Tools and Channels of Communication: Dealing with the Effects of Computer Mediation on Design Communication


This paper proposes a methodology to evaluate the effects of computer-mediated communication on collaboratively solving design problems. When setting up a virtual design community, choices must be made between a variety of tools, choices dictated by budget, bandwidth, ability and availability. How do you choose between the tools, which is useful and how will each affect the outcome of the design exchanges you plan? A commonly used method is to analyze the work done and to identify tools which support this type of work. In general, research on the effects of computer-mediation on collaborative work has concentrated mainly on social-psychological factors such as deindividuation and attitude polarization, and used qualitative methods. In contrast, we propose to examine the process of collaboration itself, focusing on separating those component processes which primarily involve individual work from those that involve genuine interaction. Extending the cognitive metaphor of the brain as a computer, we view collaboration in terms of a network process, and examine issues of control, coordination, and delegation to separate sub-processors. Through this methodology we attempt to separate the individual problem-solving component from the larger process of collaboration. There is a long history of research into the role and application of computers to communication and collaboration from which has arisen a variety of tools to facilitate work done in groups. Holtham (1994) traces this history from the 1960s through to the 1990s, from addressing basic issues of computer communication through commercial implementation and diversified applications of the tools. Little of this research has focused on the work of designers, with no commercial systems available specifically for the design professions. Research has tended instead to look at typical office work, with particular attention to group work in formal and informal but coherent groups. This research provides a rich and useful heritage for investigations of design collaboration, but the findings have to be interpreted with the recognition that design work differs from typical office work in one substantial aspect � the use of graphics is central to design communication and this places a significant and different burden on the computer-supported communication when compared to textual interactions.


Thomas Kvan

Robert West

Alonso H. Vera


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