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Whiteboard versus software


This is a question that has come up a number of times recently, “is it better to run workshops using whiteboards or software tools?”  I’d argue that it’s not a question of one versus the other, they each have their strengths, the question should really be “when should I use a whiteboard and when should I rely on technology?”

What is a workshop?

A workshop is a very powerful collaboration and innovation tool. It normally involves a group of stakeholders with different areas of experience and expertise. It takes place in an open space where  the team have room to move around and interact. It is normally facilitated by someone that helps guide the team toward reaching a desired outcome.

Workshops are used to understand problems, identify solutions and allow the key stakeholders to provide their input. The purpose of the whiteboard, or a software tool, is to help visualise the ideas under discussion and to explore them in more detail.

So how do I know what to use?

I’ve found that it depends on the stage the team is at in terms of their understanding of the issues. In the early stages of a project there’s a lot to figure out and everyone has a different point of view. This is the blank page phase where you have to get thoughts aligned. Using a whiteboard here is perfect. Thoughts are very unstructured and the freeform nature of a whiteboard allows the team to get all these thoughts visible. Once you have achieved this you will start to see relationships between the ideas and it’s this point where things start to become more concrete. (see Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin for guidance on how to visualise ideas)

This phase is where I would start to look at using a software tool. You’re starting to dig into the details, and the devil is often in the detail. At this stage the expertise of the participants really comes to the fore and conversations can be very quick and passionate. It’s important to keep these energy levels and concentration high to be most effective. The problem with manual driven workshops is that ideas come thick and fast, they get clarified and changed very quickly. It’s difficult to keep up with the flow and stopping and waiting for the facilitator to update a sticky note can sometimes be enough to distract the participants.

By the same token the software tool itself needs to be visual and quick, this is not always the case. Whether wireframing, or producing flows, a quick and easy tool is required to get the best out of the workshop. And if you can get the content directly into the tool then there’s no need to follow up later putting the content into the tool based on some poor photo you took with your tablet.

Having said all that, when I’m using a tool projected on to the wall I always have a whiteboard or flipchart available to capture additional ideas.

The bottom line is that workshops are incredibly powerful ways to collaborate and engage with different stakeholders but it’s important to use the right tool at the right time so that you can get the most value from the experience. As a rule of thumb I’d start with the whiteboard in a very early stage, as soon as ideas start to firm up and the nature of the challenge is understood then it’s probably time to switch to a laptop and projector.

We’ve designed Skore with this very much in mind. We’ve used many tools over the years, some are better than others in a live workshop environment, but they mostly rely on experienced users to get the most out of them. We wanted to create something that anyone could pickup and use to capture flows and user journeys with very little practice. Use the links below to download and try it out now.


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Code Signing – how difficult can it be?


Until fairly recently most of our audience has tended to early adopters and, as a result, largely technical. This meant that we’ve been able to get away without code signing the software. We simply posted a message on the site explaining what to do in the event that they hit the “Unknown Publisher” warning message. Now that we are seeing a wider audience downloading and using Skore we decided it was time to do what every good developer should do and start signing our applications properly. So how difficult can it be?

Cost first

Our first concern was cost, it had to be as cheap as possible, even if that meant a little more of a technical headache, we could deal with that to keep costs down. I spent a lot of time trawling Google and reading blogs. Some of the mainstream providers offered certificates that covered both Windows and Mac but these were around the $500 mark for a year. I’d also read at least one article that suggested I could only get a Mac certificate from Apple. I was worried I’d end up forking out for something that didn’t work anyway.

After a whole heap more research this is what we found. Due to recent changes in the Gatekeeper app in OSX only Apple issued certificates will be recognised, however these are available to you by signing up to the relevant developer program for under $100 per year. The cheapest Certificate Authority we found for Windows Authenticode certificates is Ksoftware from comodo at $95 for a year.

Identity validation

So it’s just a case of getting out the credit card? No. Part of what you’re paying for is the validation service, the act of proving who you, or your company are. As we needed to get our certificates from two different providers it meant two different validation processes that were both slightly different.

