The Use of Peripheral Social Awareness Tools in Collaborative Systems

Vichita Vathanophas & Michael B. Spring

School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh,



When people are working face-to-face or in physical proximity, they have access to information about one another. However, when people collaborate remotely using groupware, this information is generally unavailable.  Awareness of the activity of other members in the collaboration team and of changes in the shared work material may be very important in collaborative work systems.  The goal then is to enhance user performance in collaborative system by providing awareness information that is accurate and valuable.  Specifically, this research examined how such a tool impacts the quality of the work effort and the communications between group members in the completion of a collaborative authoring task.  The research has produced empirical evidence that an awareness tool negatively influences the quality of the work effort and number of communications.  There is some suggestion from the research that the number of communications may mediate the relationship between the use of the tool and quality of group task.  Future research on group awareness tools needs to evaluate fundamental communication processes and factors influencing performance in group work.

Keywords: awareness tool, awareness information, collaborative work, communication


In non-computer mediated groups, people working in close physical proximity have access to a large amount of information about one another.  This includes such things as the presence or absence of members of the work group, what they are working on, who they are working with, how actively they are working, how they feel physically and emotionally, etc.  This information is obtained directly through communication and indirectly through observation of shared artifacts (Beaudouin-Lafon, 1994).  When people collaborate via computer mediation, this information and the opportunity to access it are diminished.  Increasing the amount of information about the group availability in a computer mediated collaborative support system should increase the group’s ability to complete the task.

Being aware of other members of a team in a collaborative environment involves knowing both what people are doing and what is happening to the shared information space or artifact.  We believe that "social awareness tools" can capture and represent this border or social periphery.  The question is whether this tool enhanced social periphery will improve task performance in distributed shared information spaces?

This research outlines issues and opportunities related to the use of social awareness tools to improve collaboration by contributing to individual awareness of the state of the information store and the status of the individuals contributing to some effort.  Collaboration tools may be classed taxonomically in a variety of ways. For purposes of this discussion, tools may support core or peripheral activity and they may support the task or the interaction.  Thus we might consider the breakdown shown in Table 1 where the focus of this research is on tools related to peripheral support of interaction.  This assumes an environment where the tools to support the core task and interaction are already in place.

Literature Review

Research on computer supported cooperative work can be separated into two main categories.  The first research area is about how people work cooperatively (Rosenberg & Hutchison, 1994).  The second is about the design, building, and testing of systems to support cooperative work. (Fitzpatrick, et al., 1995; Wilson, 1991).

Text Box: 	Task	Interaction
Core	Editor	Video Conference Tool
Periphery	Spell Checker	Awareness Tools
Table 1: Taxonomy for Collaboration Tools

In the social aspect, informal communication naturally occurs to allow participants to know about each other, and serve as the framework within which collaborative tasks are completed. Kraut, et al., (1990) found the frequency of communication between any two people was strongly related to their geographical proximity. Informal communication can be facilitated easily in a face-to-face environment.  Tools are needed in a computer mediated collaboration system to support these functions.  To provide awareness information, that is, information about the presence or absence of members of the work group, what they are working on, who they are working with, how actively they are working, how they feel physically and emotionally, etc., can build informal communication over distance and help diminish the lack of physical proximity.  In addition, Dix (1994) developed the framework to show general groupware issues.  When there is a shared artifact in the group work, one participant interacts with the artifact, the others perceive the consequences of the action.  Dix (1994) called this observation by the others “feedthrough”.  Also, In order to refer to the particular artifacts, participants will use various means, which called, “deixis”.  From the perspective of the framework, feedthrough and deixis would be weak in electronic cooperation.  One possible way to capture the feedthrough or deixis in collaborative work is by supporting awareness information for participants who have direct communication via a shared artifact.  Strauss’s theory of actions (1993) also pointed out the presence, co-presence and awareness of others in locales, which is a bridge link between the social and the technical need for collaborative setting design, as an important feature in the collaborative work.       

