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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: Activity Explorer

Researchers: Werner Geyer , Li-Te Cheng, Michael Muller, Beth Brownholtz, David Millen

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

Activity Explorer (AE), a research prototype from the Instant Collaboration team, is a hybrid application that supports collaborations falling between the informality of email and the structure of a Teamroom or Quickplace. Lightweight, flexible ad hoc collaboration systems such as email and chat support short-term communication, but become unmanageable for longer-term collaborations involving larger numbers of participants. At the other extreme, shared workspaces that help users make sense of large collections of messages and files come with overhead that can deter users who expect only a small-scale or short-term collaboration. AE fills this gap supporting people as they conduct mid-size activities involving moderate-size collections of documents.

Activity Explorer supports six types of documents as objects:messages, chats, files, folders, screenshots, and to-do items. Complex discussions -- called activity threads -- are hierarchically structured collections of documents that can include all six types of documents. Activity threads can develop in an ad hoc manner, or they can be set up in advance to support a particular way of organizing shared work. Activity threads can be started with any of the six object types. Users can effortlessly transition from asynchronous to real-time collaboration without dealing with complicated set-up procedures for shared workspaces or real-time conferencing tools. Collaboration happens right in context on the content people care about making their work more efficient. Activity Explorer supports awareness of people as well as document-level awareness, making it clear when people are working on the same document and exposing indicators of overall task progress.

The figure below shows the main Activity Explorer screen in the research prototype of AE. Users access shared documents and activities through an inbox-like list (A). When they select a shared document in the list, details about that document such as its type, date created, and member list appear in the Details pane (B). Each document has its own list of members -- the people who can access that document. Access is fine-grained at the document level, so, for example, users can share all the documents in an activity thread with their team, while sharing just a single document from the same thread with an outside consultant. A separate display shows the activity thread that the document is part of (C).

Research prototype of Activity Explorer lets users collaborate at the document level.

A buddy list shows people, messages, and status (D), again with people-awareness information. New activities can be started by dragging a document to a person's name, or by right-clicking on a name and selecting the type of document to create (for example, a chat, message or shared window ). Green icons in the Details and Buddy lists indicate who is on line; green icons in the Activities list and Activity Thread pane show which documents are in use.

An activity thread can be relatively brief. In the figure below, the thread starts with a file, to which several messages about that file are added.

This simple thread in the Research prototype contains only four documents.

A longer activity thread might start with a message, involve one or more chats and files, and end in a plan for a presentation:

This longer activity thread contains messages, chats, and files.

Activity threads can grow to over a hundred documents, combining messages, chats, files, folders, shared screens, and to-dos to support discussions that last for months. However, they tend to be started without a plan to grow, and without this technology, might have been left scattered in in-boxes, chats, and file systems. The simplicity with which any member of a thread can add new documents to the thread is essential: a simple chat or message can serve as a complete interaction, or can become the root of an extended series of interchanges and shared resources.