For both you start by filing an application for which you must provide various pieces of information related to the company. For Apple you need to provide a DUNS number. I’d never heard of this before but the process was pretty painless, I applied for one at Dun & Bradstreet and it arrived via email a few minutes later.

In both cases they went to the extent of checking our company details against the registering authority and contacting us via telephone to confirm. This means that your company address and phone number need to match up and be in the public domain. In the United Kingdom your company needs to be registered at Companies House.

Ksoftware also checked our website and came back to me to query why the registrant details of the domain did not match the company details. Of course we bought the domain before we setup the company. This took a few hours to get changed and updated. They also wanted to see our business listed in one of the many online directories with address and phone number. Again this wasn’t difficult to setup but meant further delay as I had to wait until my ticket was picked up again.

Certificate delivery

Once you’ve been approved, picking up the certificates differed on the different platforms and by browser. On the Mac it was pretty easy, simply launch Xcode and go to accounts, in there you’ll see your certificate and you can export it.

At Ksoftware it was a bit more tricky, they send a link via email to collect your certificate but it must be the exact same browser as you used to order it in the first place. I used Chrome and as a result the certificate was stored in the keychain on my Mac. Once I had located it there I could easily export it.

However, I realised some of the information in the certificate was incorrect so I contacted Ksoftware and they re-issued another. This time I used Firefox and the process was different. The certificate was stored within the preferences section of FF but was easy to export once I found it.

As a result we’re now able to distribute our software properly signed. All in all it took about 10 days from when we decided to go ahead until we had a signed build of each app.


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Support for Skore – Knowledge Base and Ideas


Well it’s not really new but we’ve added a support section to our website to make it easier for you to access, rate articles, leave feedback and suggest new ideas for the software. We’ve been using Uservoice for the past 12 months after it was recommended to me by Ian Gotts over at ZenAlpha.

Uservoice brings together feedback, ticketing and analytics into a single web based platform. What’s more, for very small implementations, like ours, it’s free to get started. This has allowed us to start generating articles over the last few months in preparation for now. It also allows some simple integration into your site, although I believe on the paid plan you get a lot more flexibility.

You can access it from the Support link in the header menu of this site. This takes you to a summary version with a handful of Knowledge Base and Feedback articles. You can also send us a message directly or submit ideas.

Support_page

If you want to browse more of the content simply click the links next to the Knowledge Base and Feedback headings. This takes you into a specific section of our Uservoice site but you can easily get to the top and browse everything by clicking links below the header of each page.

We hope you find it useful and we look forward to hearing your ideas and adding more articles as we go.

 


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the simple language of experience


The language of usability

When I first came across the wireframing tool Balsamiq I was blown away by how easy it was to use for a non-technical person. We bought a bunch of licenses and let various people experiment with creating their own wireframes. Some of these people were our business stakeholders. I know some people out there may be cringing now but this was incredibly valuable for us.

It demonstrated to the business that a lot more thought went into the design of the interfaces than they realised. It also engaged them like never before. The improvement suggestions became more considered and valuable. A clearer distinction was noticeable between business requirements and usability requirements. And ideas that came in had already been discussed among several real users.

For me it was the simplicity that made the difference. People could have simple discussions about UI elements without being technical. By trying to design their own UIs our stakeholders got a much deeper sense of how difficult it could be to get it right. Wireframes became the language of usability and it was a tool like Balsamiq that made it possible for non-experts to engage with this domain.

The language of experience

We were already using flow diagrams to help visualise and understand the wider user experience. We would look at different types of users and their goals. We’d look at the journey that a user might take to first discovering they had a need to fulfilling that need with the product. This is a fantastic way to discuss user experience, to come up with new ideas and share them with the team.

The problem we had was that the approach was inaccessible to those that weren’t trained in it. We were agreed that process was the language of experience but it wasn’t ‘simple’. The tools had to be driven by a small elite group that understood the approach and were skilled in using the tool.

To overcome this challenge we started with a simple approach, one that would be easily recognised, easy to understand and easy to use. You can find out more about the approach we chose here and how it works here. Anyone can use this method with Google drawings, Powerpoint or any tool that lets you draw boxes and lines.

The next thing was to create our own tool that did this and did it well. It’s got to be easy so that anyone can do it, the drag and drop interface makes it easy for any user to quickly create flows. The questions in the boxes remind you what you need to put in there and really drive your thoughts and discussion. We built in shortcuts so power users can literally capture flows at the speed of talking which makes it fantastic for larger group discussions.

And while the focus is on collaboration, and the discussion it generates, if it is to be a ‘simple language of experience’ people need to refer back to it. For that we made it possible to share flows online at the click of a button. We hope you enjoy using it!


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Your product is a process


Most products, with the possible exception of works of art, are designed to enable or facilitate one or more processes. We use products to help us reach some sort of goal. The better the product the easier and more enjoyable it is to reach those goals.

When designing and building any product it is important to understand those processes. Your requirements are represented by the various components that make up the process. Business requirements are the goals and constraints, what the software needs to achieve and what it should not do. Technical requirements are the steps required to reach those goals within the constraints.

Understanding and visualising those processes provides a framework the whole team can relate to when trying to understand what they need to do in order to deliver value to the user.

Instead of starting with a feature list, start thinking about how the user will reach their goal. How do they do it today, without your product, and how will your product make it easier for them. Involve the design and technical teams, they can tell you what’s possible and what isn’t, what will take longer to build and where potential issues may arise in the future.

This will help you drive out any misunderstandings right at the beginning.


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Skore for new subscribers


As you’ve probably seen we’ve been gathering interest in our product from our website. We use WordPress with the Velo theme and the Contact Form 7 plugin to capture email addresses and comments. Our process for managing contacts is pretty manual right now. We use Uservoice to capture the contact activity, a spreadsheet and Mailchimp as a sort of CRM System.

As it’s manual we were both dealing with new subscriptions in different ways. To be honest I wasn’t familiar with Mailchimp so I was just taking the contact and adding it to a spreadsheet. Colin was adding the contact directly into Mailchimp.

We used Skore to agree a standard approach for dealing with new subscriptions. When we get the time we’ll further automate this process. You can see the Skore for it here.


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IDEFinately would…


Skore represents lessons we’ve learnt from years of working with teams. Helping teams become much more efficient, innovative and communicate more effectively. One of our favourite ways to help achieve this has been to help people understand how things work.

Whether it’s an existing product or process, or a product that’s being designed, we’ve found one of the best ways to achieve this is by visualising the underlying process. As most products are about making life easier for people it’s important to understand how people work today and how your product will improve that.

This can be done before you create your product or, if you’ve already created it, to see where improvements can be made. It can also be used to help you explain the benefit of the product to a potential customer. This is all about getting to a point where your development team understand what it is you want them to build and your customer understands what they are getting.

We’ve had many years working with process and helping people understand them through visualisation. We’ve seen and used many different approaches but one of our prefered is a system called IDEF0.

IDEF0 development was sponsored by the US airforce as a

“method for analyzing and communicating the functional perspective of a system. IDEF0 should assist in organizing system analysis and promote effective communication between the analyst and the customer through simplified graphical devices”

IDEF0 is powerful because it is fairly simple to understand and easy to apply. It’s fairly rigorous too which makes it ideal for more traditional development models. We wanted something easier, faster and more flexible. We wanted to deliver it in a tool that was easy and self explanatory to use.

The result is Skore, where informal conversations can be instantly turned into powerful visualisations of ideas. You can describe how something works and what it should do before it’s built. It’s fast so you can quickly see the big picture before you dive into any detail.

3 things to remember:

Skore is easy – the shapes ask questions that help you describe your product
Skore is fast – it’s great to quickly sketch out ideas on your own or with colleagues
It’s based on proven techniques – IDEF0 has been used successfully for many years, we’ve made it even easier and faster to use


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The magic of hierarchy


The importance of hierarchy

Probably my favourite tool in the arsenal of analyst techniques has to be decomposition. Whether it’s functional or process decomposition there is nothing like it for arranging problems into the big picture. Then breaking that picture down into its component parts so that you can start to make sense of it.

hierarchy

And yet hierarchy, in recent years, has got a pretty bad reputation. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this weekend in this LinkedIn article. He was brought up to believe that hierarchy was bad and led to inefficiency, yet research for his new book showed that hierarchy is unavoidable.

Hierarchy is nature’s gift to us in helping us understand the World around us. Citing research by his colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens he describes how hierarchy is found in every single group of animals found in nature. To quote Gruenfeld and Tiedens directly:

“When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.”

Hierarchy structures the relationships between people and things into parent, child and peer relationships. This makes it easier for us to remember those relationships, it provides an organising principle that is standardised across everything. We simply have to know how hierarchy works in order to understand something that is new to us.

This is what makes decomposition so powerful. It comes naturally to us human beings so is not really something that needs much in the way of education. When we apply it, it’s often to an area that seems chaotic and complex. By decomposing we overlay a hierarchy that allows us to understand what was previously incomprehensible. It allows us to break problems down into component parts in order to tackle them effectively and even start to predict what will happen when we make changes.

It doesn’t just aid understanding, it also helps us to remember. Instead of having to remember every single discreet component of an organisation you simply need to remember a small subset. You can then use this along with the hierarchical organising principle and you will be able to fairly accurately calculate the missing pieces.

Skore and decomposition

This is what makes decomposition one of the first things I do when introduced to a new problem and this is why we made decomposition one of the central parts of Skore. It surprises me how few products there are out there that help you do this easily, one of our favourites is Workflowy.

Right from the beginning we wanted to give people the ability to decompose as thought it was second nature. With Skore you simply capture a few high level actions that describe the ‘big picture’ then use the details button on each What Box to decompose to the next level creating a hierarchy as you go. This means it is really important that you complete the Why Box for each step. The Why Box is used to determine the outcome of each step, what’s expected once the action is complete. By doing this consistently you are setting your scope for the next level of detail and making it easier to focus on that detail.

Skore-Details_button_small

Detail button on a What Box in Skore

When looking at any new problem Skore is one of the first tools I reach for, sketch out the big picture and then explore the details of any relevant parts.

3 things to remember

Hierarchy is all around us – it is an organising principle built into nature and helps us understand otherwise complex situations.

Use decomposition to organise and understand problems – start at the ‘big picture’ and break it down into component parts in order to understand what it is and what to do next.

Use the Details button in Skore to decompose a step – each What Box has a details button, clicking this will give you a clean canvas with the context of the parent step including the descriptions of the What and Why boxes. You can break individual steps into detail views as often as you need until you reach the right level of detail.

This is an extended version of an article from Human Automation.


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Dual responsibility in Asana


Asana is our task management software. I personally use it for all my various projects, including personal stuffs.  Today, Craig and I were splitting responsibilities for a number of tasks we want to do around Skore.

One of our objective is to write at least 2 articles a week on the blog; but we wanted to be both accountable of it. Obviously you can assign a task to only one person in Asana :

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 20.04.53

None of us is “more” accountable for this task, so we literally split the task in 2, and assigned each of us one task:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 20.05.14

(We do not use subtasks for high level things because they are not visible directly)

Note the due date : obviously this is an ongoing thing, but we thought we could give it a go for 6 weeks and see how we perform.

On the question why we should force ourselves to publish content, it’s inspired by this tale on Derek Sivers’ website : 50 pounds of pots.


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The loving boot, when feedback is the norm


Working as part of a project team made of people detached from their “real” job on a 10-20% basis is great to get a very wide range of inputs to lead the project…. it is alos sometimes a challenge: different constraints, different objectives, different priorities…

Last week, we challenged ourselves about the level of support we give to each other, and we have been introduced an interesting framework to position ourselves

2013-11-17 - Loving boot

Challenges and support ratio, inertia to loving boot where feedback is the norm

Having the right level of support is critical to our personal success and the success of the team.

Note that you can be at different places with different people, and at different time.

As Beaumarchais said:

Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur

Or in in english:

Where there is no freedom of blaming, there can be no genuine praise

 


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