Effective work groups have always relied on peripheral awareness of each other’s activities, such as sound leaking under office doors and casual encounters in the hallway.  A tool that performs these functions might be called an awareness tool -- “the condition of being aware: cognizance, consciousness, perception, sense” (Roget’s II, p.67). Awareness is “an understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity” (Dourish & Bellotti, 1992, p.107).  Since, awareness is knowledge about a dynamic environment, awareness must be maintained through perceptual information gathered from the environment.  Awareness across distance has meaning that it can lead positively toward communications and interactions, and perhaps, most importantly, that it can contribute to a shared sense of community (Dourish & Bly, 1992). People must perceive certain types of awareness information in their environment, know how to interpret its meaning in their particular context, and realize how to apply that information (Greenberg & Johnson, 1997).


A research team in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh has developed a system for collaborative authoring called CASCADE.  CASCADE stands for Computer Augmented Support Collaborative Authoring and Document Editing.  This study assessed the effectiveness of various tools that was added to CASCADE to keep you up-to-date on what other members of your team are doing.  The awareness tool in CASCADE has had various enhancements added to show such things as the level of user activity, the current focus of their efforts, and their disposition to engagement. 

The study involved a methodology for examining a social awareness tool designed to improve task quality and communication in collaborative writing task.  There are two groups of subjects.  The first group used collaborative authoring system with a social awareness tool for collaborative writing task, while the second used collaborative authoring system without a social awareness tool to complete the collaborative writing task.

The study was conducted with students at the University of Pittsburgh. These individuals were rewarded in this study if they stayed on the study until the end.  Students filled out a demographic data pre-questionnaire indicating their experience with various kinds of hardware and software systems, as well as their attitudes toward group work and toward computer-mediated group work. During a thirty-minute period, the subjects received training in the use of the collaborative authoring system along with a non-participatory demonstration of the system. 

1. Tools

CASCADE was configured to become a tool for collaborative authoring.  All materials were available on-line for every participant.  A number of designated machines, on a Local Area Network, were available for subjects.  In CASCADE, documents were available electronically and annotations were displayed inside documents as colorful labels.  Subject can view document content and create new annotations. 

Text Box:  
Figure 1: CASCADE with a social awareness tool
Subjects used the collaborative authoring system on workstations with and without the social awareness tools.  Each subject accessed the collaborative authoring system in the computer lab in the School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh.  One group of subject was presented the CASCADE system with a social awareness tool (figure 1), while the other was using CASCADE without a social awareness tool.

A social awareness tool had been created in conjunction with the CASCADE system that provide a representation of the following:

1. Activity information is defined as information about what others are doing or have done.  Activity value will range using fuzziness presentation.  Pictures of a user will be least fuzziness if the activity value is high or most fuzziness if activity value is low.  The amount of fuzziness will be relative to all members in a team for a particular document. 

2. Availability information is defined as information about who is around and available from the collaboration group.  Availability information will be shown to users as a slide bar, which will range from the most available to the least available value relative for all members in a team, depending on the availability value calculated.

3. Commitment/Disposition Information is defined as information about how willing person is to do more, which includes how a person views the project (positively or negatively).  Commitment/ Disposition value will range from a negative, zero, or positive number.  Pictures of a user will be green if the disposition value is positive or red if negative.  The amount of red/green will be relative to all members in a team for a particular document.

2.Experimental Tasks

Sixty subjects were randomly assigned to one of twenty groups of 3 members (the experimenter simulated a fourth artificial member) for a collaborative writing project.  Of the two categories of groups, members in the first category group (Group-A) worked on the task using the CASCADE system with the social awareness tools.  The second category group (Group-B) used the CASCADE system without the social awareness tools.   Each subject worked in different place and was given a series of tasks to finish in one day.  The working day started as normal working day, which was about 3 hour in the morning (started at 9am) and 3 hour in the afternoon (ended at 4pm.) with lunch break from noon to 1 pm.

Once assigned to a group, subjects remained in the same group throughout the duration of the study.  Each subject worked on the group task for six hours, which separated into two sessions to finish a brochure in session I and user guide in session II. 

The study used online document access.  Printing copies as the means for completion of tasks was disallowed.  Direct, personal communications between members of a group were prohibited.  Groups were allowed to use email, and communication tools in CASCADE or any other electronic communication tools.

