What are Collaborative User Interfaces?

Summary: Collaborative interfaces are designs that consider the back-and-forth between users and the social constraints, tensions, and challenges of working collaboratively online. Mobile apps have turbo-charged collaboration, and AR/VR will expand this with the help of AI agents. Meanwhile, generative AI currently offers new opportunities to augment peer-to-peer collaboration.

What is a Collaborative User Interface?

A collaborative user interface facilitates work between two or more users. A quick example is a workflow management function such as a digital e-signature app, “Now it’s your turn to sign”.Β  It can also enable a user to benefit from the side-effects of another user’s activity, such as “Others also liked…”.

Ultimately, collaboration in digital environments is about sharing information, tasks, decisions, or problem-solving. It’s ubiquitous in web applications (portals) such as social intranets “X is following you”, or mobile apps, such as home or ride sharing “I can’t find you; I’m around the corner from X”.

The goal of collaboration in designing social interaction is Sociability. Designing for sociability in interfaces involving two or more users is as important as usability. Yet, we’ve been taught to overlook this for decades. Is it the bias of individualism? The myth of the sole user? Have we been patterned by our phones and computers that are designed physically for solo use and not inclusive of groups or couples?

See What is Sociability?

Banksy couples starring at phones while hugging

Banksy gets it: His ‘couples starring at their phones while hugging’ piece sums up the problem with our devices focusing on individual users. The irony is that each person is socializing with someone else, somewhere else- just not the person in front of them.

Doing your sociability well is key

In study after study we conducted and published on Fitness Tracker UX, we found that the quality of sociability was critical. It was a make-or-break for users. In one study, we found 3 popular fitness tracking mobile apps featured ‘social features’, which meant connecting to Facebook to share an achievement. But users wanted granularity to match social motivations: they only wanted to share specific achievements. And only with certain groups, such as “Workout buddies,” not all of Facebook. We suggested that ‘social context integration” is a vital fitness tracking heuristic.

Key Considerations for Collaborative UIs

  1. Real-world relevance: Aligning UIs with real-world social behaviors is crucial. Apps like Uber and Lyft demonstrate this by integrating social features meaningfully. However, be warned: in Uber’s case, it took them many years to get fundamental social interactions, such as chatting to your driver. This should have been on day one of their roadmap (alongside safety, which took them a decade to figure out).
  2. Social triggers: Identifying and aligning with relevant social triggers can enhance the collaborative experience. Waze’s focus on avoiding traffic police is a perfect example. It’s a navigation app for driving, but its main social feature is getting the heads-up from other drivers.πŸ˜‚
  3. Support Sociability by Design: Designing for social interactions to make social interactions smoother is key. Take Adobe XD (or Figma) on a mobile device. Viewing on desktops is great (for designers), but for Design Managers and stakeholders viewing it, it is less than ideal- and in XD’s case, not mobile-friendly (Next page buttons are hidden at the bottom). Old apps like Skype are numb to sociability, with little to no socially engaging features. Slack is a start, but it becomes tricky to “keep up” or get oriented quickly to enhance social connections. Worse, it’s trying to be a team productivity chat space- often lost in threads, channels, and scrolls. Our thoughts: Better sociability might save it from becoming like email–the thing it was trying not to become.

Generative AI sparks human-computer collaboration

Collaborative interfaces are about to be enhanced by generative AI and the new collaborative augmentation it brings:

One of the remarkable things about Generative AI is its ability to co-create with a user. Gen AI offers a new interaction pattern of β€œstart for me” and β€œlet’s continue building together.” This represents a major technological enablement of human-computer collaboration. (I’m calling this β€œHCC” or HC2). I’ll cover how UX Designers can use this in this AI for UX Masterclass.Β 

Generative AI currently offers new opportunities to augment peer-to-peer collaboration. In essence, the AI becomes the peer. The general idea with AI is it frees up bandwidth for us to solve more complex problems or spend quality time interacting with other humans. However, we could also see two humans or more + AI orchestrating or augmenting a collaborative task…

πŸ˜† Fewer meetings, anyone? Forget your travel being automated with virtual meetings–we all know how much they suck (Teams, Zoom). How about AI-powered meeting delegates? Send your AI agent (trained by you) to a meeting, pre-loaded with your agenda…

Large language models (LLMs) aka Generative AI, augments our cognition by building on user intent and context cues. With a new approach created by the AI startup Rabbit, they expand this to Large Action Models (LAMs), where the AI agent runs ahead and completes tasks on your behalf.

Combine this with Augmented and Virtual Reality, then we should start seeing new relevancy for collaborative virtual environments. This will give Apple Vision Pro its super competitive edge as it matures.

Wrapping up

Collaboration in UIs is more than a trend; it’s a fundamental shift in how we interact with technology. As we continue to explore and innovate in this field, understanding the nuances of collaborative experiences will become increasingly important. This shift offers exciting opportunities for designers and their users, promising richer, more engaging, and efficient interactive experiences.

Go Deeper: Watch this free webinar (recorded in 2009) on the Power of the Collaborative UI

Check out Frank’s UX Inner Circle (access 250+ more recordings with membership starting at $49/mo.)

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