Visual Languages for Cooperation

Fred Lakin

Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University
Center for Design Research, Stanford University


When people employ text and graphic objects in communication, those objects have meaning under a system of interpretation, or visual language. Visual languages for cooperation are graphical representations for forms of group work like brainstorming or cooperative task structuring. A visual language for cooperation can assist group members by giving them a way of visualizing an aspect of group work so they can better understand and perform it. And if a computer system can interpret expressions in such a language, then it can participate in the group's work. This chapter presents a computer graphics system which can process visual languages for expressing the structure of group work, thus providing a way for computers to understand and assist intellectual teamwork.

One of the best examples of the intellectual teamwork that we are concerned with in this volume is the iterative design-discussion-presentation cycle which characterizes the work of engineers and technical designers. Their day-to-day activities typically involve combinations of work in groups and work by individuals, and incorporates discussion of ideas, reactions to preliminary designs and the construction of text-and-graphic presentations, perhaps including both printed documents and visual displays. At present, moving through this cycle requires people to use a variety of technologies to support their individual work and their communication with each other, ranging from notes hastily jotted on a piece of paper to very sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) tools. In this chapter, I will describe my efforts to produce a computer-based tool called vmacs to support activities like these that will permit people to move back and forth from working alone to working with other people, using a single piece of software for creating and modifying text and graphics, and for communicating with each other.

Diagraming Task Structures


Task structure diagram and working map for a group designing a telescope


1. Introduction

2. Monday at Work: Scenario One
2.1 Observations about Scenario One

3. Early Research Systems
3.1 Wall Scroll
3.2 Vacuum Boards
3.3 Group Cards

4. Text-Graphic Activity Analysis
4.1 Methodology
4.2 Features of Text-Graphic Manipulation for Working Groups
4.3 Working Group Graphics Theory

5. A Computer Medium for Performing Text-Graphics
5.1 Performing Medium and Processing Medium

6. Details of vmacs
6.1 A Libertarian Editor
6.2 Single Operator
6.3 Group Tool Or Individual Tool?
6.4 A Bottom-Up Tool
6.5 Implementation
6.6 Processing Visual Languages for Cooperation in vmacs

7. Extended Face-to-Face Meeting Support
7.1 Joint Authoring with the proof-marks Language
7.2 Group Idea Generation Using the brainstorm-organizer Language

8. Storage and Retrieval of Text-Graphics
8.1 Simple Storage and Retrieval
8.2 Smart Retrieval with the text-graphic-query Language

9. Non Face-to-Face Communication
9.1 Mailing with the visual-mail Language

10. Administration of Cooperative Team Work
10.1 Diagraming Task Structures
10.2 The task-structure Language

11. Monday at Work: Scenario Two with vmacs

12. Conclusions
12.1 Visual Languages for Cooperation can assist Group Work
12.2 Visual Languages for Cooperation can be processed in a Computer Performance Medium
12.3 Visual Languages for Cooperation should be processed in a Computer Performance Medium

13. Footnotes

14. References

Presented as a paper for the NSF workshop TECHNOLOGY AND COOPERATIVE WORK, Tucson, Arizona, February, 1988; reprinted as a chapter in INTELLECTUAL TEAMWORK: SOCIAL AND TECHNICAL BASES OF COLLABORATIVE WORK, edited by Egido, Carmen, Galegher, Jolene and Kraut, Robert, Lawrence Erlbaum publishers, 1990, pg 453-488.

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