A few weeks ago, we put the following question to several facilitators’ groups on LinkedIn: What are the biggest roadblocks you’ve encountered during virtual or blended meetings? (We defined blended meetings as those where some participants are face-to-face and some are attending virtually.) In the lively discussions that followed the question, expert facilitators shared the issues they have encountered—as well as some tips for dealing with them. This summary was prepared from their remarks, and our grateful thanks go to those who responded.
The groups represented here include the Organizational Development & Training Forum of Linked:HR, Training & Development, Leadership Strategies Facilitation & Leadership Community, and The Grove Consultants International.
Benefits of Virtual or Blended Meetings
It’s a testament to the positive outlook of the members of these communities that even when asked specifically to identify roadblocks, they still point out the upsides of virtual meetings. They noted that a well-run blended or virtual meeting can involve people who would otherwise be unable to attend, especially in today’s environment of geographically distributed teams. When virtual meetings go smoothly, they take less time than similar face-to-face meetings. In large or newly formed teams, tools like whiteboards and chat windows give people who might otherwise keep quiet a chance to contribute. Instead of having to speak up vocally, they can record their preferences and ideas in a way that is a little less intimidating. In some cases, the meeting can be recorded and used for archival or other purposes, although the recording should not be considered a substitute for attending; it’s even more difficult to stay engaged from a distance while watching a meeting that has already happened.
Top Challenges and Approaches
The challenges fell into three broad categories: logistical, technical, and professional. Logistical challenges have to do with the details of meeting management and are likely to be similar to challenges encountered in any other kind of meeting, no matter where the participants are. Technical challenges reflect the realities of depending on software, hardware, and connectivity that isn’t always as transparent and reliable as we would like. Finally, professional challenges are those that are related to being a facilitator and working with groups. We’ve listed the challenges below, along with some approaches that can help address them.
Challenge: There is no agenda, or the meeting’s purpose or goal is unclear.
I have actually attended virtual meetings that began with someone asking, “What is this meeting about?” Meetings that start like this rarely go well. When people come together for a virtual conference, it is just as important that they know why they are there as for a face-to-face meeting. Participants who don’t understand who else is present or why the meeting is happening will quickly become disengaged and, without the social pressure of being in the room with others, will drift away from the conversation.
- Prepare—and send in advance—a very clear agenda that outlines the topics for discussion, the desired outcomes of the meeting, and who will be there.
- Be prepared to send the agenda out again at the start of the call, as some people will not be able to find their copy.
Challenge: Not all attendees know who is present in the meeting.
Whether all participants or just a few are at different locations, it’s important for people to understand who is present. Knowing who is “in the room” makes a difference in how and what people will communicate and is an important factor in building trust among meeting participants.
- If a shared whiteboard or shared screen is available, draw a simple table and write each person’s name at a place around it. This creates a visual image of the group in a co-located space even when they are not.
- In blended meetings, leave an empty seat and make a name tent for each remote participant. Include that person in “go around the room” discussions when you get to their seat. If holding empty seats is impractical, make a flip chart list with the names of the remote people, and go down the list when you go around the room. Note that this technique helps the face-to-face attendees remember the virtual attendees are there, but does not address the virtual attendees’ need to know who else is present.
- Prior to the meeting, distribute a list of invitees and attendees, noting each person’s location next to their name.
- Ask people to identify themselves before they speak every time (unless the group knows one another’s voices very well).
Challenge: Not everyone has the materials that support the discussion.
If materials were sent too far in advance of the meeting, it is very likely that some of the attendees will not have them at hand when the meeting begins. Likewise, if they are sent immediately before the meeting, some people will not be able to have them printed or otherwise available during the meeting. This causes delays and can lead to attendee frustration and disengagement.
- Send the materials one to four days before the meeting and then refer to them, or send them again, in a follow-up email closer to the meeting.
- Avoid sending multiple versions of the same document in the days leading up to a meeting, if possible.
- Well before the meeting, ensure that all participants can open, view, and (if desired) print the materials in the format they are sent in. If not, work with them to provide materials in a format they can use.
- Some virtual meeting rooms allow materials to be posted so that attendees can download them without leaving the meeting space. Consider posting backup copies of important documents this way to avoid losing attendees who switch to email to find the materials.
Challenge: No one is actively facilitating the meeting or moderating the discussion.
