Collaboration Software:  A 5 Minute Primer

Bill Buxton
Created: Jan. 17, 2002


Computers are increasingly being used as communications devices and to support collaboration.  With this have come a range of produts.  The problem for many is to sort them out in any meaningful way.  The good news is that there is a large body of research on which we can draw.  This is a very quick overview of some of the key issues.

The minute that you have two people looking at a computer screen, you have a form of collaboration software.  However, with the advent of large screens, high speed networks, etc., a number of products are growing to support various forms of collaboration more explicitly.  The result is a confusing mess.

The trick, then, is to find a way to make sense out of the mess.

Time & Space

The easiest way to start is by way of the following figure:
Same time

Different Time
Same      Different
Place         Place 



In "Collaboration 101", the primary dimensions by which systems are differentiated are space and time.  Let's start with the first row, which deals with synchronous collaboration.  If you have two or more people in the same space at the same time, a whiteboard (electronic or traditional) is one means of collaboration.  On the other hand, if the people are working at the same time, but at different locations, a speakerphone, videoconferencing, or a pair of synchronized electronic whiteboards would be examples of how to support collaboration.

The second row in the figure deals with asynchronous collaboration.  The first column encompasses the situation where people are co-located, but working at different times.  Leaving a note on the fridge at home is one common example.  Email might be another.  If the collaborator is at a different place, and working at a different time, then voicemail, videomail, email, or some other form of stored and electronically transmitable form of messaging is required.


The next dimension according to which one can compare collaborative tools has to do with the modalities of interaction that are supported.  Ask questions like:

Power, Control & Turn-Taking

In synchronous collaboration, especially, power, control and turn-taking significantly affect the nature and dynamics of collaboration.  Think about a brainstorming session on a large whiteboard where there is only one marker.  Now think about how the same session is altered if each person has their own marker.  You have two completely differnt dynamics.  The same is true if you have to explicity "pass the cursor" or if only one person can point, type or draw at time.  The system that is good for presentations, may be a disaster for brainstorming, for example.


The issue here is, what is the repertoire of data types can the system deal with?  Spreadsheets, 2D drawings, 3D models, etc.  And if one has spreadsheets, can one only look and point, look and draw, or actually modify them.

There's More

But I'm not going to go into it.  Your 5 minutes are up.

But if you want to look at some of the research that I have been involved in, click here.

Besides looking at the text of the papers, the references will also point you to the work of others.