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Metrics and the design of collaborative environments

Friday, 2 November 2012

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Scientific Discovery, Inspired by a Walk to the Restroom”) made the argument that locating key support facilities has a role in fostering collaborative research environments.

As a design researcher, whenever I read a piece like this that cites research without providing citations or references, I become concerned about the quality of the evidence.

I decided to do a little digging. Although I was unable to find a research study documenting a 50-foot rule (“collaboration drops to 10% when workers are more than 50 feet apart”), I did find two interesting studies worth noting:

• Kraut, Fish, Root and Chalfonte (2002) found that spontaneous conversations increase with proximity, without specifying a particular distance. Forty percent of spontaneous conversations occurred in workers in the same office, and 91% occurred between individuals on the same floor. The authors argue that spontaneous interactions are among the most creative, as they occur in an informal setting.

• A second study focuses on the quality of the work done by team members relative to their distance from each other. Lee, Brownstein, Mills and Kohane (2010) looked at co-authored publications and the frequency with which they were cited (an indication of the impact of the study) and found that physical proximity of the authors enhanced the impact of their work.

In summary, it is clear that proximity breeds interaction. However, I don’t believe that there are immutable metrics that can serve as design guidelines. The location of elevators, coat closets, restrooms, and break areas will influence the outcomes as well.

- Mardelle Shepley

Dr. Mardelle Shepley, FAIA, is a national leader in design research. She is Director of the Center for Health Systems and Design and Texas A&M University and director of design research at Shepley Bulfinch.

Kraut, R., Fish, R., Root, R., and Chalfonte, B. (2002). Information communication in organizations: Form, function, and Technology. In I.S. Oskamp & S. Spacapan (Eds.), Human Reactions to Technology: The Claremont Symposium on Applied Social Psychology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Lee, K., Brownstein, J., Mills, R., & Kohane, I. (2010). Does collocation inform the impact of collaboration? PLoS ONE, 5(12). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014279

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