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Designing for a Workforce That Acts More Sustainably – Part 3: Designing for Remote Collaboration and Communication

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – June 30, 2011

In this series of six articles, I investigate how designers – particularly user interface (UI), user experience (UX), and interaction (IxD) designers – can contribute to making a company's workforce behave more sustainably. In the first article, I looked for fields of action for designers and identified three: (1) commute and travel, (2) resource, energy, and waste management, and (3) organizational issues. In the second article, I stepped back to identify the sustainability aspects, as defined by Nathan Shedroff (2009), in which designers can have an impact. Combining action fields with sustainability aspects, I collected four possible action items for designers:

  1. Designing for remote collaboration and communication
  2. Using ambient displays to support awareness of remote colleagues
  3. Using persuasive design/technology
  4. Replacing physical objects with virtual (digital) ones

In this and the following three articles, I will look at the action items one by one in more detail. I begin with the first action item, "designing for remote collaboration and communication".


Introducing Action Item Number One: Designing for Remote Collaboration and Communication

I identified this item particularly for the "commute and travel" field with respect to the "reduce" aspect (see second article). Employees' commuting and travel activities consume a great deal of energy and resources, including employees' time, which is also a valuable resource. An example that backs up my statement with figures comes from SAP's sustainability report for 2010, which states that 24% of the company's carbon footprint relates to company cars and 35% to business flights, totaling nearly 60%. It is no wonder, therefore, that the primary sustainability goal in the commute and travel field is to reduce these activities. The usual approach is to install information and communications technology (ICT) solutions, also called "groupware", to support communication and collaboration between remote and local workers or teams – ideally in ways that work as if people were in the same location at the same time, although potentially they may be spread all over the world. Below, we will see that time and place are indeed important determinants of groupware. Groupware has a long history, and if we leave aside electronic tools for a moment, tools for remote communication date back to at least the Stone Ages (think of jungle drums and smoke signals). Not surprisingly, the list of groupware solutions is long – far too long to be included here. In this article, I can only point to a few introductory references and to typical purposes and use contexts of groupware.


Introductions to Groupware

Through its collaboration edition, the SAP Design Guild Website itself is one resource of information about groupware. Admittedly, the edition articles are already a couple of years old and show their age. Nevertheless, Ramona Winkler's article Keywords and Definitions Around Collaboration is still a useful "quick introduction" to the field: It explains the terms collaboration and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), offers some criteria for classifying groupware, and also provides a sleek overview of groupware tools. In addition, Ramona and I compiled a collaboration glossary that provides definitions of terms from the collaboration field. Ben Shneiderman's classic textbook, Designing the User Interface, particularly in its most recent 5th edition from 2009 (review), offers a more extended and up-to-date introduction to groupware. Wikipedia is another source of information to consult. Simply search for keywords such as groupware (collaborative software), computer supported cooperative work (CSCW), computer supported collaboration (CSC), and telecommuting.


Classifying Groupware...

... According to Processes

Groupware can be divided into categories that denote the processes that the tools support, including communication, cooperation, information-sharing, and coordination (adapted from Dominik Stein, 1997) or into the categories (or levels) of communication, conferencing (or collaboration), and coordination (from Wikipedia). In her article, Ramona Winkler assigns selected groupware tools to the first set of categories and writes that "these processes do not work independently of one another but are usually intermingled and determined by each other. True collaboration tools will try to provide help for all those collaboration processes, but their main focus is mostly on one of these areas."

... According to Social Impact

The social impact of groupware tools, that is, the number of participants in the group processes, is another dimension to consider. Shneiderman et al. (2009) point out that it is important to distinguish between collaboration and social media participation, although there is a certain crossover between the two:

  • Collaboration can be seen as activities carried out by small teams of two to 20 people (or more under certain conditions) and emphasizes project-related work that is goal-directed and has a time frame for completion – and it is, in the context of this article, business-related.
  • Social media participation can involve as few as 10 or as many as millions of people. Contact is typically "light-weight", involving shallow relationships between participants. Social media participation can also play a role in a business context, though more for the purposes of communication and information-sharing than for coordination and collaboration.

