Granularity, Attribution, and Intentionality

Communication involves passing chunks of information among participants. Each medium has a typical granularity of information:

  • Book: single, massive chunk delivered from author to reader.
  • Newspaper: medium-sized chunks by different authors.
  • Conversation: smaller chunks exchanged back and forth.
  • Twitter, SMS, messaging: tiny conversational chunks.

Collaboration tools like Google Docs and Simplenote can be seen through this lens of granularity as well. Google Docs, like its cousins Google Wave and Etherpad before it, is extremely fine-grained in that every single letter that people type is a chunk of information that is sent to all participants. Simplenote, meanwhile, sends chunks that tend to be more Twitter-sized.

I think that extremely fine-grained communication, while cool from a technical perspective, can undermine the very purpose of communication itself, namely to understand and be understood.

If you’ve used Google Docs, Google Wave or early versions of ICQ, you might already agree. Simultaneous communication at the finest granularity of text is akin to everyone talking over each other during a conversation: distracting (at best), inefficient, and lacking in structure and pacing.

Nonetheless, it’s still a straightforward way for people to write text together, and in some ways, Google Docs is better than Simplenote. For example, when collaborating in Google Docs, each person is assigned a uniquely colored cursor so you can see who is responsible for making a given change. This attribution of content is extremely important; it gives each participant an identity.

Finally, consider apps like BlackBerry Messenger and Apple’s iMessage. They have a granularity of communication that feels natural and conversational, and they attribute content to participants by effectively using colors, portraits, and positioning of text. But they go a step further by trying to communicate the intentions of participants. When I’m in the process of typing a message, you see “Mike is typing…” on your screen, and it’s an effective yet appropriately subtle cue that I intend to say something; it’s an opening of the mouth, a motion of the hands, a sudden inhalation of breath.

It’s becoming increasingly easy for developers to add communication features like these to their apps using tools like Simperium. In the coming years, I expect we’ll see vastly improved collaborative apps whose careful attention to granularity, attribution and intentionality will result in more visceral experiences. We’ll see collaborative apps that feel more collaborative, empowering their users to achieve heightened, synergistic states of flow.

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