It can be tempting to assume that virtual meeting room software replaces active facilitation, but it really doesn’t. Virtual or blended meetings require as much advance preparation and active facilitation as face-to-face meetings, and sometimes more. When people can’t see each other, the social dance of figuring out who is going to be in charge takes longer, wasting everyone’s time. It’s much more efficient to make it clear who will be facilitating the conversation.
- The facilitator doesn’t have to be the same person who convened the meeting. If you’ve called the meeting but aren’t comfortable facilitating it, find a partner who can help.
- At least one, and sometimes two or more, people should facilitate virtual or blended meetings. Very large groups, or groups that are clustered in several remote locations, may benefit from a facilitation team to ensure that everyone can participate. Smaller groups, or groups where everyone is joining from a different location, may require only
- If the meeting is taking place in an unfamiliar virtual environment, it can be helpful to have a second facilitator to handle technical issues as they arise so they don’t derail the meeting.
Challenge: No one is taking notes, or it is not clear who the note-taker is.
Any meeting worth people’s time is also worth recording in some fashion. Whether in the form of minutes, a graphic recording of the conversation, or a summary of the main points of discussion and list of action items, some record of the meeting should be kept. It is usually not necessary to capture every detail, but future agenda items, action items, decisions, and open questions should be recorded at the very least.
- Assign someone to take notes, or ask for a volunteer at the start of the meeting (or take notes yourself). Identify the note-taker verbally so that everyone knows who it is.
- Have the note-taker capture action items as they arise and review them at the end of the meeting. Make sure responsible parties are noted.
- Distribute notes or minutes promptly once the meeting has ended, with action items called out in the body of the email. If they are only present in an attachment, many people will never see them.
Challenge: There is no common meeting space or platform.
This is a very common challenge with blended meetings where remote participants are calling in on a phone line but have no visual meeting support. Remote participants can easily lose the thread of the conversation and become disengaged, especially in situations where no steps are taken to remember, recognize, and include them. Even meetings where everyone is calling in with no face-to-face component can benefit from a common focal point.
- For telephone-only conferences, make sure everyone has copies of any materials to support the discussion. Label them clearly to make it easy to keep track of which is which, and be clear about which part of a document is currently under discussion.
- Consider sending out a meeting roster with photos of the participants to make it easier to attach faces to voices.
- If possible, use a virtual meeting room. In blended meetings, have someone in the face-to-face group log in and project the meeting room so that everyone can see it.
Challenge: Some of the participants and/or the facilitator are not familiar with the platform being used.
Unless you always work with the same group of people, you will encounter this situation at some point. The range of virtual meeting environments (Cisco WebEx, Adobe Connect, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Fuze Meeting, Elluminate, and others) offers a variety of tools and options, but also gives rise to some confusion when people find themselves in an environment they do not know well.
- As the facilitator, spend time in the meeting environment before the meeting. Run through all the tools and options you think you might use. Load any files you plan to show, and practice screen sharing (if you or anyone else will be using it) so that you understand how it works.
- Offer to give brief orientation sessions to meeting participants a couple of days before the meeting.
- If possible, have someone on hand who can answer technical questions and help attendees who get stuck. Working with a partner will allow you to keep the meeting running smoothly while your partner assists attendees in trouble.
Challenge: The platform is experiencing technical difficulties.
This will happen. I’ll say that again: this will happen. It’s inevitable that once in a while, the platform will misbehave. It’s embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. At least, not usually.
- Remain calm. Don’t let the technical difficulties become the focus of the meeting.
- If someone in the meeting is capable of working on the problem, ask them to do so while you continue the meeting verbally. If no one can fix the issues, apologize and move on.
- If the system is unusable to the point that the meeting cannot continue, summarize the progress so far and reschedule the rest of the meeting, or move the meeting to a teleconference line.
Challenge: Something is wrong with the sound for one or more participants.
Sound problems during a web conference happen when someone can’t hear or can’t be heard when speaking, voices are garbled, or people hear clashing echoes when someone is talking. Like other technical problems, sound issues can quickly turn into the focus of the meeting.
- Ask attendees who are calling in from their computers to use a headset. It really does make a difference for the rest of the group. When someone doesn’t use a headset, their computer microphone can sometimes pick up the output from the speakers and broadcast it back into the conference. While the offender often can’t hear this, everyone else can, and it’s very disconcerting.
