Working together when you’re not

Working closely with people that aren’t in the same physical space is never easy: much communication is nonverbal, and not being able to read body language and facial expression data means that everybody has to work hard to prevent misunderstandings. That hard work slows down communication. The tools for supporting this kind of work ARE improving every day, however.

As a software architect for a motley crew of engineers that are located in an office 12 time zones away, I’ve gotten way more experience than I ever wanted troubleshooting and trying out tools that make “working together when you’re not” possible. If you compare email to IM to voice communication to whiteboarding/screensharing, you see an order-of-magnitude increase in communications effectiveness with each jump. Once internet-based videophones (like this one from vonage) are a little more mature, we definitely plan to purchase two! In the meantime, here’s a quicky review of the tools we use for synchronous collaboration (I’ll talk about asynchronous tools in another post).
All of these tools rely on both parties having a broadband connection. Broadband in India is expensive (We’re paying in excess of 120$/month for a DSL connection that would cost $35 in the US!), but prices are expected to drop (the way they did for cell phones and land lines) as the market picks up steam.
Voice communications :
Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last year knows that Skype is the next big thing in voice communications. Free, decent quality voice communication between broadband-equiped PCs, powered by peer-to-peer software that allows the network to scale smoothly and at no cost.
The quality of the signal is way better than Yahoo! chat, the solution that we were using before Skype was released. 3-way conferencing is possible (although sometimes buggy). In general, the technology is not yet reliable enough for external communications (to customers, vendors etc) but is great for internal communications between team members. Not having to set up a multi-line phone system for the India office was not only a huge cost savings, but it also helped us avoid a huge logistical hurdle.
Investing in combination mic/headphone sets is the only cost besides bandwidth: the ones you buy in India cost $2 and last about a month. The ones you buy in the US cost about $20 and last about 3 months. Buy them by the dozen, because they get lost, get dirty, or break with shocking regularity. In other words, don’t buy an $100 pair of bluetooth headphones from Toshiba, even though they are really really cool.
Screen Sharing:
Demos and visual design discussions go nowhere fast unless both participants are looking at the same screen. We started out using the screen-sharing built in to windows (Application Sharing) and a product called RealVNC. The software sometimes fails and is difficult to troubleshoot (for example, Application Sharing doesn’t work on my laptop. RealVNC requires changing the India offices router settings to point the appropriate port to the appropriate PC). This is one arena where you get what you pay for. We’re not willing to pay the hefty rates that Webex charges, but we’re actively looking into trying some of the smaller vendors (like eblvd or gotomypc).
Another problem with the currently available screen sharing software is that the low frame rates (2 frames a second or so) make it difficult for the remote viewer to evaluate animated transitions (in a Flash application, for example). Since rich internet application development is what we do, this is an issue that impacts us. Our current solution usually involves dropping sample code onto a test server so that the animated transitions can be evaluated by all concerned, but that obviously isn’t ideal.
Just as VoIP isn’t high-quality enough for client communications, screen sharing using free software is currently way too buggy for client interactions. For remote usability testing or client demos, WebEx is really the only option, not so much because of quality, but because people are (understandably) very reluctant to install software that they’ve never heard of on their work computers.
For whiteboarding, we use the simple expedient of the Yahoo doodle environment in Yahoo chat. We tried other whiteboarding applications (like bitwise) and found they weren’t reliable enough for use in a business context. Depending on your work style and drawing skills, you may find the size of the whiteboard limiting: for us it seems perfectly adequate. Be warned: drawing with a mouse (or especially a trackball) is a real challenge. Investing in a couple of drawing tablets (like these) is recommended.
We’ve noticed that having a large number of 2-way streaming connections open on single PC results in flaky behavior. Skype and yahoo Doodle play together well, but simultaneously using screen sharing and audio can occasionally cause buggy behavior. On my end, I run audio through a desktop PC and screen sharing through my laptop, which (while a hack) seems to solve the problem.
If anyone has tools they would recommend, (especially for screen sharing), feel free to comment below.

5 thoughts on “Working together when you’re not

  1. Manu Sharma January 7, 2005 / 9:41 am

    Have you considered screen recording software for this? It seems to me an ideal tool for your kind of work. Far superior than screen sharing/ whiteboarding/ skype because *you do everything right on top of your Flash animation*. It’s another way of screen sharing. The only disadvantage is that it’s one-way communication at a time and involves transfer of large files.
    But since you work 12 hrs apart, this may not be a disadvantage after all (I’m actually surprised how you manage one-to-one screen sharing at all!).
    Here’s how this can work: your team in India sends you/ uploads the screen recording of the animation which you anotate, add narration and then send back. A tool like Wincam, offers your great flexibility in editing screen recordings.

  2. Peldi January 7, 2005 / 6:04 pm

    You should look into Macromedia’s Breeze Live product. At $0.32/minute, it’s not free, but it does all of the above and more.

  3. jon January 9, 2005 / 9:21 pm

    I LIKE the Breeze idea: I will definitely give it a try and report back!
    Manu, the WinCam idea is a nice hack (esp given the time zone issues), but for non-linear content (i.e. software instead of movies) I really need to play with something before I can tell whether it’s good or not. I will keep it in mind as it’s an idea that might come in handy for certain edge cases (such as me wanting to have a life ;->).

  4. jon January 14, 2005 / 7:13 pm

    Manu, I’ve been using camtasia for screen capture the last few days and it seems like a good tool. A bit pricey, but the ability to generate a flash-based instructional video (in addition to capture) is generically useful, so I think we’re going to buy it.

  5. Manu Sharma January 15, 2005 / 9:42 am

    Hey Jon — good to know you found Camtasia useful. Wincam offers flash output (in an advanced version) as well but the price is same as Camtasia… which I think has more features. Go for it.

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