For me, when thinking about how to design collaboration tools, it’s been helpful to frame my thinking around this weird sounding topic: The Continuum of Collaboration Fidelity™

What the heck does that mean? Well to me, communication fidelity is on a continuum. At one end, you have low fidelity, asynchronous communication. An email, for instance. As you move along the continuum, you increase in fidelity (richness of information) and synchronicity (speed of information). So, maybe next along the line is instant messaging, then voice chat, then voice + screen sharing, then voice + screen sharing + webcams, and eventually you have in-person, face-to-face meetings, which are about as high fidelity as it gets.  

As fidelity increases, the attention and synchronicity of the medium increase as well. 

As fidelity increases, the attention and synchronicity of the medium increase as well. 

When looking at the continuum you might be tempted to think that higher fidelity is always better - but that’s not necessarily the case. The higher the fidelity, the more immediate attention and activation energy it requires. In general, it’s most efficient to match the fidelity of the medium with the fidelity of the communication.

That’s why you won't see brainstorming sessions via email (hopefully), and why you shouldn't start a full video-conferencing session with someone just to ask them where they are planning to go for lunch. Mis-matches between message/medium are really inefficient (i.e. annoying!).

In other words: The medium should match the message.

It’s also important to note that fidelity levels can change over the course of a single conversation. A great collaboration tool is going to give you a wide range of fidelity to choose from, and allow you to seamlessly escalate or de-escalate fidelity depending upon your message. The ability to escalate and de-escalate quickly and seamlessly is the critical point, and unfortunately, it's also where most tools fall short. 

I think this is because collaboration products are typically built around a primary fidelity, with secondary fidelities bolted on afterwards. Skype is built around video. Microsoft Communicator is built around chat. GoToMeeting is built around screen-sharing. Each of these products have chat, video, and screen-sharing capabilities, but they don't seamlessly escalate or de-escalate between them.

There are some smaller companies that are starting to rethink this. Sqwiggle is one example that comes to mind. I think it’s only a (short) matter of time before we start seeing apps that embrace this, and allow users to seamlessly roam up and down the fidelity continuum.

AuthorKris Niles