Can you see my screen?

Rob Tannen | 09/28/2020

Usability and situational awareness challenges in online meetings

When we conduct usability research, we listen for feedback about where people might be facing challenges interacting with their digital tools. With online meeting applications, users are verbalizing their struggles, nonstop.

I’m willing to bet a lot of money that you’ve heard one or more of these statements on a recent web meeting:

  • “You’re on mute!”
  • “Can you hear me?”
  • “Who’s in the meeting so far?”

What these example statements have in common is a lack of situational awareness — a technical way of saying that people have limited understanding of what is going on with respect to their (virtual) environments.

Compared with an in-person meeting, many cues about what is happening are more difficult to perceive online, or are simply not there at all. For example, in person you can observe lines of sight and eye movements to detect whether people are following along with your presentation, whereas that is not easily done on a video call.

While it’s not surprising that such issues occur in online meetings, it is disappointing that recurring frustrations have not been more effectively addressed by the design of meeting tools. The fact that these problems often present in question form (“Who’s speaking now?”) evidences the underlying need for better feedback. Whatever questions are being asked by online meeting participants should be proactively answered by the meeting applications themselves.


Speaking on mute is the meeting equivalent of leaving your turn signal on. You hit the switch, planned to toggle it back, but forgot to and just kept going. Why does this happen so often?

Modal errors — believing the system is in one state when it is actually in another state — can be traced to how information is communicated through the user interface. Many meeting applications do not effectively convey whether the system is muted or unmuted. It is often indicated by a relatively minor indicator like the change of color to one icon, in the midst of several others. In fact, it may be more apparent whether other attendees are muted compared to yourself.

Meeting applications should provide more obviously visible feedback about participants’ mute status. By analogy, many text-editing interfaces effectively differentiate between editable and non-editable modes via global user interface characteristics (e.g., grayed-out fields). Similarly, meeting applications, which are essentially voice-input tools, could display a more evident muted mode through an overall visual change to the user interface.

In addition to the visibility of mute state, the accessibility of controls is a compounding factor. Many of the most commonly used meeting applications group controls within a toolbar — this often includes toggles for video, screen share, exiting the meeting, and of course, mute. This seems like a sensible approach as it consolidates a set of controls into a small space, leaving much of the screen available for viewing meeting attendees and shared content.

However, the trade-off is that all buttons within the toolbar have relatively equal prominence without regard to their frequency or urgency of use. For example, the end-call button, which can only be used once during a meeting, is just as accessible as the mute button, which may be used frequently and needs to be accessed quickly. Psychology-based design principles on control design such as Fitt’s Law and Hick’s Law (or take-your-pick’s law) would suggest the critical mute button be given greater prominence and differentiation from secondary controls.

Finally, keyboard shortcuts are a potentially useful way to quickly toggle the mute state without having to locate and select a button onscreen, but these can be non-intuitive — Shift-Command-A? — and the keyboard is typically not the preferred interaction for most users.

Screen share

As with speaking, screen sharing is an essential feature of virtual meetings that comes with situational-awareness challenges. Simply put, there is a lack of clarity about whether what you are trying to share is actually being seen by the other meeting participants.

There are a few variables at play here. The different sharing options provided by meeting applications (e.g., sharing your desktop, vs. just a window, vs. only a specific application) may be confusing, causing users to select the wrong content. Moreover, the use of multiple devices inevitably leads to the “dual display dilemma,” where the intent is to share monitor A, but the result is sharing monitor B.

While screen-sharing difficulties involve multiple factors, including issues with both software and hardware, they may have a relatively simple solution. Display a picture-in-picture of what is currently being shared. Imagine that when you start sharing, there’s a small window that displays what the other attendees are actually seeing. That window would only be visible to you and would only appear for a brief period. You could quickly verify both that you are indeed sharing (reducing modal errors about sharing state), as well as exactly what you are sharing. Such a window is analogous to the existing functionality of letting each user see his or her own video-camera feed.


You may be unmuted and sharing effectively, but do you know who you are presenting to? As virtual meetings have become the norm, audience sizes have grown, making it challenging to readily determine who is attending a meeting or to locate a specific individual participant. Meeting attendees may be represented in many ways: a live video, a name, a picture or sometimes just a phone number.

With a small number of attendees, it is easier to view and track who is participating, but this becomes a challenge at scale. Consequently, it could be valuable to include features that are used to manage large data sets in other contexts, for example:

  • A search tool to quickly locate specific attendees
  • User-defined notifications to alert when a specific person joins or leaves a meeting
  • User-defined categories to group attendees (e.g., internal and external attendees)

In the few weeks since I initially started writing this post, I have seen applications quickly evolve to adapt to a few of these ever-present challenges. A more usable next generation of online meeting tools should be a silver lining to the radical shift in work culture.

Image by Eno Olson