Interface Design For Online Collaboration Tools

Here is an edited version of a letter I recently sent to a promising US-based Web conferencing start-up when asked to suggest a strategic approach to the improvement of the overall user interface utilized.

The situation that this company finds itself in is typical of many small online collaboration companies already operating in this market.

The interface is often a mere afterthought and more frequently than not it resembles a nice model airplane cockpit sticker stuck onto the communication engines.

Though virtual collaboration is all about being able to effectively interact while intuitively share and contributing to the ongoing conversation, few vendors have realized yet the importance on investing the appropriate resources in developing an effective UI (user interface) and a well thought-out interaction design experience.

What frustrates me the most is to see uniquely powerful technologies being strangled and made to be completely unusable for the average non-technical user by reason of excessive design. Groove, for all its greatness, it's a wonderful example of this disease.

Overdesign being such an overarching issue it is comforting to see technologies like Glance or even Microsoft Live Meeting capitalize on this, though in very different ways. Unfortunately in the Microsoft case the complete dichotomy between collaborating and doing normal work is still too present not to be felt.

It is in this direction that real-time collaboration companies should turn their head, while attempting to minimize the interface presence and learning time and integrating as much as possible collaboration into other typical office/work-centered activities (email, instant messaging, writing, presenting, researching, etc.)


Your technology has indeed a very powerful infrastructure and a set of facilities that can make your product a serious contender in this market.

Though I do not know your pricing and business model I understand that the enterprise market has been so far your main focus.

From my experience the enterprise market maybe very rewarding if you have the sales and support force that can easily sustain the huge demands in time and attention that these companies make.

Your technology crosses several boundaries and position itself in between typical established positions in this market.

All of your feature and facilities already exist, in one form or other, in many other existing Web conferencing products.

I must confess that I have strongly felt that the interface you are presently employing does a heavy disservice to the user of your system and it does not create a user experience in line with what your technology is being able to offer.

I have also clearly felt today that while accepted, this critique did not prove the type of reflection and thinking I would have wished.

But let's reason for a second over it.

In a virtual space, the interface is the essence of the user experience as the space is "defined" and determined by the interface itself.

So let me take it from two different starting points:

a) The interface is important, needs to be there and has to facilitate the user tasks.

Assuming this is the right way of looking at things, we need to simplify the interface as much as possible, in order to allow the user to use the space to actually carry out activities rather than using the space to find out which button does what he wants to do.

This is not a matter of "graphic design". This is a matter of human factors engineering.

Usability is what will make and break all of these second and third generation Web conferencing tools.

Those who understand it first will really get an edge over everyone else.

So, if you want to play it safe you have at least to consider a drastic reduction of the total number of buttons, options and interactive items available on your interface screen.

Do I have to go through training to collaborate with your technology? If so, you are out of the market already.

Not only, graphic design has to be completely abandoned but the effective collaborative interface must offer access only to a well organized set of essential core functions, expressed as much as possible as visually natural, intuitive tasks.

All of the management and technical nitty-gritty should be easily accessible through "one" or "two" access mini-icons that provide the user with the full range of options she may need. Grouping and organization are essential.

Also, the overall "look and feel" of your technology must says out loud: easy to use, powerful, professionally-done, cutting-edge.

Or can you be less?
Can you really afford to be just cute?

Do a simple usability test on your technology and see what comes up.

b) How would you feel if I gave you the chassis of a '85 Toyota (still in great shape) and told you that it had a Ferrari engine under its hood? Would it feel as good as the "real" thing?

See, you can either upgrade your interface to be as cutting-edge, slick and glamorous as the technology you have placed under it, by leveraging the "graphic design" skills of a very talented designer, or:
you give in to the extraordinary importance of human factors design and you revolutionize your approach to UI (user interface) by reducing your interface to the essence, making most needed items resizable and floating while every other feature becoming a callable option.

Make your tool disappear in the background while providing ubiquitous hooks that allow the user to jump from local space to virtual space without jolting and splitting his work experience between two completely separate and distinct universes.

Glance, Tenix, Netviewer and a few others have done it. Groove will be next. It is not impossible. It actually works.

To recreate a full virtual space that provides everything you need is a loosing proposition.
Your familiar tools will be missed if you try to recreate, like Groove did, a set of scaled down clones inside your system.

It is by EXTENDING into the collaboration space the tools and spaces that we have now that we can create tomorrow's breakthrough collaboration tools.

Competition is moving a lot faster than you may think. And it is growing by the hour.

Also no-one has an edge yet in the direction I am showing you and you can be sure that this factor by itself will provide tremendous competitive advantage to those who will understand it first.

Readers' Comments    
2008-06-10 06:29:22


Clearly you don't know that much about UI design judging by the amount of bold text in your letter which makes it very difficult to read !!

2003-12-07 23:34:21

Darrell O'Donnell

Referencing several comments on Groove, I agree totally with your points on it. I find Groove to be an amazing architecture to work with, but the tools and the existing UI are really solid examples of non-friendly and over-technical UI implementation.

However, the real magic of Groove is it's back-end - someone (can't recall who) pointed out that Groove is essentially defining the Operating System of the future.

On your UI point, it is up to collaborative companies to start to leverage some existing technologies (e.g. Groove, Live Meeting, etc.) and make these technologies vanish. The real goal is to make applications work for regular users, non tech-heads, and not the well-trained digerati. You are correct, reducing the UI to the point where only the essence is showing, that those pioneers who accomplish this will be defining collaboration in the years to come.

Great article and letter. Thanks.

2003-12-05 10:13:39


Sooooooooo important, and so difficult to get into the brain of stereotype tekkies:
- any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Arthur C. Clarke's 3rd law)
- any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced (Gregory Benford's corollary).

Keep it simple, simple, simple. Look at it from a naive user's perspective.

From my experience with the big corporations market: Often, they buy products which satisfy the needs of the decision makers. These are technical features, scaleability, plus pricing/contract aspects.

These are definitively not the needs of the users.

Users are typically ignored. The "solutions" (my fingers almost resist to write that word) are often awful from a users perspective. Implemented, rolled out, celebrated by those who don't use them later, users trained, frustrated, applications get ignored and die. Time for the next round.

In the end user market, you have to be much better. End user tools are often much better designed, and provide more value, at least when normalized by costs (money and time).

So, expressed in an extreme way: to succeed in the end user's market, you have to work for the real needs of the end user.

In the big company market, it's a totally different game, you have to satisfy the goals of decision-makers and buyers, which are: to survive in their position, to avoid risk, to adhere to standards, to look good, to cut costs, to use the current buzzwords.

Thus, nonsense-tools can survive in the big company market, because they satisfy the needs of that small population of decision makers. They don't need to be really good (in a naive definition of goodness).

posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, December 3 2003, updated on Friday, February 26 2010

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