The following procedure was used for each of the groups in this experiment:

1. A thirty-minute training session was conducted at the beginning of the first session.  Members in Group-A were trained on the CASCADE system with social awareness tool, while members in Group-B were trained only on the CASCADE system.

2. All subjects were asked to fill out a pre-questionnaire to collect demographic data and attitudes towards team work.

3.  Both groups were given documents in two directories available on the CASCADE system to complete the task.

4.  All groups were asked to follow the same general steps:

·        read and analyze the document individually

·        work on activities given to individual in a given time

·        work in group to complete brochure in CASCADE on session I

·        work in group to complete user guide in CASCADE on session II

5. Individual was asked to fill out a cohesiveness post-questionnaire.

6. Individual was asked to fill out a post-questionnaire that asked about satisfaction with the awareness information tool and agreement with the final product.

3. Data Collection

Quality of final product was evaluated using evaluation criteria.  Furthermore, number of communication within in each group were counted and analyzed.  In addition, questionnaires attempted to elicit from participants their subjective experiences with the system in the study.  Subjects rated their experiences with the social awareness tools when the experiment was finished.

The questionnaire was examined subject opinions on expected, delivered, missing, appropriate, and inappropriate system functions. Their performances would be analyzed to determine the expectations of participants in a social awareness tool and the extent to which those expectations were met.

The Analytical assessment was applied for quality evaluation in this experiment.  To specify detailed component parts, helped an individual reader to assess the writing task in the standard set of criteria.  The Analytical method identified particular components that each reader needs to look at for a fairly accurate assessment of an overall written ability.  Two readers gave each of these areas an appropriate mark from 1 to 10 (1=Poor,…, 10=Excellent). The final grade, which was the quality of each group, was the total of the component scores.

4. Data Analysis

The quality and number of communications in each group were measured during the experiment.   The group means to be compared had been specified prior to data collection.  Hence, a one-tailed T-test Procedure was used to investigate the differences among groups at the 0.05 significant levels.  For survey results, mean value for satisfaction was reported.


Participantsare were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions.  The demographics were used to check the distribution.  There are were no significantly different proportions between groups (at p<0.05) using the Chi-square test with gender, student, writer, writing used using a computer, and experience with collaborative writing systems.  In addition, the Mann-Whitney test was used to determine if there was a statistically significant difference in the distribution of age, education background, experience with computers, and life assessment.  No significant difference was found. 

Two people evaluated the Brochures (first product) and User Guides (second product).  Pearson Correlation was used to measure the association between two evaluators. In terms of brochure (first product), the quality was significantly correlated for both evaluators (r=0.485, p=0.030).  In addition, the quality of user guide (second product) was significantly associated for both evaluators at a = 0.05 significant levels (r=0.509, p=0.022).

In this experiment, the user guide was considered as the product to measure the performance of group work.   The experiment assigned participants to produce the first product (brochure) because participants needed to get used to the collaborative writing system, other members in their team and the writing task.  For The mean score  offor quality of user guide (the final document produced), as predictedin groups working without the social awareness tools was higher (M = 133.9000), than it was for the groups working with the tools (M = 101.6000).  The difference was statistically significance (t(18)= 2.868, p(1-tailed) =.005).  In this experiment, the number of communications is the sum of send sent mail messages and number of comments made by all members in a team.  The Nnumber of communications in groups  working without the social awareness tool was higher than those in groups working with the tool with a mean average of 216.4000 and 174.1000 respectively., and tThe difference was marginally statistically significant (t (18)= 1.907, p(1-tailed)=0.036). 

Participants reported satisfaction with the tools on a conceptual level.  Participants agreed that representation of activity to show how much they are working, should be designed the same as the availability and disposition tools.  Availability information is designed for asynchronous work, with each member of a team working in different places at different times.  In the one-day experiment, the experimenter distributed participants in different places, but it was difficult to simulate different times.  Therefore, most participants did not see any usefulness for availability information when they knew all members were working and available all the time.

