Writing by Peter Hilton

Web-based online whiteboards

Essential tooling for remote teams - 14 September 2021 #agile #remote

A white-desk

unsplash-logoSamantha Borges

Software development requires readily-available high-bandwidth communication. Without it, productivity slows down.

The highest bandwidth communication between two people combines a fluid conversation, seeing the other person, and having someone to make notes and draw pictures. If you can’t do this whenever you want, you’ll compromise communication, collaborate poorly, and waste time.

Use whiteboards

Use whiteboards. Not only do software development teams need whiteboards, one whiteboard isn’t enough. Our new remote-first-by-default workplaces don’t make this easy, though, because in the past, software alternatives haven’t worked well.

Remote teams need effective software-based whiteboards. Software used to offer ineffective imitations of the real thing. Fortunately, we have new alternatives.

Sticky notes and sketches

Miro and Mural both give you similar canvases that you can use like a whiteboard. In both cases, the canonical interaction adds a sticky note to the board, while both let you add almost anything else to the board. Both also offer explicit team collaboration and meeting capabilities.

Excalidraw uses a web-based canvas for sketching diagrams, rather than written notes. So far, Excalidraw has avoided both becoming a complex tool and focusing on a specific kind of diagram. This simplicity makes it useful for whiteboards as collaboratively sketches.

Direct manipulation boards

Modern web-based whiteboards’ user experience sets a low barrier to entry, by making it simple to put something on the board. They achieve this with a direct manipulation interface that lets you focus on the board, rather than their own user interfaces.

Modern web-based boards largely avoid options for fiddling with presentation, avoiding the PowerPoint effect, where you spend 90 per cent of your time fiddling with cosmetic details instead of the content.

Web-based whiteboards’ usability for basic use just about makes them viable replacements for physical whiteboards (assuming you have the choice). However, once you start using them, you discover their advantages over physical boards.

Infinite boards

On the Internet, you can have as many whiteboards as you want. While you probably can’t have more than one physical whiteboard per person, you can have one online whiteboard per meeting. Once you get used to this, and have lowered the barrier to creating a new board far enough, you can have an online whiteboard for every discussion.

Inclusive collaboration and facilitation

Access to a physical whiteboard - standing in front of it - becomes one of many power plays in physical meeting rooms that make traditional meetings disfunctional. Online whiteboards’ most important benefit emerges when multiple people participate in a discussion, and discover that they have equal access to the whiteboard.

Online whiteboards enable more collaboration than physical whiteboards, as soon as you have more than two people. In particular, they enable meeting facilitators, especially when they add facilitation functionality.

Durable searchable boards

After you’ve used online whiteboards for a while you notice another important benefit. Online whiteboards don’t need do not erase annotations, because you can keep them forever. And durable whiteboards retain their value when you can search and browse them. Especially if you name them well. In practice, though, it helps to link to them from calendar events, so you can also use your calendar to search and browse them.