Using Online Whiteboards for Virtual Meetings and Conference Calls

Online whiteboards can’t replace a flip chart and pen but adding a visual element to your conference calls can really improve the quality of communication and productivity of your meetings. Below are some common scenarios where online whiteboards can make a real difference.  In the examples I have used the real-time whiteboard and stickyboard features that are available as part of  the SmarterCalls cloud collaboration tools (standard on all conference calling packages see here  and here for more info).

Using an Online Whiteboard to Sketch out ideas

I am always drawing pictures to explain concepts or ideas,  in meetings I often draw on the whiteboard or in my notepad – online whiteboards let your do this in real-time with collaborators in multiple locations. The experience can be a little clunky when using the mouse to freehand draw (I use a wireless stylus pen),  our real-time whiteboard has features to help : a library of  standard shapes which can be ‘dragged and dropped’ and  ItelliDraw, which recognizes gestures as you freehand draw which automatically creates shapes. I have used online whiteboards for sketches to explain ideas, to demonstrate designs for print and web page layouts, to design processes (the IntelliDraw feature works great for this).

whiteboard  - schetching out an idea for a room

Using the smartercalls online whiteboard to discuss a design  for a room.

Using an Online Whiteboard to Review an Image or Design

Sharing an image or design with others to review is a common task for many professions e.g. architects, graphic designers, marketing creatives. With our online whiteboard you can upload an image and share with others in real-time. Collaborators or reviewers can annotate the image, add notes, comments and free hand sketch over the top.

Reviewing an image or design

Reviewing the design for a house using the online whiteboard.

Using a Sticky Board to Plan a Project

I have used sticky notes (or PostIt notes) for many years to plan projects in face-to-face workshops. Our sticky-board allows you to complete this during a conference call. A typical session would be work something like this:

  • As a group, brainstorm all of the major tasks that are required to complete your project and dump them on sticky-board (all of the collaborators can do this together at the same time).
  • Use a transparent sticky to create a  timeline or grid across the top of your sticky-board
  • Lay out your sticky notes onto the timeline thinking about the sequence, timing, dependencies, resources etc.
Using the stickyboard to brainstorming a plan.

Using the stickyboard to brainstorming a plan. Different colour stickies are used to show important tasks or issues to solve. Estimates are included in the text.

Using a Sticky Board for Problem Solving and Analysis

It is common to try and solve problems on conference calls or virtual meetings. There are many standard analysis techniques that can really help, I often use sticky notes when running workshops to do SWAT analysis, pros/cons, Venn diagrams etc. This can also be simulated in a virtual meeting by using a transparent sticky notes to create a grid and then either brainstorm or create stickies one by one adding them to the relevant sections,. Below are some examples using our sticky-board.

Using the stickyboard to complete a pros and cons analysis for a new job.

Using the stickyboard to complete a pros and cons analysis for a new job.

In summary, online whiteboards can be quite versatile and really work in conference calls or virtual meetings. Our real-time whiteboard and sticky-board is available with all of our packages (including our free packages) and come with many features to make the experience a real as possible.

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EveryMinute Is Up and Running

We’ve been discussing the EveryMinute idea with charities over the last few weeks. The idea of using conference call minutes as a means to generate donations for non-profits has really been taken up with some enthusiasm. So today we’ve set up landing pages for the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, the Marine Conservation Society and As Suffa’s Homeless outreach project in Birmingham. All with the the aim raising sustainable income for these good causes.

Here’s how it works. Sign up to use our conference calling service using on of the bespoke landing pages we’ve created for the charity you wish to support. Then every time you make a conference call, we share 50% of the revenue we generate with the charity. To illustrate,  a UK conference call with four callers running for one hour would raise £3. And remember this costs you nothing since a donation is made by SmarterCalls from our revenue.

You can get a list of the charities we’re currently supporting by visiting the EveryMinute page.  Let us know what you think or better still share the link with colleagues to get them using the service and help make a difference.

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Use the Stickyboard to Collect Information on a Topic

It’s often useful to collect all the information on a particular topic into a single place. It’s a good way to start answering a question, like for example in our case we were asking: “How can we raise more money for charities through EveryMinute?”

