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Introduction to Collaborative Software

What is Collaborative Software?

Collaborative software, or groupware, is technology designed to facilitate the work of groups. This technology may be used to communicate, cooperate, coordinate, solve problems, compete, or negotiate. While traditional technologies like the telephone qualify as groupware, the term is ordinarily used to refer to a specific class of technologies relying on modern computer networks, such as email, newsgroups, videophones, or chat.

Groupware technologies are typically categorized along two primary dimensions:

  1. whether users of the groupware are working together at the same time (“realtime” or “synchronous” groupware) or different times (“asynchronous” groupware), and
  2. whether users are working together in the same place (“colocated” or “face-to-face”) or in different places (“non-colocated” or “distance”).

Several typical groupware applications are described in more detail on our Typical Collaborative Software Applications page.

What is CSCW?

CSCW (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work) refers to the field of study which examines the design, adoption, and use of groupware. Despite the name, this field of study is not restricted to issues of “cooperation” or “work” but also examines competition, socialization, and play. The field typically attracts those interested in software design and social and organizational behavior, including business people, computer scientists, organizational psychologists, communications researchers, and anthropologists, among other specialties.

How is Collaborative Software Design Different from Traditional User Interface Design?

Groupware design involves understanding groups and how people behave in groups. It also involves having a good understanding of networking technology and how aspects of that technology (for instance, delays in synchronizing views) affect a user’s experience. All the issues related to traditional user interface design remain relevant, since the technology still involves people.

However, many aspects of groups require special consideration. For instance, not only do million-person groups behave differently from 5-person groups, but the performance parameters of the technologies to support different groups vary. Ease-of-use must be better for groupware than for single-user systems because the pace of use of an application is often driven by the pace of a conversation. System responsiveness and reliability become more significant issues. Designers must have an understanding of the degree of homogeneity of users, of the possible roles people play in cooperative work, and of who key decision-makers are and what influences them.

We discuss design issues in significantly more detail on our Collaborative Software: Design Issues page.

Why Bother?

Why is collaborative software design worth paying attention to in the first place?

Collaborative software offers significant advantages over single-user systems. Here are some of the most common reasons people want to use collaborative software:

  • to facilitate communication: make it faster, clearer, and more persuasive
  • to enable communication where it wouldn’t otherwise be possible
  • to enable telecommuting
  • to cut down on travel costs
  • to bring together multiple perspectives and expertise
  • to form groups with common interests where it wouldn’t be possible to gather a sufficient number of people face-to-face
  • to save time and cost in coordinating group work
  • to facilitate group problem-solving
  • to enable new modes of communication, such as anonymous interchanges or structured interactions

In addition to the benefits of groupware, another good reason to study usability and design issues in groupware is to avoid a failed design. Groupware is significantly more difficult to get right than traditional software. Typically, a groupware system can’t succeed unless most or all of the target group is willing to adopt the system. In contrast, a single-user system can be successful even if only a fraction of the target market adopts it.

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