Taking the “bore” out of collaboration

I always struggled with teamwork. Not because I didn’t work well in groups or any matters of personal conflict, but because writing that group paper detailing the team’s project was always the hardest part. The logistical challenges alone were enough to make me pull my hair out – when to meet, where to meet, all the tools and supplies we all had to carry around. But the worst part were the inevitable difficulties with keeping track of who is writing what part of the paper, and managing any edits any of the team members made. At the end of the day, collaboratively writing that team report turned out to be infinitely more challenging than the project itself. But I no longer fret about team work because of one simple tool: Google Docs.

This video shows groups of students collaboratively writing a class presentation. Immediately some of their problems become visible – it’s more difficult to negotiate and voice opinions, since there’s a lack of time as well as the difficulties of talking over one another. To me, this raises a larger issue of collaborative writing being necessarily synchronous in this way. All of these students had to necessarily be IN the room at THAT time to accomplish the task. Though this is ideal, it is seldom the case for collaborative writing in a professional capacity. Thus the necessity for asynchronous writing tools that still facilitates easy collaboration is paramount.

Collaborative writing was well and thriving prior to Google Docs, with research on the subject dating way back to the 70s. Despite all the horrible stories people have about their experiences with group work, it is still undeniable that the fruit of a team’s labor is far sweeter than that of any single person’s. The caveat being that this collaborative experience has to be both pleasurable and effective. I think Google Docs manages to do this very, very (VERY) nicely. Almost every group project I’ve worked on over the past few years has been facilitated exclusively by Google Docs. This realization got me wonder…what is it about this darn software that just makes it work? What are those coveted features that Google Docs addresses so well? Ronal M. Baecker at the Computer Systems Research Institute in the University of Toronto asked a similar question – how do people write together collaboratively, and what are the features they look for in such a piece of software.

This may not be the prettiest interface, but it gets the job done. But keeping the user’s experience is mind is just as important. Keep in mind that this paper was released in 1993, and the technologies we have today are  far superior. However, it is important to note that both Baecker’s SASSE prototype and our technologies (Google Docs, for example) may differ in aesthetic, but both address the key user requirements generated from research 20 years ago.

Some important insights emerge from their research:

  1. Users want to be able to track their edits, as well as those of the other collaborators.
  2. Proximity to one another is an important aspect for collaboration – be that physical or digital proximity.
  3. Users want the ability to revert to the original text, in case they don’t want to keep the edits made.

Collaborative writing tools that address these insights and craft features that are intuitive and effective will have the most success in satisfying the user demands. Google Docs hits every single one of these criterion. The users Baecker et al. interviewed considered tracking edits (i.e., who made them, when were they made) as a primary function of the collaborative software they would most like to use.

Google Docs handles it by color coding each collaborator:

This mechanism allows collaborators to see what edits each person is making, both while working together in time and out of time. Google Docs goes one step further by having a color coded cursor to indiciate what changes a collaborator is making in real time:

The color coded feature, as well as the chatting capabilities in Google Docs makes it a prime candidate for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. Users can make the edits they want, and the other collaborators can view and manage those edits appropriately, proving feedback when necessary. The chatting feature allows collaborators to enjoy some closeness in proximity, allowing them to directly communicate with each other. Google also provides a service called Google Hangout, where multiple users can video chat at once and collaborate on a single document. This is how my group has been working on the Planner B application.

Google Docs does not afford the ability to revert to the original version of the document, but from personal experience (and talking to others), it seems like people typically save a copy of the original document in a separate file, and have one copy specifically dedicated to collaborative editing. This way, I have access to the original content in case the group collaboration goes haywire. Baecker’s prototype allowed for reverting to the original text, but this functions similar to a CTRL+Z (undo) feature.

Perhaps it would be helpful if the software maintained periodic backups of the document; the user can track the progress of the document by being able to revisit previous versions of it. Writers typically keep copies of documents as “document_edit1.doc”…etc., so it would be worthwhile to consider building that functionality into an application.

Collaboration software should make the writing enterprise fast, easy, and FUN. I think Google Docs manages to address these features very well. It may not be perfect, but it certainly is a huge step in the right direction.

TL;DR – Users want to be able to track and manage edits, but not necessarily while in the same room. Asynchronous collaboration is the name of the game. Google rocks!

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This entry was published on October 23, 2012 at 10:31 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Taking the “bore” out of collaboration

  1. Melissa on said:

    Cool research! I agree on the sometimes difficulties of collaboration, but you definitely learn everyone has valuable input.

    I also really like how cloud computing is moving collaboration technology to the future :)

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