My starting point was “what do we know at the moment?”. What we know is usually in different peoples heads, so I set up a SmarterCalls project and invited people I felt could contribute.

My objective is to collect what we know now, from a wider group as possible, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute and reflect on others thoughts. At this stage I’m not looking to answer the initial question, just looking to get everything down in one place.

Using the Stickyboard, everyone will put up what they know to be Facts, Opinions or Guesses on ways to grow EveryMinute.

Here’s how it looks today (18th September 2013) – I’ll update the post in about two weeks to see how it looks then.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 17.27.07

Click on the Image to take part. The passphrase is “everyminute”

If you want to take part click on the image, enter “everyminute” as the passphrase and go to the stickyboard.

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EveryMinute Raises £118 for Save the Children

EveryMinute is a simple enough idea, every time someone dials into a conference call from the UK, we give 1p per minute to a charity. It’s a type of cause marketing since every time someone uses the service it triggers a donation from us. This explains the name EveryMinute. We’ve been doing it for a while now but never really disclosed the fact that we’re sharing our revenue because the next question would be how much? As a start-up we weren’t sure whether we wanted to make this public, because it would show everyone how big we are.

And companies need to look like bigger than they are so that others businesses will trade with them. Like puffed up roosters walking around a farm looking to attract the hens, they  have virtual assistants and prestigious addresses all with the aim of looking more established.

We’ve decided to be completely open so we can tell you how much we’ve raised over the last three months so you can help us grow and raise more.

From the 1st of May to the 31st of July we sold 11,785 UK conference call minutes, meaning we raised £117.86p in the quarter. We gave the money to Save the Children’s Syria Appeal.

Here’s a message we received from Anne Cooper Beresford of Save the Children:

“Thank you so much for making a donation today. Your gift …. will help us continue our vital work providing Syrian refugee children with the basics they need and emotional support for the horrors they’ve been through.”

Remember you can make a donation on their website.

Watch Kat Carter of Save the Children explain why help is needed in Syria. It’s a tragic situation with lots of support needed from the outside world.

Update 28/10/2013 – a Twitter message from Kat

@SmarterCalls thank you so much! That’s enough for enough bread for 40 Syrian child refugees for a week :) much appreciated!

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Battling browsers and constant improvement

A few months ago we launched an early version of our online meeting tools which are designed to take away some of the common frustrations when holding meetings over a conference call e.g. sketching out an idea, sharing files, brain storming ideas and tracking actions.

Our application uses  ‘real-time’ technology, which means that all changes are kept up to date without have to click refresh in your browser. This enables all participants in the meeting to have the same view and ability to contribute (unlike screen sharing software where only one user has control of the meeting). All this is achieved with just a web browser with no install of 3rd party plugins e.g. Flash, Silverlight.

As you can probably imagine, this advanced use of web technology is really pushing the boundaries of current browsers. Unfortunately not all web browsers behave in the same way and fixing all of the niggly issues has been hard work. In general, the application works really well in Chrome, FireFox and Safari but building a great experience in Internet Explorer has been a real challenge. Since we launched the app, we have released new functionality and bug fixes every week. The main focus of development has been to improve the Internet Explorer experience.

Our approach to building our company has been inspired by Lean Startup principles, which in simple terms means we listen to our user community, actively seek feedback and make frequent improvements to our service. Please get in touch if you have ideas or general feedback (positive or negative we would like to hear it) – our feedback page page is here

Below is a list of the changes in the last month:

  1. Improved File Upload – Our file uploader now uses flash on non html5 browsers (use Chrome or FireFox if you would like to use ‘drag and drop’ functionality directly from your computer/iPAD).
  2. Internet Explorer Improvements – There were a number of formatting issues and errors popping up in cases where IE works differently to open standards and the rest of the browsers on the market (honestly we aren’t bitter arrgh).
  3. Real-time Search for Tasks/Files – You can now filter your tasks/files by keywords as you type.
  4. Improvements to Itelli Draw – The Itelli draw feature allows you to sketch out ideas using the mouse and complex algorithms (big word for smart coding) create common shapes e.g. rectangles, triangles, diamonds. We now support arrows which really opens up the potential uses e.g. quickly draw process diagrams.