- If someone simply can’t use a headset, or if their headset is of poor quality and makes it hard to understand what they are saying, ask them to keep their microphone muted unless they are speaking to help reduce echoes.
- If necessary, skip the built-in audio tools and just use a telephone for the voice part of the call. Remember that many web conference environments can’t record the audio if you use this method, though, so if a recording of the whole meeting is important, you’ll need to solve the audio issues.
- As with other technical difficulties, try to have someone on hand who can help the person who is having the difficulty so that you can keep the meeting running smoothly.
Challenge: It is difficult to keep remote participants engaged or to tell how they are feeling during a blended meeting.
When some people are face-to-face and some are not, it is very, very difficult to pay the same amount of attention to the remote participants as to the ones in the room. There is much more information coming in about the people who are physically present—their body language, expressions, movements—than about the people who are only present when they actually speak. In this situation, people who are not in the room may justifiably feel they are not an equal part of the meeting. They may feel overlooked, neglected, or even entirely forgotten. People who feel that way will not always say so; some of them will just drift off to other activities.
- Take time to describe what’s going on in the room, especially during moments when there is quiet. For instance, if you’re brainstorming a list of solutions to a problem, during a pause you might say, “We’re getting all this down on the flip chart here. It’s quite a list,” or “Everyone’s looking at the list and considering the ideas so far. What seems to jump out at you as you’ve listened, Denver folks?”
- If you’re recording ideas on paper or a white board, try to share that somehow. Tools like Skype allow you to po
int a laptop camera at an area of the room and broadcast it in a video call, bringing the remote people a little closer to what you’re doing.
- Setting up a web meeting environment and having a computer in the room broadcasting it can be helpful. One person can sit at that computer and serve as the liaison between the remote participants and the ones in the room, relaying information back and forth.
- Consider placing the facilitator be in a different room, so that he or she can equalize the experience for the face-to-face and remote attendees. It’s easier to enforce good virtual meeting habits if you’re virtually present yourself.
Challenge: Remote participants tend to multi-task and miss key parts of the conversation.
It’s hard to ignore that little bouncing or lit-up icon that tells us a new email message has come in, and for remote participants in web or teleconferences, who’s to know if you just pop over and take a peek? The problem is that it’s easy to get sucked in to email, or something else, and tune out the meeting. If no one appears to remember you’re there in the first place, why not?
- Make an effort to include remote participants. Go “around the room” and ask people by name if they have contributions.
- Check in with remote participants a little more frequently than ones you can see; they can’t half-raise their hand or give you other visual cues.
- Remember that even in a face-to-face meeting, people sometimes have things they have to deal with. If a remote participant occasionally needs to be caught up with what’s going on, help them out. It’s not worth embarrassing anyone to make a point.
Challenge: Periods of silence are uncomfortable and it’s difficult to refrain from filling them.
In a face-to-face meeting, periods of silence while people absorb and think about what they have been hearing are not unusual. It’s easy to glance around the room and see that people are mulling things over. In a virtual meeting, silences seem longer than they are, and there are no visual cues to let the facilitator know that people are thinking as opposed to checking email, pouring a cup of coffee, or talking to someone else while their microphone is on mute. People sometimes worry that their audio has stopped working. Thinking time is necessary, though, so it’s important to let it happen.
- Be explicit. Say, “Let’s take a few moments to think about this. I’ll wait til you’re ready,” so that everyone knows what’s going on.
- Check in with the group after a little bit: “What do you think? Any ideas or comments, or would you like more time?” Usually someone will speak up at this point.
Challenge: It is difficult to facilitate uniform participation.
It’s easy for a few vocal people to dominate the session, and it can be hard to tell when someone is dissatisfied or trying to break into the conversation.
- Call on people in a specific order to make sure everyone is included.
- Keep a list of attendees and make tick marks by their names when they participate. Call on people who have not spoken up very much.
- In situations where the meeting is attended by clusters of people at different locations, try to assign one person at each location to be their advocate. Ask this person to help maintain balanced communications at their location.
Challenge: Handling breakout groups is harder in remote or blended meetings.
This challenge is difficult to overcome without a virtual environment that supports breakout groups. If no such virtual meeting environment is available, one solution is to set up different telephone bridges for each group, and one for whole-group report outs.
- When part of the group is face-to-face and part is remote, if all the remote participants are at a single location, they can form a single breakout group.
