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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: PeopleFlow: Shared documents and ad hoc workflow

Researchers: Andrew L. Cohen, Bob Stachel, Steve Foley, Debra Cash, Michael Muller

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

Most of us often write documents in collaboration with others. Although it is tempting to generalize from our own experiences when designing collaborative software, doing this frequently causes us to overlook important subtleties that emerge through formal observation in work settings. To gain a deeper understanding of collaborative writing in professional settings, Andrew Cohen led a series of studies on group authoring. With the assistance of Debra Cash, a consultant with a background in anthropology and ethnography, Andrew did the first study in Lotus' Legal department. Over a period of three months, they interviewed and observed the attorneys and their support staff, followed selected cases in depth, and periodically attended group meetings.

The researchers soon discovered that the collaborative process inside the Legal department is complex. Crafting a legal document involves interactions between lawyers, paralegals, and administrative staff with frequent discussion about language, content, shaping the argument, and where to find the critical information. It becomes clear as the lawyers work that they depend a great deal on tacit knowledge about who needs to be involved in writing the document and what it must convey. Given this picture, workflow support might seem to be the appropriate tool for getting all the right people involved. The work Andrew observed, however, doesn't map to the pre-established, sequential format typical of most workflow systems. "PeopleFlow" shifts the focus to a tool that will represent explicitly some of the information the Legal department needs to find and connect with the right people at the right time.


The people collaborating on a legal document include co-workers in the legal group, and their clients, who must at least approve of, and often also edit the documents. Andrew observed two related phenomena which emphasized the need to support ad hoc, non-sequential workflows among these people:

  1. Lawyers continually refined their model of who needed to be involved: it depended on the stage of the writing, the kind of argument they were making, and -- as deadlines neared -- timing. The group of people changed over time and was different for each writing project. Clearly, lawyers would find technological assistance with tracking this set of people and bringing them into the process when needed useful.
  2. Lawyers saved the cover letters that accompanied each draft of the document that went out to clients. They referred back to these cover letters in the course of their ongoing work to track what each person had already seen. This information is important "meta-data" that can also facilitate workflow when used as reminders of who knows what at a given time.

When people are brought into the process, they talk primarily about the current document and pass control for editing the document or sections of it between authors. Although they don't seem to have a strong need for synchronous editing -- where everyone can see everyone else's typing, they do need to talk in real-time and focus on the part of the document under discussion.

Prototyping PeopleFlow

Andrew designed a "PeopleFlow" toolbar to support the kind of ad hoc workflow and joint editing he observed in the legal office. The toolbar tracks and displays the people involved in producing a document, stores the history of the document, and provides users with simple ways to connect with people who are available to discuss the document. The use of a toolbar embeds this information in the document itself and centers discussion on the relevant sections of the document.

Early design sketches show some of the details of the toolbar and its placement in a document:

PeopleFlow software will support awareness and Sametime collaboration with the other people involved in a document's creation. Authors will be able to chat with each other, direct each other to specific places in the document. and quickly share the results of modifications they make during the conversation. Once a conversation starts, the bar might expand into a chat window with controls for synchronizing the shared view of the document and for sharing changes:

As part of this project , we also studied other professional work settings to see whether the observations from the legal arena carry over, and began prototyping a toolbar, taking design input from this study.