Design Flaws: On Skype, How Do We Hang Up Gracefully?

Skype is a beautiful app with one big problem. It’s not just the lack of eye contact. It’s the lack of a graceful way to hang up.

You’ve just video-Skyped a successful business meeting. Or maybe you talked to a loved one from across the globe. There was joviality and earnest discussion. This whole virtual face-to-face meeting thing actually worked out, and you’re closer to another human being, in some small way, because of it.

It’s a tiny technological miracle.

You say your good-byes and convey that you just can’t wait to speak again. And then you go to hang up. And … crap. Where … is … that … hang-up … button … again???!? There’s a split-second moment of confusion and then panic. That’s your real good-bye.

No matter how satisfying your conversation just was, the cherry on top of this interaction is a two-second struggle for each party to break ties. In that momentary quest to rediscover the hang-up button, demeanors quickly shift from competent to clueless, and from warm to task-oriented. Whatever improvised ballet you’d choreographed earlier devolves into an awkward, toe-smashing junior high dance. The last moments of any great Skype conversation are always the worst.

Maybe this sounds petty, but consider the grander implication: A conversation, at its core, is a signal to someone that they’re worth your time (and that you’re worth theirs). By ending any conversation, you’re making a tacit statement: "I have something more important to deal with in my life than talking to you."

Now, this is an absolutely reasonable sentiment! We all do have other things to do, after all. But to soothe these interpersonal transitions, culture has invented all sorts of verbal balm. We prime someone to ending a conversation rather than merely walking away—"It was great catching up!"—and we wish people well far into the future to signal we’ll care long after our talk is through—"Have a great weekend!" We overcome the depressing human truth that we’d rather not spend all day with one another through constant, vigilant cordiality. Luckily, cues from our social environment help us out. A check arrives at lunch. The bartender shouts last call. The bus finally makes it to your stop.

But Skype (or Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and any other video chat service) offers no such environmental kindnesses—nor does it offer the glorious, blind hang-up of a phone to accompany a well-timed "have a great weekend!" Instead, video chat apps seem to revel in our awkward departures, snickering in intentional ignorance as two puny humans fail to spot an obvious red button. So that critically important transitional moment, when two people amicably break up to go their separate ways, becomes a clumsy series of seconds calling far too much attention to themselves. And our respective motives become clear: We’re both just trying to escape each other.

From the editors: As always, we invite your comments/suggestions on how to fix this vexing problem.

[Image: Telephone via Shutterstock]

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  • Cheryl Blakeney

    In Skype under Tools/Options/Advanced/HotKeys
    Check:  Enable Hot Keys
    Check:  Hang Up = Alt-PageDown

    This shortcut is sometimes easier to hit than the hangup icon on the screen, particularly if you have other windows open.

  • jmco

    In an attempt to “simplify” UI designers often go too far. 
    How about giving a user prefs option to place the word HANG UP next to the hang up button? and words next to all the buttons that lack words saying what they are.

    Ditto for all apps that suffer from this problem.

  • Ming

    How about waving to trigger focus for the end call button, and then hitting return to hang up? Pretty sure Windows 8 has wave detect.

  • andaraes

    Yes, I know exactly what you mean, it's truly unsettling to end a video chat.  I think the problem is needing to shift attention from the person to the machine.  So, how could you keep your attention on the person, while ending the video in a natural way? 

    What if there was a physical button on or next to the web cam?  Or what if the software sensed when the camera is 'pressed' by a finger?  Any of these ways, you could maintain eye contact with the person while reaching for the hang up.  It's just quick thought.

  • Joel Blair

    Yes the hang up button is right there, but by the end of my call I might have other tabs or windows open. I may have been sending files or referencing a document. I always experience the awkwardness Mark describes when ending a Skype video or voice chat and I hate it. Usually at the end of the goodbyes my eyes dart around the screen looking for a way out as I frantically right-click the Skype icon in my dashboard to quit the program.

  • Konrad Dobson

    Good idea! Next time I end a video chat I'll just hit my PC's power button without saving anything, just to avoid this situation ;)

  • Stefano Panterotto

    I was thinking the same thing. I'm thinking about movies, sci-fi's usually, where usually to end a video (or hologram) chat the user need to get close to the device and to literally turn off it or push a botton. It's a physical action that shifts the focus of both parties from the person to the device, transforming the end of the chat in a simple deal with machines and actually ending the people conversation in fact before the chat is really ended. 

  • yunustunak

    Totally agree with the views on the essay. We "designers" tend to align buttons for the sake of general look not to enhance the experience, redesigning on talk layout is definitely required and maybe defining some keyboard shortcuts like "Space" to most required buttons would make sense. 
    That awkward moment of clicks is a must.

    By the way, checked for Skype shortcuts, i guess its available on Windows versions to assign any keys to specific commands. No such thing in OSX from what i see.

  • Clay

    I actually do agree with the sentiment.  The button is there but it's so small, and chances are you haven't been using your mouse for a bit while you've been on the call, leading to a minor learning curve as you relocate your mouse cursor and try to get it over to the button.

    This being CoDesign though, I would have really liked to see comparisons and suggestions on what to look at for better interactions.  I'd think it would be interesting to see some things that do it right (phone being a good example, or maybe another video chat service).

  • PhineasJW

    The Skype user interface is honestly terrible.  Show it to someone for the first time and tell them to send a file, then count how long it takes them to figure out.

    On the" hangup", my friend does the same thing, says goodnight then 5 seconds later is still there and follows it up with the words "awkward silence" as he fumbles through the UI looking for the hangup button.