A tabular overview of the characteristics of collaboration and social media participation including crossover characteristics and examples can be found in Shneiderman et al. (p. 362). Social media are not the focus of this article, however. Interested readers will find a detailed analysis of social media along with examples, in Hansen, Shneiderman & Smith's 2010 book Analyzing Social Media with NodeXL (review).

... According to Goals of Collaboration and Cooperation

Shneiderman et al.'s list of goals of collaboration and cooperation offers another helpful set of distinctions. I picked the following goals from their list because, in a business context, they appear to me to be the most relevant ones:

  • Focused partnerships are collaborations between two or three people who need each other to complete a task
  • Lecture and demo formats are used by one or more persons to share information with multiple users at remote sites
  • Conferences allow groups whose participants are distributed to communicate at the same time or spread out over time
  • Structured work processes let people with distributed organizational roles collaborate on a particular task
  • Meeting and decision-support comprises tools that aim to support meetings and decision-making
  • Telepresence is a technology that enables remote participants to experiences something close to physical co-presence. The term itself is used by a commercial system from CISCO (see also TelePresence on Wikipedia). SAP uses this technology in around 35 offices that are dedicated to remote communication between company sites all over the world, and their number is increasing.

... According to Space/Time

According to Shneiderman et al., traditionally a time/space matrix is used to make sense out of a mix of goals like the ones listed above and to decompose collaborative interfaces. The matrix was originally proposed around 1990 and can also be found in Ramona Winkler's article. In its latest edition, Shneiderman's textbook presents an updated matrix (see also CSCW in Wikipedia) that is shown – with minor additions by me – below:


Same Time

Different Times

Same Place

Face-to-face interactions

decision rooms, single display groupware, shared table, wall display, roomware...


Continuous task

team rooms, large public display, shift work groupware, project management

Different Place

Remote interactions

telephone, video/audio conferencing, instant messaging, chats/MUDs/virtual worlds, shared screens, multi-user editors, ...

Communication + coordination

e-mail, bulletin boards, blogs, asynchronous conferencing, group calendars, workflow, version control, wikis, ...

Table 1: Time/Space groupware matrix (Shneiderman et al. (2009), p. 366; slightly modified)

Please note that many sophisticated collaboration tools address more than one quadrant. The time/space matrix is useful for the purpose of this article in that it indicates where design activities for the "commute and travel" action field should focus, namely on the bottom row, "different place (remote)":

  • Commute refers primarily to the "same time" category, as most commuters dwell at a distance of less than a few hours from their work place (or they have a second home there). Here we are in the "remote interactions" quadrant.
  • Travel refers to both "same time" and "different time" depending on how teams are distributed in space. Colleagues living on the same continent have a larger overlap in working hours than colleagues living on different ones. If there is at least a small overlap in working hours, some of the synchronous approaches can still be used. If teams span several continents, it may become impossible to profit from synchronous approaches; asynchronous interaction remains as the only option. Consequently, more face-to-face contact may be needed in the second case, whereas less travel is required in the first one. This general rule is, however, impacted by the way in which teams or team members are organized and how closely they work together. Here, we are in the "organizational issues" action field....

It would be possible to add a third dimension to the matrix and decompose the four quadrants further, for example, with respect to the above-mentioned processes that the tools primarily support.

Thus, while I am unable to provide any design recommendations in the limited space of this article, I can at least point to the kinds of tools and interactions that designers should focus on when pursuing the goals of reducing commute and travel in a company.



Open Questions

Returning to the starting point – our sustainability goals – we need to ask how and to what extent groupware tools actually deliver on the promise of saving money and resources. There is no simple answer to this question, however, and as Shneiderman et al. point out, the determinants of success are still not clear. Many questions, such as why certain tools are so widely used while others are not, remain unanswered. I will briefly turn to the "adoption" issue below. The authors also ask whether tools that attempt to match face-to-face encounters, such as TelePresence or video conferences, are better than "light-weight", text-only tools like e-mail, chat, or micro-blogging (twitter). Another question they raise is how informal communication can be captured in remote groups. Informal communication is a possible application area for lightweight tools, but video chats like Skype might also be appropriate. Social, psychological, usability (ease of use), and economic factors have to be considered when we look for answers to these questions. They definitely need further investigation, including work by designers who experiment with innovative ideas as, for example, "research through design" (RTD) proponents do (see my DIS 2010 report).

