That’s a Great Idea: How to Help Introverts Be Heard in Meetings

What introverts can teach us about better meeting design

Microsoft Design
Nov 12, 2020 · 7 min read

By Arathi Sethumadhavan, Josh Lovejoy, and Eric Hull

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“Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” — Anaïs Nin

One of the most popular TED talks of all time is by Susan Cain, whose book The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking struck a less-than-silent chord with a population whose value we often overlook: introverts.

Even though between one-third and half of the population is introverted, Western culture exhibits a bias toward extroversion. Gregariousness is often falsely conflated with productivity, adults encourage quieter kids to “come out of their shells,” and extroverts rate as smarter, better looking, and more interesting.

Of course, this isn’t all or nothing; ambiverts exist, and depending on the context, the degree to which you feel introverted or extroverted may change. It’s a spectrum, but one we don’t tend to honor equally.

Yet there’s much to learn from studying introverted behavior, particularly when it comes to designing meeting experiences. In contrast to more social, assertive extroverts, introverts work best with solitude, space, time, and quiet. Introverts often prefer to communicate through writing rather than talking. Because meetings are vocal externalizations of thought, they tend to favor extroverts.

So, when the Teams team started working on a project on AI-powered conversation transcription, they brainstormed several remedies, including measuring speaker interruptions and providing behavioral data during meetings to all attendees so that they can learn from their behaviors.

However, when our Ethics and Society team was approached about this project, we did what we encourage all product makers to do: consider how people will use the technology, determine its benefits, and then focus solutions on a community at risk of being excluded from those benefits. With this project, we focused on people who skew toward introversion.

With the world now working and learning remotely, more product makers are focused on improving digital meetings than ever before. To honor our ethical imperative of creating inclusive digital environments, here are three takeaway ideas based on our research and design explorations. Ultimately, by drawing from and honoring introversion, we can help create intelligent meetings that benefit everyone.

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Since introverts particularly benefit from knowing an upcoming meeting’s agenda, consider adding a ‘Set Agenda’ entry field as a default setting for new meeting invites, as shown in the image above. This also opens opportunities to incorporate agendas into the meeting itself, with a banner popping up when someone is nearing the end of a topic.

Using intelligent transcriptions in meetings presents incredibly exciting possibilities. The ability to extend what we can pay attention to, or search across a collective memory of discussions, could dramatically expand our capacity to listen and learn from others. AI-powered transcript analysis could surface action items and spur inclusive meeting behaviors.

But recording meeting conversations and transcribing them for reference and analysis could also have the opposite effect. For certain groups of people, particularly introverts, such technology could dissuade them from participating at all.

To counteract this risk, we designed more opportunities for people to interact textually in meetings, transforming these transcriptions from a pristine record into an interactive tool. For fast-paced meetings that allow little time for the type of reflection introverts prefer, we explored ways for people to offload their thoughts to the AI-powered conversation transcript with pins, or highlights, to refer back to at a later time, or to train the service to flag portions of a transcript that cover specific topics, themes or people.

Another design possibility leans into the preference of introverts to reflect and comment in writing via threaded conversations within the real-time transcript. For example, a person could mark a point in the transcript and type a reply off to the side. This would allow a more introverted meeting participant to connect their comments to the original context of the discussion that sparked their ideas, and make their ideas known to the other participants at their own pace.

These ideas help meeting participants stay engaged in the conversation by making their voices heard in a way that works for them and allowing for further reflection. While introverts would benefit most from these features, they also just lead to more useful, thoughtful meetings all around.

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When designing transcript functionality, consider replies, pins, and highlights. Replies allow for contextual comments without interrupting a speaker, while pins and highlights support further reflection or asynchronous comments. Then, mitigate chilling effects by using explicit language to create awareness about mistakes AI can make.

For all the potential benefits of AI-powered transcriptions, they can also make it clear that participants are being watched. Our research showed how this can create chilling effects — that is, a change in behavior when a person perceives they are being watched or judged by others. Transparency is key to keeping AI-transcribed meetings inclusive, especially for introverts.

In a survey of 366 workplace employees, we found that introverts, more than extroverts, would be less comfortable, less productive, and more hesitant questioning others in a meeting using AI-powered conversation transcription. They would also be more likely to act differently, speak less, and have privacy concerns in these types of meetings.

We also investigated people’s responses to 2 types of AI-powered conversation transcription scenarios — one that attributed speakers and used behavioral analytics, and one that didn’t. We found using attribution and analytics significantly increased chilling effects, especially among the introverts.

Why?

One, human memory is imperfect. We are forgetful, and our forgetfulness forges a social contract between people of plausible deniability about what did and did not happen. Conversation transcriptions strip away the benefit of plausible deniability.

Two, while people might intellectually understand that the technology is fallible — that the transcriptions will contain inaccuracies and the attributions sometimes will be incorrect — people will likely treat AI-generated transcriptions as objective and therefore more accurate because of the natural tendency of people to over-rely on automation.

Fortunately, designs that provide transparent information on the technology’s capabilities and limitations can thaw the chill, protecting authentic expression. One solution could be unifying all anonymous meeting participants as a single “guest” in the transcript, helping safeguard plausible deniability and reduce fear of being outed. Additionally, limiting access to digital meeting records to meeting attendees could also help maintain the social contract between meeting participants and alleviate concerns about privacy.

Designs that enable sharing anonymized meeting transcripts, or transcript highlights, with people who were unable to attend the meeting provide a form of post-meeting hallway discussion that is less likely to spontaneously occur among introverts. However, transcript editing should be deprioritized to avoid burdening people with additional work.

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It’s important to let customers self-design AI as much as possible. This mock UI shows a tiered approach where the customer decides how much an AI system can monitor interruptions during meetings.

Introverts and extroverts also exhibit neurological differences. Understanding these can help design solutions that help a broader range of people participate during meetings.

In our literature review, we found research showing that the blood flow pathways in introverts’ brains differ from the pathways in extroverts’ brains. For example, one study shows that in the brains of introverts, blood flows to parts that attend to planning and problem solving, whereas in extroverts it flows to parts of the brain focused on external, sensory processing.

What’s more, introverts and extroverts differ in their response to dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for reward-seeking behavior and pleasure. Dopamine motivates extroverts more, but they are less sensitive to it, and thus need more stimulation. Meanwhile, introverts can become overwhelmed by elevated activity or rapidly shifting topics.

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The ability to focus and do deep work is especially important for introverts, and this design is an example of how we can remind people to consider their timing when messaging others. By having a distinct button label indicating that someone is in Focus Mode, the sender can reconsider when or how to send their note.

These findings can inform small but impactful changes to how we plan meetings through designs that encourage planning and reflection. This includes embedding prompts that nudge meeting organizers to set an agenda and share meeting materials in advance, enabling all attendees to show up ready to participate and keep the meeting on track. Reimagining how we give and receive meeting feedback also takes cues from the introverted experience.

At the end of a meeting, designs that solicit anonymous feedback from attendees can help the meeting organizer optimize and fine-tune agendas for future meetings. Time and space to provide feedback would enable introverts to comfortably communicate their experience and offer improvements and make their ideas heard.

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Introversion in Microsoft Teams

Some of these features are on the horizon for Teams experiences. For example, integrating pre-read materials into the meetings experience, and increasing the visibility of chat and other non-verbal forms of communication (e.g., emoticon reactions and inline document collaboration). Designing Intelligent transcription thoughtfully and responsibly leads us to solutions that make everyone — from the most vocal to the more introspective — a key part of the conversation.

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Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

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