Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces

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Citation: Paul Dourish, Victor Bellotti (1992) Awareness and Coordination in Shared Workspaces. Proceedings of the 1992 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work (RSS)

doi: 10.1145/143457.143468


Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) awareness (RSS), coordination (RSS), computer supported cooperative work (RSS), shared feedback (RSS), shared workspaces (RSS), qualitative (RSS), interaction (RSS)


Dourish and Bellotti argue that awareness is a key property for collaborative systems that allow coordination on a shared workspace(e.g. Sharelatex or Google docs). They define awareness as "understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity." By knowing what others are doing we can more easily know what we should be doing. Systems that provide awareness are an alternative to cumbersome and brittle designs that force collaboration into a prescribed process.

They review several collaborative writing systems of the day that often provided limited forms of awareness through "user role restrictions." Some of the systems assigned users to particular roles (e.g. author, reviewer) which correspond with a set of abilities to modify different parts of the shared workspace. Dourish and Bellotti criticize this approach as not having a realistic correspondence to how roles operate socially. Roles are negotiated and renegotiated and can suddenly shift. By making transitioning roles necessary and cumbersome user role restrictions add a lot of overhead.

In contrast, explicit mechanisms for awareness require active work by collaborators to make others aware of what they are doing. Such mechanisms are likely to be under provisioned since they compete for attention and with the task at hand, and add overhead. To make matters worse, the person who benefits most from awareness is recipient not the sender of awareness communication. Therefore explicit provisioning of awareness information is likely to be under provisioned by explicit mechanisms.

As the main empirical contribution of their study, Dourish and Bellotti report a case study of a novel collaborative writing system called ShrEdit which afforded passive communication of editing activities to collaborators, which they term shared feedback. This system seems similar to Google docs or Sharelatex, except that cursor position was not passively communicated, only editing activities. The users in the study were also using voice communication for explicit coordination, but made use of the shared workspace to passively communicate and made many subtle voice communications. Different teams used the shared workspace in innovative ways like for some team members to keep material they didn't want others to modify in separate documents. The users were a big fan of the passive awareness. This case study serves more of an illustration of their point than supporting evidence. The argument seems to stand on its own.

After presenting the case study, they turn to argue that shared feedback is not only import for synchronous collaboration, but also for asynchronous. They continue to point out that synchronous and asynchronous collaboration can actually be a blurry distinction. Semi-synchronous systems support both asynchronous and asynchronous use. Many systems we might think are synchronous can easily be made semi-synchronous if they are not already.

In conclusion, they summarize the three approaches to supporting awareness, explicit roles, explicit communication, and shared feedback. Shared feedback's strength is that it provides awareness information at very low cost, allows users to seek out the information most relevant to them and to concurrently work on the shared object while browsing awareness information.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This paper introduced a brilliant conception of awareness as a property that can be designed into technical systems for collaborative work. They show how awareness can be powerful for helping people collaborate better.