There were doubts about whether the activity information really showed how much subjects worked.  Most participants tried to work harder to make their face icons clearer.  However, their face icons were still fuzzy and they felt dissatisfied with the tool.  Some participants argued about the disagreement type of comments considered as the negative feeling in the disposition information.  They said that the negative comments in the document did not indicate a negative feeling toward the document.  As a result, the matrix of information presented in the awareness tool, requires a redesign.

In addition to completing the activity and writing tasks, participants were required to answer some management questions. These included questions such as which member in your opinion is always available to help other members in the team or which members in your opinion always have positive attitudes towards the document, etc.  Even though most participants in groups working with awareness tool reported that they did not use the awareness tool to complete their tasks, they perceived the awareness tool peripherally to answer these questions.  The mean correctness score of decisions made in groups working with the awareness tools is higher than those in groups working without the tools.  The effect of the awareness tools approached significance (t(18)=    --1.724, p(1-tailed) =.051).

In addition, there are some evidences from the data that the amount of communication is a mediator between use of tool and quality.  A significant negative correlation (r=-.410, p(1-tailed)=.073) was found between use of the tool and amount of communication.  In addition, a significant negative correlation (r=-.560, p(1-tailed)=.005) was found between use of tool and quality of the product.  A positive correlation which approached significance (r=.343, p(1-tailed)=.049) was found between amount of communication and quality. 

Besides the use of awareness tool, there is another variable that might affect the team work.  The amount of activity that occurred during the writing task for members in a team was recorded during the experiment.  This process variable might affect the dependent variables in working as a team.  Amount of activity was measured as the number of actions taken on a document, i.e., editing, commenting, etc; and amount of time each member spent working on a document.  It is possible that the effect of the awareness tools on the dependent variables could be moderated by amount of activity.  The data suggests that the effect of activity level on quality and the effect of activity level on amount of communication were stronger in the group with awareness tool than in the group without tool.  The one-tailed t-test was used to determine the mean difference between the low and high activity levels in group with awareness tool.  There was a statistically significant effect for activity level on quality (t=-1.899, p(1-tailed)=.047) and activity level on amount of communication (t=-2.823, p(one-tailed)=.011).  Therefore, there is evidence that quality and amount of communication were influenced by the activity level in group with awareness tools.

Implications and Future Work

The findings in this study about awareness tools are contrary to the theory in the previous section.  The study expected that the group with awareness tools could produce better quality for a group task.  In fact, the awareness tools had a negative effect on their performance.  However,Nevertheless these results arehave valueable because they demonstrate that awareness information existed exists in a group task and was perceived by the participants who had the tools.  In addition, the group with awareness tools produced products withthe quality differences influenced by the amount of activity.  When the amount of activity was high in a work group, they produced higher quality than those with low activity.  The negative impact may result from the incorrect drive to associated with complex tasks for social facilitation or social loafing.  Facilitation is gained if the dominant response is correct; , otherwise, the performance is harmed.  The If the dominant response is likely to be the correct one on well-learned or simple tasks; , accordingly, the performance is facilitated.  On the other hand, if the dominant response is likely to be incorrect and this leads to debilitated performance on complex or not well-learned tasks (Zajonc, 1965).  In this study, the collaborative writing task was complex and the content of the writing task was very technical.  Additionally,The effort to understand the writing task as well as and learn the awareness information might have increased the complexity of the overall task.  As a result, low performance in groups working with an awareness tool might have been avoided if the tool had become second nature, and not a source of cognitive overhead. from

Social loafing is defined asderived from the finding that participants working together put out less effort than that participants working alone (Latane et al., 1979).  People loaf when their output cannot be evaluated, and because evaluation is not possible when outputs are pooled, it is this aspect of working together that leads to loafing.   Therefore, the low quality from the data might be affect from thean effect of social loafing.