- If not, or if it’s important to your meeting goals to mix up groups, try to include a remote participant in each of the face-to-face breakout groups if you have the technology to support that. Each group can then be responsible for including that person in their conversations.
- If it’s necessary to have the remote people form their own breakout group and they are not all at the same location, be aware that they will need extra facilitation help, as all of the above challenges apply to their mini-meeting.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you found other ways to overcome these challenges, or have other issues come up for you that aren’t covered here? Please add them in the comments!
I just signed up for early access to Vizualize.me, an upcoming visual resume building tool based on the information in a user’s LinkedIn profile. Not that I need to polish up my resume — I’m perfectly happy where I am, thank you — but I’m interested in seeing how it will take data and make it visual. Want to try for yourself? You can sign up to be notified too.
One more entry for the showcase! Giulia was traveling when the original call went out, so her entry just came in this morning. Lucky thing, she got to go to Northern Voice 2011, unlike me! Take a look at the conference website to see more of Giulia’s work.
Last week I invited visual practitioners to send me samples of their work, and I got such an amazing response that it took a couple of extra days to prepare the post about it. (Plus I have been locked in an epic battle with Posterous to get it to look the way I wanted.) Here it is!
I requested images representing each practitioner’s individual creative style, and as you’ll see, the range is very extensive even in this comparatively small sampling of work. I also asked folks to tell me why they picked the particular image they did. Let’s take a little tour of the beautiful pieces that were so generously shared. The list is alphabetical by the last name of the practitioner.
If you’re interested in contacting any of these folks about potential work, please follow up with them on the website listed with their name.
Claire Bronson, c2bdesign.com
CSR Drives Business Innovation (large-scale recording on paper)
Claire chose this image because, in her words, “the content is near and dear to my heart.” Her chart records a talk by Kevin Hagen about sustainable business practices at REI, given for the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future. I love the springtime colors she chose and the fun, funky lettering of the subtitles in this piece.
System of Systems Examples (large-scale printout of digital illustration)
photo by Jay Cross
This complex and detailed chart illustrates real-life examples of systems thinking. Michael uses visual metaphors to describe and explain concepts in large-scale “learning maps.” Learn more about Michael’s work on his website.
Jonny Goldstein, Envizualize
Jay Coen Gilbert (large-scale recording on foamboard)
This is a graphic recording of a talk at TEDxPhilly on the topic of B-Corporations. Jonny notes, “I picked this example because I love doing graphic recording for people with world changing ideas. The speaker, Jay Coen Gilbert, has one of these world changing ideas. He has created a movement to create a new legal corporate entity, the B-Corporation, which is accountable to a broad range of stakeholders, beyond investors, to include suppliers, the local community, employees, and even the environment. This movement has the potential to radically change the ways that corporations shape our society and our planet.”
(photos from visual problem solving workshop)
Jonny teaches a visual problem solving workshop to masters-level students in the Industrial Design program at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. He gives the students tools they can use with their industry partners to develop and manage complex projects. (Jonny’s the one in the yellow shirt in the photos.)
Sketchnotes (small-scale recording on paper)
In Jonny’s words, “Here is a sketchbook image from some notes I took at a talk by futurist and design thinker John Thackara. He talked about the contributions designers can have in addressing the massive and complex problem of how society handles caring for a tidal wave of seniors with dementia. Like Jay Coen Gilbert, John Thackara has world changing ideas that address big, gnarly, challenges.”
I really enjoy Jonny’s free and easy style and his beautiful line quality. It makes his work look like it’s breathing.
Jeannel King, Big Picture Solutions
Over Worked, Overwhelmed… and Over It! (large-scale recording on paper)
This graphic recording was of a 60-minute keynote presented inspirational catalyst and the founder of Madly In Love With Me Day, Christina Arylo. It measures 4′ x 8′, and was created on 20# Bond paper with a combination of Sharpie flip chart markers, Tombow dual-point brush pens, and some Copics thrown in for good measure.
Sketchnotes (small-scale recording on paper)
These visual notes are of a 30-minute keynote presented by Olympic gold medalist, Ruben Gonzalez. They were taken on a Canson Manga sketchpad with a Prismacolor chiselpoint pen and Tombow dual-point brush pens for the color.
