Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)


Designing and evaluating any form of groupware (software designed to be used by groups of users, rather than just individuals) is difficult, with Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) as one instance within that range of software. Observing individuals doesn't help much with groupware because the behavior of the group is different than that of the individuals. Laboratory tests aren't too useful since characteristics under group conditions are hard to simulate. Imagine trying to test eBay with a handful of users in a laboratory condition, versus what it's really like with thousands of simultaneous users.

General Resources

CS 7460: Collaborative Computing is the primary class associated with this area. However, CSCW and groupware issues also come up in the following classes: CS 6470: Design of Online Communities, CS 6750:Human-Computer Interaction, CS 6455User Interface Design and Evaluation cover some of this material and CS 7467Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. The main conferences are the ACM CSCW (see SIGCHI calendar), ECSCW andGROUP conferences. But CSCW contributions can also be found at the ACM CHI conference (but this is by no means an exhaustive list). There is also a journal dedicated to CSCW, the CSCW JournalGroupware: Classification and Evaluation Groupware generally falls into four slots (with examples in the cells):


Collocated (same place)

Remote (different places)

(same time)

Electronic meeting rooms

Video conferencing, MOOSE Crossing

(different time)

Team rooms, group displays

e-mail, Usenet, CoWeb

(Although Jonathan Grudin has expanded this matrix) The particular complexity of CSCW is the interaction between work dynamics and networks. The seminal work of Sproull and Kiesler (cited in the Readingsbook below, but originally from Scientific American) points out how email (arguably the simplest form of groupware) radically changes work dynamics, e.g., by flattening hierarchies so that even low-level workers can directly address higher levels of management. Students should be able to talk about the impact of groupware on work dynamics. The paper by Grudin in the Readings paper is excellent at pointing out why groupware fails, as it so often does. A significant challenge of CSCW is making the benefit of the system outweigh the effort (of the group and of individuals) to use it. Grudin's papers also point out the general problems of how difficult it is to design, deploy, and evaluate CSCW. The chapter introduction in the Readings book is also a good overview of CSCW issues.

  • (1995). Computers, networks, and work. Readings in Human-Computer Interaction: Toward the Year 2000. R. M. Baecker, J. Grudin, W. A. S. Buxton and S. Greenberg. San Francisco, Morgan Kaufmann: 755-761.
  • (1995). Groupware and social dynamics: Eight challenges for developers. Readings in Human-Computer Interaction: Toward the Year 2000. R. M. Baecker, J. Grudin, W. A. S. Buxton and S. Greenberg. San Francisco, Morgan Kaufmann: 762-774.
  • Grudin, J. (1990)"Groupware and cooperative work: Problems and prospects. In B. Laurel (Ed.), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 171-185.

Some of these themes, as well as explanations of why CSCW systems work have been revisited in recent years through the examination of social media including technologies such as Facebook. Also, the persistence of email as a medium for cooperative work continues to receive attention. See for example,

CSCW Toolkits

Toolkits for CSCW help developers in implementing some of the more challenging aspects of CSCW interfaces, such as:

  • Support for concurrent access to shared information. The problems of users accessing shared data is greater for synchronous access than asynchronous, but even in asynchronous environments, there is a potential for race conditions or over-writing data.
  • Updating shared displays. In the synchronous, different-place form of groupware, users may have shared representations which need to update, even in low-bandwidth situations.
  • Prototyping. As the earlier discussion pointed out, it's very hard to design CSCW, so an iterative approach is the most common. Iterating is made easier with a good toolkit that aids in rapid prototyping.

A good paper on CSCW toolkits (and a presentation of one of them) is:

  • Paul Dourish (1998) Using metalevel techniques in a flexible toolkit for CSCW applications. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction5(2):109-155.

The toolkit described by Dourish is particularly suited for reflection about its own behavior. Students don't need to know Dourish's toolkit especially, but do know the issues that it's dealing with and how others have dealt with those issues. Two other systems worth knowing about as CSCW toolkits (both older, but thus, simpler) are:

  • Colab, which uses a simple database approach: M. Stefik, G. Foster, D. G. Bobrow, K. Kahn, S. Lanning, and L. Suchman. (1987) Beyond the chalkboard: Computer support for collaboration and problem solving in meetings. Communications of the ACM30(1):32-47.
  • Object World is a LISP-based system that provides an API for defining broadcast methods: I. Tou, S. Berson, G. Estrin, Y. Eterovic, and E. Wu. (1994) Prototyping synchronous group applications. IEEE Computer,27(5):48-56, May.

A great way of coming to know CSCW toolkits is to play with them. Below are two URL references to real CSCW toolkits. Students aren't expected to knowthese toolkits per se ("Quick! What's the function called in line 372 of main.c?"), but the tradeoffs that are being dealt with in these toolkits are important to know.

  • Atul Prakash's homepage points to several of the collaboration support toolkits that he's developed.
  • GroupKit is a cross-platform (Tcl/Tk) collaboration toolkit that has been used for a variety of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration systems.
  • Saul Greenberg's home page for further toolkit and CSCW research.
Domain-specific CSCW research

Much of the important work in CSCW is done in specific domains. We already mentioned the electronic mail study by Sproull and Keisler. Electronic mail is arguably the most successful groupware system. CSCW researchers who study the impact of electronic mail provide input to this particular domain of computer mediated communication as well. They also demonstrate CSCW evaluation practices. The following list contains pointers to some good papers on other research done in major domains within CSCW. Much of this material is covered in CS:7460.

Media spaces, MUDS, Collaborative Virtual Environments

Paul Dourish, Annette Adler, Victoria Bellotti and Austin Henderson. (1996) Your Place or Mine? Learning from Long-Term Use of Audio-Video Communication. Computer-Supported Cooperative Work5(1):33-62.

Mynatt, Elizabeth, Annette Adler, Mizuko Ito, and Vicki O'Day. (1997) Network Communities: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing 6:1-35.

Staging a Public Poetry Performance in a Collaborative Virtual Environment Benford et al ECSCW 97

Remote collaboration

Olson, Gary and Olson, Judy. (2000) Distance Matters, Human-Computer Interaction14:1.


Mobility in Collaboration by Luff and Heath CSCW 1998

Walking Away from the Desktop by Bellotti and Bly CSCW 1996

Going Wireless: Behavior and Practice of New Mobile Users Palen et al CSCW 98

Tourism and Mobile Technology by Brown and Chalmers ECSCW 03

The Home

Chatting with Teenagers: Considering the Place of Chat Technologies in Teen Life Grinter, Palen, and Eldridge ToCHI 06.

Age-old Practices in the New World: A study of gift-giving between teenage mobile phone users Taylor and Harper CHI 02

The Work to Make the Home Network Work Grinter et al ECSCW 05

Digital Housekeeping Tolmie et al. ECSCW 07

Listening in: practices surrounding iTunes music sharing. Voida et al CH 05