The amount of activity performed by each member in a team was considered as a process variable that impacted team performance in this study.  There was evidence that the activity level in the groups with awareness tools influenced quality and the amount of communication.  Participants in the group with awareness tools perceived the amount of activity from the awareness tool; ; therefore, they knew how much each member worked in a document.  This awareness information had an impact on the quality they produced and amount of communication.   When they realized that their teams had low activity, they produced low quality and reported low satisfaction.  On the other hand, when they perceived their team worked more, they worked and produced higher quality and satisfaction.  There was a difference in quality from the low and high amount of activity in the groups with the awareness tools, while there was no impact from the amount of activity on quality in groups without the awareness tools because members in the group without awareness tools did not have information about the amount of activity during the writing task.  There were was only the communication that existed in the writing process; , therefore, their quality and satisfaction were did not varied vary due to the level of activity.

Awareness information presented to participants correctly still might enhance rather than debilitated the quality.  It may even be the case that better instruction or training in the creative and functional uses within an extended time of the simpler awareness tools used in this would lead to a better performance in group tasks.             

The redesign of the awareness tool should be included into the future research.  It appears that it the current version was suboptimal in given providing awareness information to participants.  Participants perceived awareness information from the tools and showed their interest in the awareness tool and its implication.  However, it failed to create a sufficiently good presentation that would be have satisfied participants using the tools.  The context of awareness information is used to ensure that individual contributions are relevant to the group’s activity as a whole, and to evaluate individual actions with respect to group goals and progress (Zhang, et. al., 1999).  Awareness support systems are designed to provide distributed people with context information for collaborative activity (Chen & Gellersen, 1999).  In this study, awareness tools continuously captured and transmitted context information in real time, participants realized individual’s contribution, but were easily got annoyed by the presentation of the information.    

The redesign for the user interface and added buildbuilt-in functions for the awareness tools should enhance the use of the tools.  Shneiderman (1987) stated that redesign of the human-computer interface can make a significantly difference in user satisfaction.  The An email function should be built incorporated into the awareness tool and should be easily used.  The additional information users requested – file a person is working on; current level of activity, etc. should be incorporated.  Finally, awareness tool tools should also be built intoincluded with the CASCADE window in order to reduce the number of windows on the screen.

Additionally, the reduction in effort for social loafing; for example, providing the participants’ output to others, and assigning the evaluation criteria to the performance as an individual and as a whole, and the enhancement in effort in social facilitation by providing the a simple task for participants, might enhance the performance of group work.  Moreover, instruction or training in a the creative and functional use of technology would be a very useful supplement to continued research.

This avenue of study helps to determine the impact of awareness tools in a complex computer mediated environment.  Much can be learned from highly abstracted and controlled experiments; however, it is our conviction that there are is a need for more detailed experiments that to endeavor to isolate the impact of individual components in a larger functioning system.  As this study develops confidence in the contributing factors, there are other questions such as:

·        What other input factors besides the awareness tools that influence the performance of the group task or the group process?

·        How does the explicit recording of activity change the way users work?

·        At what point does peripheral information change from being informative to being distracting?

·        How does the size of the group impact the importance of social awareness?

·        How can the a field study be conducted with less possible limitations than in this study?


In conclusion, tThis research found demonstrated limited preliminary support for awareness information in collaborative work.  While the researcher continues to believe that awareness information is critical in collaborative work, it is not clear how to effectively present and maintain awareness information for to the user.  However, tThe study now has produced  empirical evidence that social awareness tools influence the quality and number of communication.  Therefore, to meaningfully examine and better support group awareness, future research should focus at on evaluating on fundamental communication processes and factors influence influencing the performance in group work.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that human interaction is a complex phenomenon.  Accordingly, when studying interactions researchers must make be cautious alternatives in choosing studying interaction as to which variables will be examined and incorporated into theoretical systems.  This research was experimented to suggest this potential, and by directing out consequences, in which awareness tool was implemented,examined the use of awareness tools, which highlighted the important role selected variables play in human interaction.  to be a It further suggests that these suggested variables that may be worthy of more general theoretical concern.  Overall, this study found limited support for the idea that awareness information provides an incremental value in collaborative work.

The social awareness tools used in group work studied here was in a prototype stage.  Therefore, their net effect was mixed.  Still, it is athe results finding, are suggestions that some of the benefits hypothesized earlier may well be realized when the technologies are more fully developed.  Thus, further examinations of the hypotheses of this study should be conducted with more mature technologies and in settings that have possibly fewer limitations.


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