“These are both really representative of my style, philosophy, and work: it’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s joyful/playful, it’s darn effective, and I typically work with clients who either are sharing inspiring messages, or are inspiring groups (others or themselves) to realize their fullest potential. Neither of these were planned in advance (I never plan pieces in advance), and yet they both worked out exactly right…and that speaks to my belief that it all works out the way it needs to! (While there were other pieces that represented how groups work through problems, etc., at the end of the day I chose these two because they make me happy to look at!)
“When I work, my process is really a zen practice: I check my Self at the door and remain absolutely present to what’s in the room. In a way, it’s a bit like channeling the room’s experience onto the page. I am so grateful to get to work with people who are passionate about their projects, helping people do what they love…by doing what I love!”
I have to agree that Jeannel’s work is very joyful, but then so is Jeannel!
Rebecca Lazenby, Paragrafix
Graphic Recording for a Team Workshop (large-scale recording on paper)
I love the clean, crisp look of Rebecca’s work. This recording is a 2m x 1m chart on on paper, using Neuland markers. Rebecca photographed it with a panasonic Lumix, which she likes because of its wide lens, and cleaned it up using Whiteboard photo and good old paint. The client name has been removed for confidentiality.
“I chose this image because it was one of the first I did where I really was able to let go creatively whilst being so tuned into the material. I think it shows in the flow and I also had a lot of positive feedback about colour that day, so since then have been able to make more conscious choices about colour. This was the first chart I did where the client said they would use the image as ‘visual minutes’ — it’s easy to read back to people back in the office and that is very important to me in my practice. I try to encourage people to use the charts afterwards to share what they have done on the day.”
Irene Nelson, Irene Nelson Design
Business Communication in the Global Marketplace (large-scale recording on paper)
Like many visual practitioners, Irene notes that much of her work is proprietary or confidential to the client. This is one that she is free to share. It measures 8′ x 4′. I love her bright, bold color choices.
She says, “I believe this image conveys strong listening skills and my ability to organize information quickly. The 25 years of extensive and varied design expertise I have as a graphic designer is clearly an asset to my work in graphic recording. I had a lot of fun doing this. The energy in the room was contagious!”
SLN Online Course Models (digital illustration)
In Alexandra’s words, “This is a process illustration that helped me to articulate and define SLN online course design models. It is a digital illustration that I created in Photoshop.” Alexandra packed a huge amount of detail into this piece! She was an intern at Graphic Guides (The Grove’s forerunner) in the late 1980s and says that David Sibbet continues to inspire her and her work.
Storytelling & Ancient Greek Vases (large-scale recording on paper)
I was present when Emily made this epic recording, and I am still amazed and in awe of her ability to craft a unified work of art on the fly as she did. It’s an 8′ x 4′ recording of a talk given by Diane Cline at the IFVP Conference in Chicago in 2008. In Emily’s words:
“I chose this chart because I remember feeling ‘in the zone’ when I made it! I often think about how to contain the different chunks of information when I am recording, and in this case, as I set up my paper, and got ready, I realized I had an opportunity to create the perfect container for this talk – a large greek vessel! It is not often that I’ll draw a large image in advance when I am charting a speaker. I certainly do this when I am working with a faciitator, and we have designed a template to relate to a group process. But with a speaker, it can be a bigger risk, since I am not sure where they will go in their presentation. In this case, I feel that it worked out. I asked Diane for an image from one of her slides, which I used to make the central figure in the ‘porthole,’ and then the other information seemed to sort itself out across the chart. I was pleased when she talked about the roots of Greek innovation and society, and I had the bottom of the chart open – this seemed like a good place to put this foundational information. As usual, a good speaker makes my job much easier. Diane’s talk was well organized and clear, and hopefully that comes across in my chart.”
Martine Vanremoortele, Visual Harvesting
(large-scale recording on paper, English)
(large-scale recording on paper, Dutch)
Martine says she chose both pieces because of the theme: creativity and the power of the impossible. She feels that her best work is yet to come (I hope that’s true for all of us!)
(small-scale recording on paper)
These notes of a talk by Randi Zuckerberg was signed by the speaker! Martine reports that these were taken while sitting in the audience, in a position that was not exactly conducive to visual notetaking. She also notes that Randi was dressed in the same colors as the Facebook logo! I love the little details in her work.
You can browse more of Martine’s lovely and detailed visual work on Flickr.
