-time visibility of text being typed. By bridging the communication gap and increasing users’ perceived co-presence, these indicators offer a way to establish closer connections and enrich our digital interactions. Plus, the study suggests that designing customized typing indicators can have specific benefits in relationship maintenance and task-based communication.

    So the next time you find yourself engaged in a messaging conversation, try opting in to see the words as they are being typed, providing a more engaging and meaningful experience. As messaging continues to evolve, integrating these features can transform the way we communicate, bringing us closer together in the digital realm.

    So, the next time you’re anxiously awaiting a response or striving for clearer collaboration, remember the potential of real time typing indicators to enhance your digital communication experience.


      title={“Together but not together”: Evaluating Typing Indicators for Interaction-Rich Communication},
      author={Iftikhar, Zainab and Ma, Yumeng and Huang, Jeff},
      booktitle={Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems},