We conducted an empirical study of helper-finding needs in the workplace by asking 36 workers in a large company to keep two weeks of diaries of situations where they were looking for a colleague to help with a task. Unlike previous studies, we were able to examine and classify situations where the worker did not turn to any tool or system to find the helper. Based on our analysis of the diaries and the in-depth interviews with participants that followed the diary study, we developed a three-part taxonomy of helper-finding needs that highlights the ways that these needs are broader than current systems support and points to specific directions for future design and research in this space.
We found that for the vast majority of diary entries (76%), participants asked colleagues to suggest an appropriate helper rather than turning to any sort of a system. Participants had a number of frustrations with the current approach of finding a person to help. To better understand the types of scenarios that are not currently well-supported, we analyzed the diary entries and created a three-part taxonomy of helper-finding needs. The first dimension, tasks, concerns the reason why a participant is seeking help, such as in order to learn a particular task. The second dimension, topics, concerns the subject of the helper-finding need, such as some bit of domain knowledge. The last dimension, helper selection criteria, concerns the requirements that target helper must meet in order to be relevant, such as being part of a certain group within the company. Each of these dimensions, their composing elements, and the observed frequencies of these elements are expanded in the handy cheat sheet image below.
The taxonomy helped us clarify the following frustrations with the current process:
- People frequently look for help not just to answer a quick question, but rather to have a longer interaction such as a collaboration or to learn a complex task. Systems designed for giving a quick answer did not meet these needs of forging a relationship with the potential helper.
- Most systems focus on providing answers to questions of domain expertise, but the majority of helper-finding needs were actually logistical in nature (experienced by 89% of the participants). This knowledge of how to get something done within the company was valuable but not well represented or searchable in any system.
- Participants frequently had specific criteria in mind for a helper, but specifics about potential helpers’ past experiences and roles within multiple groups were not well represented within current systems. This made it hard to understand whether somebody could be of help or not. Past experience was particularly important (to 94% of the participants) and yet hard to nail down at a useful granularity.
- Participants think about helper-finding in a way that is easy to express to a colleague but hard to specify to any current system in the company. They frequently looked for a person similar to somebody they already knew (X), such as somebody who performs the same function as X but in a different group, location, or in a different field of expertise. It is easy to ask a colleague “Do you know who is X’s equivalent in the California group?” but hard to specify the same idea in a system-based search.
While our study highlights that helper-finding in the enterprise is a difficult task and current tools rarely help, our findings also point to specific directions for research and design that might be able to improve the effectiveness of future systems, but for these you will have to turn to the paper.
For more, see our full paper, “I Need Someone to Help! A Taxonomy of Helper-Finding Activities in the Enterprise.“