Nitya Wakhlu, Nitya Wakhlu Innovations LLC
Designing Training Games and Activities (medium-scale recording on paper)
Nitya notes, “This is a live graphic recording of Thiagi’s session from the ASTD Cascadia conference in 2010. Wall space was limited and I had to move very quickly between sessions – which is why I’ve used flip chart sized paper for the capture. I love this capture because it had 2 big AHAs
for me: (1) The secret juice of facilitators is an extensive toolkit and an ability to be flexible (2)There are no disruptive participants – only feedback!”
Education: Current State (digital graphic recording)
Nitya created this image digitally using a tablet and Adobe Illustrator. It stems from a visioning session by Oregon state leaders around education reform. Nitya referred to her live visual recordings from the session to create consolidated concept pieces like this one afterwards; they were then used in a document outlining the new vision that was shared with state legislators.
Oregon State Leaders Summit (large-scale recording on paper)
This recording from the Aging Matters Summit in Portland was a very quick capture from a discussion of state leaders. Nitya’s work is bold and clean, and I love her consistent use of color. Her happy little striped people always make me smile.
You can browse more of Nitya’s visual work on Flickr.
Did I miss yours?
If you sent me something and it’s not here, I probably didn’t see the email. Please send it again and I’ll put it in a follow-up post!
Thank you to everyone who took the time to send in something — it’s all about you!
I’ve received nearly a dozen contributions from the wonderfully talented visual practice community, and I’m still working on putting them all together in a single post. Thank you to everyone who sent in images, links, and info! The variety of styles is really inspiring. I’ll finish writing it up over the weekend and post it bright and early Monday morning, so stay tuned!
Meanwhile, I’ve been exploring beautiful graphs for a project I’m doing. Take a look at this Google images hitlist for “beautiful graphs” — there’s some really neat stuff out there. (Of course, as we know, your Google search results may vary.)
My colleagues Peter and Diane Durand of Alphachimp Studio are offering a special six-week, online, self-paced course in visual practice (scribing). Looking at the syllabus I have to say it looks fantastic! If you’ve been wondering how to learn more about visual practice, this would be a great way to dip your feet in the water and get started. Check it out at learntoscribe.com.
There is a wonderful depth and breadth of visual practice, and I’d love to showcase examples here from lots of practitioners. Interested in sharing your work?
What I’d really like is for you to share an image of something you’ve done that is particularly special to you, or that you feel you did really well, or that represents a challenge you’ve overcome or are working to overcome. So the whole piece doesn’t have to be your “best work” per se — it should be something that is creatively yours and shows off something you’re pleased with.
What to Send
I’m looking for images of work done on paper (large chart size or small notebook size) or digitally (iPad, graphics tablet, mouse… whatever). Please pick ONE image. If you have one large chart, one notebook sample, and one digital sample, you can send one of each. But please only send one of any one kind.
How to Get Me the Images
- Best way: Email me a link to a Flickr (or other online photo service) photo of the piece you want to share. I will include a thumbnail on the blog post and link to your larger image. Make sure the permissions are set for public view on your image.
- Next best way: Email me a copy of the picture, at least 600 pixels wide at 72 dpi. I’ll take care of the rest. The blog post will include a thumbnail linked to a larger copy of the image.
What Else to Include
- I will only post images that can be properly attributed, so please be sure to send me your name (and the name of your practice if you want).
- If you have a website, send me the link and I’ll link your name to your site in the post.
- Tell me why you picked this image — what does it say about your practice?
- Tell me what format it is — large chart on paper, notebook sized on paper, or digital. If digital, tell me what you used to create it (hardware/software).
- Anything else about the image or the process you used that you want to say.
Please note that by sending me a link or image you are giving me permission to post it on my blog, attributed totally to you of course. Please don’t send anything that’s client confidential (obviously!). This will be posted here on DigitalFacilitation.net. Your work doesn’t have to be digital to be included!
I’ll publish the post on Friday, May 20, so be sure to get me your work by Thursday, May 19 if you want to participate. Thanks!