Over the next few releases we will be focusing on:

  • Improving the drawing tools – Making our tools more intuitive and easy to use  (they can be fiddly in sometimes).
  • Improving the iPAD experience – Our app looks great on the iPAD and is great use tablet technology, however, some of the iPAD gestures aren’t fully  supported.
  • Improving performance – Some of our users are now building fairly big project’s which can be slow to load the first time the app loads.

We have lots of new functionality in the pipeline including multiple projects, inviting participants from LinkedIn, WebRTC – but more on that next time.

One final note, for the best experience and performance when using SmarterCalls (or any other app or site) please consider using Chrome. Any feedback or questions please get in touch.


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Conference Call Statistics

My daughter is learning the basics of probability and statistics at school right now. Taking a sample of nearly 500 conference calls with at least two different people dialling in. I took my own refresher course in conference call statistics.

So how long does a typical conference call last? The mean value is 27 minutes, whereas the most frequent duration (mode) is 22 minutes. Laying out the duration for each call in an ordered line, we found the middle value (median) to be 23 minutes. The standard deviation (a measure of how spread the data is) is 20 minutes.

Histogram of Conference Call Length

This suggests conference calls are typically shorter than a face to face meeting. This  makes sense as that’s probably what they are suited to since it can be difficult to maintain attention and engagement the longer a call goes on or the more people involved.

Number of lines into a conference call

Exploring the number of lines into a call, we find that by far the most common is number is 1! Why is this the case? The average call length for such calls is around 5 minutes i.e. the time you’d usually wait for someone to turn up to a call before hanging up.

Looking at calls with at least two people dialling in the average (mean) number of lines into a conference call is 4 and the median is 3.

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Conference Call with File Sharing

Do you email files before a meeting or a conference call? Do you ask people if they’ve got it? Do people always say yes?

Now you can run set up a conference with file sharing built in with Smartercalls. There’s no need to send attachments with emails, just ask them to go to your dedicated workspace URL. They’ll find the files they need and you can be sure its the correct right version.

File Share Tab in Smartercalls

As it’s fully collaborative, anyone you invite can add files too. So you’ve got a space to share project files forever. Right now anyone can also delete files too so bear that in mind when you’re working with each other.

If you want to learn more about our cool features visit the features page or sign up and start using the app.

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There’s only one rare earth and this is it

Going back to my theme on the real rare earth, I’ve been thinking about better communication can help us make more productive, protect the environment and help us make better use of the precious time we have whilst we’re alive.

Sitting in a car driving to a meeting, especially in lots of traffic is such a waste of so many things. You’re time, energy and all the while pumping out greenhouse gases into the air. I guess that’s why I came up with the idea of Smartercalls or as it was originally called Plandoh. I wanted to free peoples time and whilst doing so make them more creative as they’d have more energy to thinking and discussing rather than expending getting from one place or another.

The great idea right now, is the value of networks i.e. the more connected you and the wider network is the greater flow of information can take place and it can be built upon more rapidly. We’re hoping Smartercalls makes it easier for you to connect with people in enriching mult-sensory manner and as a result you’ll do it more often and will encounter greater opportunities to develop ideas and achieve your goals.

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The Real Rare Earth

We’ve all heard of rare earth and why we need it to power our smartphones. We think the real rare earth is the one we live on.

Sketch of a blue earth and a solar system

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Registration Emails

Don’t you just hate it, when you find out about something bad you weren’t aware of?

We do.

Gmail, Hotmail and I guess Yahoo! have been dumping our registration emails as spam. Not because we’ve done anything wrong but because we’re hosted on 1&1 and emails from their shared servers are treated as spam.

We’re not pleased, it’s definitely had a huge effect on our usage (for a while we didn’t get why people signing up weren’t using the service as expected). We know now and we’re going to fix it.

For anyone effected by this we’re sorry.

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