This thesis opens up the design space for awareness research in CSCW and HCI. By challenging the prevalent understanding of roles in awareness processes and exploring different mechanisms for actively engaging users in the awareness process, this thesis provides a better understanding of the complexity of these processes and suggests practical solutions for designing and implementing systems that support active awareness.
Mutual awareness, a prominent research topic in the fields of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) refers to a fundamental aspect of a person’s work: their ability to gain a better understanding of a situation by perceiving and interpreting their co-workers actions. Technologically-mediated awareness, used to support co-workers across distributed settings, distinguishes between the roles of the actor, whose actions are often limited to being the target of an automated data gathering processes, and the receiver, who wants to be made aware of the actors’ actions. This receiver-centric view of awareness, focusing on helping receivers to deal with complex sets of awareness information, stands in stark contrast to our understanding of awareness as social process involving complex interactions between both actors and receivers. It fails to take into account an actors’ intimate understanding of their own activities and the contribution that this subjective understanding could make in providing richer awareness information. In this thesis I challenge the prevalent receiver-centric notion of awareness, and explore the conceptual foundations, design, implementation and evaluation of an alternative active awareness approach by making the following five contributions.
Firstly, I identify the limitations of existing awareness research and solicit further evidence to support the notion of active awareness. I analyse ethnographic workplace studies that demonstrate how actors engage in an intricate interplay involving the monitoring of their co-workers progress and displaying aspects of their activities that may be of relevance to others. The examination of a large body of awareness research reveals that while disclosing information is a common practice in face-to-face collaborative settings it has been neglected in implementations of technically mediated awareness. Based on these considerations, I introduce the notion of intentional disclosure to describe the action of users actively and deliberately contributing awareness information.
I consider challenges and potential solutions for the design of active awareness. I compare a range of systems, each allowing users to share information about their activities at various levels of detail. I discuss one of the main challenges to active awareness: that disclosing information about activities requires some degree of effort. I discuss various representations of effort in collaborative work. These considerations reveal that there is a trade-off between the richness of awareness information and the effort required to provide this information.
I propose a framework for active awareness, aimed to help designers to understand the scope and limitations of different types of intentional disclosure. I draw on the identified richness/effort trade-off to develop two types of intentional disclosure, both of which aim to facilitate the disclosure of information while reducing the effort required to do so. For both of these approaches, direct and indirect disclosure, I delineate how they differ from related approaches and define a set of design criteria that is intended to guide their implementation.
I demonstrate how the framework of active awareness can be practically applied by building two proof-of-concept prototypes that implement direct and indirect disclosure respectively. AnyBiff, implementing direct disclosure, allows users to create, share and use shared representations of activities in order to express their current actions and intentions. SphereX, implementing indirect disclosure, represents shared areas of interests or working context, and links sets of activities to these representations.
Lastly, I present the results of the qualitative evaluation of the two prototypes and analyse the results with regard to the extent to which they implemented their respective disclosure mechanisms and supported active awareness. Both systems were deployed and tested in real world environments. The results for AnyBiff showed that users developed a wide range of activity representations, some unanticipated, and actively used the system to disclose information. The results further highlighted a number of design considerations relating to the relationship between awareness and communication, and the role of ambiguity. The evaluation of SphereX validated the feasibility of the indirect disclosure approach. However, the study highlighted the challenges of implementing cross-application awareness support and translating the concept to users. The study resulted in design recommendations aimed to improve the implementation of future systems.