Design for conversation: Lessons from Cognoter

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Citation: D. G. Tatar, G. Foster, D. G. Bobrow (1991) Design for conversation: Lessons from Cognoter. Computer-supported cooperative work and groupware (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Design for conversation: Lessons from Cognoter
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) communication (RSS), CSCW (RSS), groupware (RSS)


Tatar et al. describes a design team at Xerox PARC's experience with a platform for collaborative work called Cognotor that went poorly. Essentially, teams using the software suffered from serious communication breakdowns. The authors use the tool as a way to highlight the important (and often hidden) role that support for communication plays in computer supported cooperative work and offers suggestions for improvement of the design to take into account some of these concerns.

Cognotor is a shared workspace that involved desks with three screens and a shared "big screen" in a room. The team put a series of real design teams in control of Cognotor and found that they were extremely frustrated in the process. In one case, they stopped using the system altogether and started using a pad of paper. They argue that there were essentially two big classes of problems:

  • Users wanted to see things in the system that Cognotor would not let them see.
  • Users mistook references in each other speech (e.g., "this" and "that") and had trouble resolving the difficulties.

Theoretically, the paper tries to understand these problem using the interactive theory of communication (see Grounding in communication by Clark and Brennen (1991)) but argues that their system used more a "parcel-post" system where items were packaged up and sent.

They attribute design problems in their system to the use of separate screens, the lack of sequentiality, the use of short labels, anonymity of work, private editing, unpredictable delay, private moving of icons, and tailorable windows that did not provide WYIWIS.

The effect was that it was difficult to provide context and to connect a connection between verbal conversation in the room and the textual matter being collaboratively produced. They propose some design improvements for their system and suggest that the main takeaway is that CSCW application should take into account two key things:

  • Communication is interactive and cannot easily be packaged into discrete bits without problems.
  • It is important to work to maintain shared references among communicators.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The paper has been cited more than 250 times. This has largely been in the CSCW literature on awareness and communication.