Coagmento – going beyond searching collaboratively

A lot of work on collaborative technologies in the recent years have been focused on search, which is not surprising. I do realize this need to focus on search. After all, that’s where lot of our energies are already invested, so why not look for collaborative solutions for something we do quite often? But why not go where the puck is going to be rather than where it’s been? And that’s why no matter how important searching is, I like to widen my net and look at the larger picture, especially looking at what people do with search processes and results. Yes, that’s definitely one of the reasons I like “information seeking” instead of just “information retrieval” or “search”.

Coagmento reflects this philosophy. Unlike many other systems in its class, it’s not just a tool for doing collaborative or social search and/or browsing. Rather, it’s a system that allows one to do collaborative planning, problem solving, information synthesis, and collective sense-making in addition to, of course, search and retrieval. Though I can’t take full credit for following this idea as it started during my work with Gary Marchionini and Rob Capra at UNC on NSF-funded project on ResultSpace. There, we cared about what people do with the results that collect through searching or other methods. We looked at two primary dimensions – time (sessions) and people (collaborators/community/social network). So it’s not a surprise that Coagmento is designed around supporting multi-session information processes whether a person is working alone or in collaboration. It does, though, surprise me how good some of these design decisions turned out!

The Coagmento difference

I often get asked how Coagmento is different than Google Docs, Diigo, etc. Actually there are a number of collaborative tools now available, and several of them have already achieved a good traction among end-users. So where do we fit in?

Well, from the beginning I have made it clear that Coagmento is not Google or anything close to it; it’s not designed to make it fast for “regular” searches. It’s also not merely an information exchange place like diigo or delicions, nor it is for simply creating a collaborative product like Google Docs. The real strength and the real difference that Coagmento brings is the ability to capture the process as it stores not only collective bookmarks, snippets, and final product, but also keeps track of various processes (search, share, interactions) that take place throughout the collaboration. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s quite a powerful difference that Coagmento offers. This has significant implications for education, where it’s not the final product that we care about, but also the process that one went through to create it. This also goes along with a core objective of reference librarianship, where one tries to not only get an answer, but also shows how it was retrieved.

As we keep developing and testing Coagmento, we encounter more and more of such scenarios and applications. The reports of our lessons and findings will keep getting disseminated through several channels, including this blog.

Coagmento it?

We are familiar with expressions such as “google it”. The whole service has become noun, verb, etc. And it matters. Microsoft realized it (too little, too late though) that people can’t say ‘live it’ and moved to bing. Name does matter.

There were similar thoughts for Coagmento as well, except that I decided to go the other way. Nobody is going to say ‘Coagmento it’, but that’s good. I don’t want Coagmento to be yet-another-fast-food service. Coagmento is not for getting an answer; it is for exploring, discovering, and connecting. Everyone wants fast, but we all know what fast-food does to us, and what fast (reckless) driving does. Of course, certain things need to be fast, but like most good food that is slowly and carefully cooked, good information and knowledge may also sometimes require more time than googling things.

Adoption – the biggest challenge

As we continue testing Coagmento in more naturalistic settings, we discover one thing over and over again – it’s really hard to get people adopt to a uniquely new system such as Coagmento. It’s one thing to theoretically show and principally accept the importance of different features and functions, and it’s another thing to actually use them in practice. I always knew there would be this challenge, but now I am beginning to see it as the biggest challenge of all.

More than a year back I had a discussion with Dr. Paul Kantor of Rutgers about the non-realistic nature of lab studies. At that time I was designing a user study for Coagmento that would take place in lab. I mentioned to Paul that I didn’t think this could give us appreciation for the “real” issues and challenges that one may encounter with a system like Coagmento. What Paul advised me made an everlasting impression on me: “try to be scientific, not realistic.” He was right. Given that I wanted to study human behavior in collaboration, it was a wise idea to conduct a lab study where I could control various system parameters and monitor user behavior effectively.

And now that the lab study is done, I am taking my work to the next level (in a way) – opening up to the challenges of the “real world”. The beta testers have so far liked many of the features of Coagmento, but they admit having additional cognitive load and not being used to such interface as biggest issues. This makes it hard for them to easily adopt Coagmento. Therefore, one of my biggest considerations now is making Coagmento as seamlessly integrated in day-to-day life as possible. Many challenges lie ahead, but we have a good start and a strong foundation!

Asymmetric roles – good and bad

One of the appeals of collaboration is diversity of skills. People get together for a join project because none of them individually possess all the skills required to finish the project. Working like this also leads to asymmetric roles of the collaborators. For instance, in a class project researching and presenting on environmental impacts of non-recyclable electronics, one person in the group could take the role of the researcher, another one could be responsible for writing, and one more for presenting. This could turn out great for all of them since they didn’t have to worry about all the aspects of the project; they could just focus on what they were responsible for doing (hopefully a task that they were better than others).

However, each one may miss out an opportunity of learning about the other aspects that they were not strongly involved in or responsible for. Thus, for that given project, it was good how they divided up the work, but for a long run, it may not be good as far as their individual learning goes.

While designing a system that caters to such asymmetric roles in collaboration, are we not taking away individual’s opportunity for wholesome learning? Both the system designers and the collaborators/users need to understand these trade-offs.

The issue of control

I had an interesting discussion with Madhu Reddy at Penn State the other day during my visit. I was fortunate to give a talk to Madhu and his group and obtain some valuable feedback. After the talk, as Madhu and I sat down to discuss more, he brought up an interesting point about control. For my system Coagmento, the control about pretty much everything on the interface rests in the hands of each individual. For instance, an individual could decide to turn off alerts or browse in incognito mode. However, many situations require for the group members to be more transparent to each other. This may mean agreeing to some terms that may not be ideal for an individual, but are beneficial to the group. For instance, one may have to honestly show when they are online rather than hiding their status.

In short, while designing a collaborative system, we need to think about control that is divided between an individual and the team. Depending up on the situation, the system should let the users find a balance in this division.

Taking Coagmento out-of-box

It’s been a while. In fact, it’s been quite a while as I waited for a right time to get Coagmento out of its box. For the past year and a half, I have been through many versions of Coagmento, a collaborative information seeking system. I have run many sessions of cognitive walkthroughs, where I sat down with individuals, explained them how Coagmento worked, and got their reactions. I did several design sessions (individual and group), and pilot runs. Finally, I did a large user study in the lab.

And now, it’s almost here. Almost, because the first and the second beta versions of Coagmento have been tested by a select group of people, and not really open for just anyone to try. Not yet, but we are almost there. Hopefully, within the next few days, a new version of Coagmento will roll out that will be ready for a wide-scale deployment.

The journey of Coagmento from its inception to this stage has been very interesting, and worth writing about at some point. The journey, though, continues with more updates coming real soon!