Why people don’t use collaboration tools?

Several bloggers have provided answers for this difficult question. Here is my attempt.

A few reasons are specific to collaboration, but the major reasons are also applicable to other, personal productivity tools: new subtle distinctions are hidden by overdone integration.

1. The problems observed also with personal tools are, of course, magnified when different people are supposed to work together, who usually prefer different styles, and might not be used to collaborating in the non-virtual world, either.

However, the major problems are IMO related to new subtle distinctions which are not sufficiently honored by most of the new tools. Just take the basic operations of the text processing’s revision function: additions, deletions, and comments. They force us to

  1. find out how to display them in a familiar way (page layout? web layout? no, switch to “normal view”);
  2. think about whether we want to provide a ready replacement text, or just argue about individual wordings (comment).

This is because the three basic functions are still two too many for beginners: in a paper world, there is just one type: all pen notes are additions: filled-in text, comments, and strike-through lines for deletion.

Substantial, content-related choice problems of type (b) can get much worse: what is the main intention, anyway? the final work-product (Writely?), the negotiation of an optimal text (Word revision function?), commenting (Diigo sticky notes? … or perhaps delicious annotation … or why not blog it right away?). More choices and distinctions: How important is keeping versions (wiki?), and how should the work-flow of the revise process be organised: distribute and merge? check-out, check-in (Sharepoint?), circulation? Instant synchronization (Groove?)An aggravating factor is, IMO, that many of these subtle distinctions are so silent. Software often does not name them on their terse button captions, or it behaves as if the offered variant were the only common possibility, although there is no convention settled yet about what is normal use and what is extended or alternate use. (Take “search” for example: you never know if it will automatically append wildcards, or do soundex matching, or how it will handle spaces. Or spaces in tagging. Or line-ends in text input boxes, …)

And for some of the subtle differences, habitual names and descriptions do simply not exist yet: consider the substantial impact on the style of the content that forums vs. listservs have, or radial mind-maps vs. top-down concept maps.

2. Now the major fault of many of the new collaboration or personal productivity tools is that they present themselves as a goal-directed, integrated solution, as a swiss army knife, rather than one or more specialized tools, while


“Most people see technology as a tool that assists in the completion of specific tasks.”

(G. Siemens, emphasis mine). A simple, old example is Clippy, whom Jack mentioned a while ago. Clippy presented himself as an versatile wizard, instead of making clear the distinction between himself and the old F1, being simply that the old F1 help index was still good for single search words while clippy could handle multiple search words.

This shows the tendency to disguise the tools as problem-solvers and try to hide their elementary nature as individually specialized members of a tool-box, and to hide the complexity of this ever-increasing toolbox.

It seems plausible that the cognitive burden of the instrumentation should be masked in favor of the users’ task and content. But I agree only partially: only as far as the content is concerned (see my #117), and for established, well-known tasks and procedures. For innovative usage and affordances, however, the tools should not be hidden.

Creative usage of new tools for new affordances is only possible if the individual, elementary function of a specialized tool is very clear. An innovative tool does not just solve people’s old problems, for which they were choosing a tool, but also the other way around: people find new solutions with a given new tool.

“[I]t’s not always a problem that they know they have, so that’s tricky.” (Technology Review)

Therefore I think the problem of many innovative tools is that they are hiding their nature and don’t make their specialized purpose sufficiently clear, so that people use them in undifferentiated manner – or not at all. We are in a situation like the transition from stone age to iron age where many new, more specialized iron tools have become available — but they are all used like the flint hand ax (e-mail), or not at all.

This entry was posted in PIM. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s