Measuring Success

Moreover, if we want to proclaim success, how do we measure it? Shneiderman et al. complain that arguments over measures of success can complicate any evaluation. While usability and user experience people may prefer subjective (satisfaction) or objective (number of participants) measures, business managers may well consider cost/benefit analyses to be more important. But numbers are not everything. While some people argue with the sheer numbers at which certain tools are adopted, others question the quality of the support and ask whether certain tools aid or hinder productivity. E-mail is an excellent example of this complex relationship: Although e-mail has been widely adopted as a communications tool, many companies find that its heavy use can introduce unforeseen inefficiencies. To counteract this trend, some companies, including SAP, have published rules on the proper use of e-mail.

Furthermore, when evaluating success, it is essential to adopt a long-term perspective. Shneiderman et al. present an example showing that cost/benefit ration may revert over time. Video conferencing may initially reduce travel expenses. But, because it tends to encourage collaboration and familiarity with more distant partners, it may actually increase the desire for face-to-face meetings. Thus, eventually, these relationships may lead to increasing costs and possibly more travel. Incidentally, the efficiency of audio conferences has also frequently been questioned. You may wish to gain an impression of the issues by watching a satire on an audio conference by Dave Grady on YouTube.

All in all, when success is to be declared, any – particularly short-term – savings must be balanced against other factors such as efficiency and long-term effects. As Shedroff repeatedly points out, a systems view is needed.

Adoption Issues

If employees adopt new tools only reluctantly and the anticipated savings fail to materialize, this usually indicates serious issues. New ICT tools may be cumbersome to use or may not satisfy the specific (social, for example) needs of a company's employees. One such human need is the desire to meet in person from time to time. A strict travel policy cannot satisfy this need and restricts employees to using only groupware for coordinating and collaborating in distributed projects. While conventional groupware does not address the desire for face-to-face encounters, the above-mentioned TelePresence system does at least aim to minimize the difference between face-to-face and remote meetings. However, it is still not clear whether employees will actually accept such a system as a substitute for face-to-face encounters. Moreover, the TelePresence system is currently not a tool for mass usage. Olson & Olson (2008) refute the oft-proclaimed "death of distance" and point out that distance really does matter for many activities and relationships (review). Shneiderman et al. list numerous reasons why face-to-face encounters are superior to electronically mediated ones. While this is undisputed, we also find instances in which employees prefer lightweight tools – and we are back to the open questions again...



In terms of open questions and often puzzling adoption issues, designers definitely face a great many challenges and opportunities with respect to this action item. However, they can contribute to making the behavior of a company's workforce more sustainable, and thus improve the company's sustainability record, with respect to commute and travel in many ways: by fine-tuning existing groupware solutions, by designing new groupware tools that meet the employees' needs better, by addressing adoption issues from the users' point of view, and, last but not least, by experimenting with innovative ideas. These ideas may seem provocative and may challenge existing habits and conceptions, but they may also pave the way for a more sustainable future.






  • Ben Shneiderman, Cathérine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen & Steven Jacobs (2009). Designing the User Interface (5th Edition). Pearson Addison-Wesley • ISBN-10: 0321537351 • ISBN-13: 978-0321537355 (Hardcover) • Review
  • Nathan Shedroff (2009). Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable. Rosenfeld Media • ISBN: 1-933820-00-4 (Paperback + PDF), ISBN: 1-933820-01-2 (2 PDF editions) • Review
  • Derek Hansen, Ben Shneiderman & Marc Smith (2010). Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL. Morgan Kaufmann • ISBN-13: 9780123822291 • Review
  • Gary M. Olson, Ann Zimmerman & Nathan Bos (Eds.) (2008). Scientific Collaboration on the Internet, The MIT Press • ISBN-10: 0262151200, ISBN-13: 978-0262151207 • Review


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