Doctoral Thesis: Designing collaborative system to be inclusive towards powerless workers

Tuesday, June 13
3:00 pm - 4:30 pm


Soya Park

Abstract: Are Collaborative Tools Effective for Powerless Workers? My thesis seeks answers to this question. Prior work in social science and organizational science argues that such collaborative tools ought to be effective – technology embeds the social values of users, so users will update the technology they use so that it is effective for them. I focus on powerless workers in organizations and groups. What I find is that powerless users are not making use of collaborative tools due to social burdens. I seek to understand why such a mismatch occurs.

This dissertation develops these ideas through two systems: TaskLight and Who2chat. The purpose of these systems is to be usable by powerless workers – people with limited agency and limited resources, respectively. Employees often have to request help from their supervisor or peers to finish some tasks because they do not possess enough resources to complete it on their own. This entails managing their boss or peers, which is referred to as “managing up”. Unlike in managing down, people whose status is equal to or above the requester’s are not obliged to help the requester. TaskLight reimagines collaborative task-management for employees to manage up. My investigation reveals that existing collaborative task-management tools are not effective for managing up since they typically assume the requester is in a position of power and have a high coordination overhead. TaskLight tackles such issues by enabling the powerless to take on coordination work during managing up, resulting in improved agency for requesters and performance on task completion.

Networking is a fundamental part of professional development. However, it can be challenging, especially for powerless newcomers. Through a field deployment of my online meet-up system, Who2chat, I find several socio-technical challenges that hamper newcomers’ networking. They don’t know who they should network with and have a fear of approaching senior members due to their limited social capital. Who2chat allows users to create their profile, express interests, find researchers with similar interests, lower social barriers, and coordinate and start video chats, all within a single interface. Around 400 people have used Who2chat over iterative deployments. The results indicate that users were able to find other users to chat with and express their willingness to meet more people, thus helping them feel confident in joining conversations.

My work suggests that existing collaborative systems are indeed not effective for the powerless and should be redesigned to meet their social needs. The implications are more relevant in the era of the future of work, where society becomes more distributed, and job markets swiftly change, leading the powerless to be more isolated and perplexed. Designing effective systems for the powerless will ensure that technology is inclusive and supports the people who are sometimes not heard or cared for.


  • Date: Tuesday, June 13
  • Time: 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm
  • Category:
  • Location: 32-370
Additional Location Details:

Thesis Supervisor: Prof. David Karger

To attend via Zoom, please use this link