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different strategies to complete jigsaw puzzles
Scientists at the University of Bath have found that people use a number of different strategies to complete jigsaw puzzles; at the extreme, people are either 'border obsessive' or 'opportunistic' jigsaw players Dr Hilary Johnson, Department of Computer Science, University of Bath
Dr Hilary Johnson
Dr Hilary Johnson, Department of Computer Science, University of Bath

Press Release - 23 December 2004

Could your ‘jigsaw strategy’ lead to a Christmas argument?

Jigsaw puzzles and other traditional Christmas activities could be at the bottom of a number of family arguments over the festive period, according to research on how people collaborate.

Researchers have found that people use a number of different strategies to complete a jigsaw; at the extreme, a person can be either a ‘border obsessive’ or an ‘opportunistic’ jigsaw puzzler.

When individuals collaborate with people who have a different jigsaw strategy - as can happen when a family dusts off the jigsaw for a pleasant Christmas afternoon activity - problems can arise.

Differing jigsaw strategies were found to increase the level of competition between puzzlers, leading to acts of one-up-man-ship, such as hiding the last jigsaw piece to be the ‘winner’ who places the last piece into the puzzle.

Other subversive activities observed during the study include people shielding parts of the completed puzzle, hoarding piles of pieces and hiding the picture on the lid from others.

Whilst these kinds of activities raise the element of challenge and fun in the jigsaw puzzle, they can also heighten the confrontation stakes between people doing the puzzle.

The strategies were uncovered as part of a research project at the University of Bath to help understand how people collaborate on a range of challenging work and leisure activities.

The findings are important because they throw light on how and why people choose to collaborate, and are helping scientists in the University’s Department of Computer Science to design software that supports collaboration on shared activities.

This software - known as groupware - could be used in offices to help manage large projects, to support collaboration across different locations, or as part of packages used in animation or other creative industries.

The researchers used jigsaw puzzles as a simple model for collaboration. In a series of studies, they monitored two people at a time as they constructed a 120 piece dinosaur jigsaw puzzle on their own, and then as part of a larger group.

They found that ‘border obsessives’ focus exclusively on sorting through the entire stock of pieces for the sole purpose of completing the border before concentrating on the rest of the puzzle.

‘Opportunists’, in contrast, are much more creative in their approach, sorting piles on more complex criteria and completing the puzzle using a range of different methods, such as from the top of the picture down to the bottom, or by concentrating on a major component of the picture depending on the pieces they pick up.

The researchers found that although opportunistic jigsaw puzzlers are better at doing a jigsaw on their own than those with a different strategy, it is possible for border obsessives to dominate when it comes to group decisions and behaviour.

“We are most interested in how both the activity and people’s behaviour changes when they collaborate on an activity,” said Dr Hilary Johnson from the Human and Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University.

“A person’s jigsaw strategy closely reflects both their personality and level of skill, and although they may not be as extreme as opportunist or border obsessive, they frequently share behaviour with one of these two extremes.

“The strategies people employ to construct a jigsaw on their own can alter dramatically depending on their leadership skills and force of personality when they have to work with someone else. This is especially so if the person they are working with has a completely contrasting style.

“In one of our studies, even when people knew they were being video taped, we have seen people refusing to allow a fellow player to touch their part of the jigsaw and squabbling over access to pieces.”

The researchers have studied how people do jigsaw puzzles as one of their models for understanding how people collaborate under a range of different circumstances, knowledge and skills.

“Understanding how people collaborate is a very difficult task,” said Johnson. “There are all sorts of complex interactions at work, such as how well people know each other, their personality, their underlying leadership skills and so on.

“We look for a range of signals in their conversation, their body language and gestures as well as how they plan, negotiate, help and hinder one another in performing the task.

“From this study we have been able to create a range of knowledge ‘structures’ that help us understand how people work together on a shared project.”

These structures are key to the next stage in the research, which involves the development of a simple groupware programme to test some of the theories they have developed.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Leeds, they have developed a ‘virtual’ jigsaw to help understand how people collaborate in the same or a different location with the use of computers.

“By uncovering the frameworks people use to collaborate on computer-based activities we can use the information to develop software that will help people collaborate more effectively,” she continued.

The research is published in the journal ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction and has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.