I just wrapped up a coaching session on digital facilitation techniques and best practices that started with an overview of some of the hardware choices available, how to hook them up, and how to decide which to use for different situations. To help myself (and my client) think about the big picture, I created this graphic that shows one poor laptop besieged by input devices:
The idea is to get a feel for how they all connect to the computer. Some examples of software that can be used are also there. Working from the middle out, we have the laptop itself. Above it are some software choices: Sketchbook Pro (SBP) or PowerPoint (PPT) for displaying templates like The Grove’s Digital Graphic Guides or custom ones you create yourself, and a web conferencing system (WebEx in this drawing) to connect with meeting participants. Then, around the laptop are three possible hardware/input device choices: The Wacom Cintiq LCD tablet, the Apple iPad, and the Wacom Bamboo tablet. As you can see, the iPad and the Cintiq have displays and can mirror what’s on the laptop, while the Bamboo does not.
Connecting To the Computer
These instructions assume that you have the hardware and you’ve followed the packaged instructions for installing the software drivers that come with them. Don’t try to use the tablet without the drivers. It will only make you unhappy.
The Bamboo is the easiest to connect: just plug in the USB cable and you’re good to go.
The Cintiq and the iPad are tied for second, depending on whether you have a greater fear of cables or of configuring software. The Cintiq comes with a “black box” that has one cable on one side that attaches to the tablet itself. On the other side of the box are 3 cables: one is the power cord, one is a USB cable that plugs into the computer, and the third is the DVI (digital video) cable that plugs into (most likely) an adapter and then into your computer, unless you’re using a computer that has a DVI out already. Your Macbook Pro doesn’t so you need one of those little dongle thingies (mini display port to DVI for the newer ones). If you’re not picky about how it looks you can get a cheaper, non-Apple one from Amazon. I have one of each and can’t tell the difference once they’re hooked up. Switch on the power on the tablet and you’re good to go. Don’t forget to calibrate it to the pen EVERY SINGLE TIME you turn it on, switch from mirroring to not mirroring your display, or hook it back up again. Bleh. You do this in preferences and it only takes a second, but still! Every time.
The iPad takes a little prep, but then it’s easy as long as you’ve got a wireless connection or a computer-to-computer network set up and the technology gods aren’t particularly pissed at you for any reason. What makes it work is a little app by Avatron Software called Air Dsiplay. Air Display turns your iPad into another monitor for your computer, as well as an input device. It’s so incredibly cool. Download the app on your iPad and follow the on-screen instructions (for Mac or Win) to install the desktop application and establish your iPad as connectable. Then, as long as the iPad and the computer are on the same wireless network (or ad hoc network, which means your computer creates a network that your iPad can connect to, but you won’t have Internet access while this is going on), the iPad can be selected in the Air Display drop down on the computer. Once you do that, the iPad becomes a second monitor. You’ll see your computer desktop and applications in miniature on the iPad, and you can control them with taps and swipes. No joke. It’s really freaky and really cool all at once.
When to Use Which?
Use the Cintiq if you possibly can. I realize that’s a little oversimplified, but I stand behind it. However, since sometimes you can’t:
The Bamboo is good for situations where you need to be portable. For instance, if you need to facilitate a virtual meeting while on a business trip, it’s much easier to pack and carry than the Cintiq and much more reliable than the network-dependent iPad. Drawbacks include the difficulty of writing legibly with it — you’ll have to practice a lot and get used to zooming and panning — and the awkwardness of writing on one surface while watching another.
The iPad is not yet good for web facilitation, despite the indisputable coolness of Air Display. I’m hoping that it’s going in that direction, though. Right now the tracking (the time between drawing a line and seeing it appear) is too slow, and I’ve had it not work on some wireless networks depending on how the network is configured. For now, I’m sticking to using the iPad for in-person digital recording only.
The Cintiq is the easiest to use (once it’s hooked up) but taking it on the road is a lot like traveling with an octopus: cables and stuff everywhere. Because you can look where you’re writing, you get much better fidelity for text and drawings. It works really well for visually facilitating web-based meetings.
If you really want to freak your computer out, and I don’t recommend this although I did try it myself, hook it up to the Cintiq, then hook that up to a projector (you’ll need a switcher to make this work). Once you have that set up, turn on Air Display and add your iPad as, technically, the fourth monitor (laptop screen, Cintiq, projector, and iPad). Then watch the poor computer cycle through them trying to get a fix on what on earth you want it to do, and at what resolution. It kind of makes your eyeballs hurt in sympathy. Poor thing.
Disclaimer: I do work for The Grove, but I’d have linked to the Digital Graphic Guides anyway because I think they’re fantastic for web-based facilitation.