21 Oct

Getting the hang of hanging out (part 2)

A couple of days ago I experienced some some difficulties using YouTube Live Events. So today, I was all prepared:

  • Had my phone with me for 2-factor auth so I could log into my account on a second computer in order to paste links into the chat;
  • Prepared a document with all the links I wanted to paste;
  • Had the Hangout on my presenter computer running well ahead of time.

Indeed, I was done with my prep so much in advance that I had heaps of time and thus wanted to pause the broadcast as it looked like it was not actually broadcasting since I couldn’t see anything on the screen. So I thought I needed to adjust the broadcast’s start time.

Hence why I stopped the broadcast and as soon as I hit the button I knew I shouldn’t have. Stopping the broadcast doesn’t pause it, but stops it and kicks off the publishing process.

Yep, I panicked. I had about 10 minutes to go to my session and nobody could actually join it. Scrambling for a solution, I quickly set up another live event, tweeted the link and also sent it out to the Google+ group.

Then I changed the title of the just ended broadcast to something along the lines of “Go to description for new link”, put the link to the new stream into the description field and also in the chat as I had no other way of letting people know where I had gone and how they could join me.

I was so relieved when people showed up in the new event. That’s when the panic subsided, and I still had about 3 minutes to spare to the start of the session.

The good news? We released Mahara 16.10 and Mahara Mobile today (though actually, we soft-launched the app on the Google Play store already yesterday to ensure that it was live for today).

19 Oct

Getting the hang of hanging out (part 1)

Living in New Zealand, far, far away from the rest of the world (except maybe Australia), means that I’m doing a lot of online conference presentations, demonstrations, and meetings. I’ve become well-versed in a multitude of online meeting and conferencing software and know what works on Linux and what doesn’t.

The latter always give me a fright as I have to start up my VM and hope for the best that it will not die on me unexpectedly. Usually, closing Thunderbird and any browsers helps free some resources in order to let Windows start up. I can only dream of a world in which every conferencing software also runs on Linux.

Lately, some providers have gotten better and make use of WebRTC technology, which only requires a browser but no fancy additional software or flash. Only when I want to do screensharing do I need to install a plugin, which is done quickly.

So for meetings of fewer than 10 people, I’m usually set and can propose a nice solution like Jitsi, which works well. In the past, my go-to option was Firefox Hello for simple meetings, but that was taken off the market.

But what to do when there may be more than 10 people wanting to attend a session? Then it gets tough very quickly. So I have been trialling Google Hangouts on Air recently after I’ve seen David Bell use them successfully. It looked easy enough, but boy, was I in for a surprise.

Finding the dashboard

At some point, my YouTube account was switched to a “Creator Studio” one and so I can do live events. Google Hangouts on Air are now YouTube Live Events and need to be scheduled in YouTube.

There is no link from the YouTube homepage to the dashboard for uploading or managing content. I’d have thought that by clicking on “My channel” that I’d get somewhere, but far from it. There is nothing in the navigation.

The best choice is to click the “Video Manager” to get to a subpage of the creator area. Or, as I just found out, click your profile icon and then click the “Creator Studio” button.

Finding the creator dashboard

Getting to the creator dashboard either via the “Video Manager” on your channel or via the button under your profile picture.

Scheduling an event

Setting up an event is pretty straight forward as it’s like filling in the information for a video upload just with the added fields for event times.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found yet where I can change the placeholder for the video that is shown in the preview of the event on social media. It seems to set it to my channel’s banner image rather than allowing me to upload an event-specific image.

So once you have your event, you are good to go and can send people the link to it. The links that you get are only for the stream. They do not allow your viewers to actually join your hangout and communicate with you in there and that’s where it gets a bit bizarre and what prompted me to write this blog post so I can refer back to it in the future.

Different links for different hangouts

There is the hangout link and the YouTube event link

Streaming vs. Hangout

There are actually two components to the YouTube Live event (formerly known as Google Hangout on Air):

  1. The Hangout from which the presenter streams;
  2. The YouTube video stream that people watch.

In order to get into the Hangout, you click the “Start Hangout on Air” button on your YouTube events page. That takes you into a Google Hangout with the added buttons for the live event. You are supposed to see how many people joined in, but the count may be a bit off at times.

In that Google Hangout, you have all the usual functionality available of chats, screensharing, effects etc. You can also invite other people to join you in there. That will allow them to use the microphone. The interesting thing is that you can simply invite them via the regular Hangout invite. You can’t give them the link to the stream as they would not find the actual hangout. And if you only give people the link to the Hangout but not the stream, nobody will be in the stream.

Finding the relevant links in the hangout

You can also get the two different links from the hangout. Just make sure you get the correct one.

The YouTube video stream page only shows the content of the Hangout that is displayed in the video area, but not the chat. The live event has its separate chat that you can’t see in the Hangout! In order to see any comments your viewers make, you need to have the streaming page open and read the comments there.

In a way, it’s nice to keep the Hangout chat private because if you have other people join you in there as co-presenters, you can use that space to chat to each other without other viewers seeing what you type. However, it’s pretty inconvenient as you have to remember to check the other chat. Dealing with separate windows during a presentation can be daunting. It would be nicer to see the online chat also in the hangout window.

Today I even just fired up another computer and had the stream show there, which taught me another thing.

Having the stream on another computer also showed me how slow the connection was. The live event was at least 5 seconds behind if not more. That is something to consider when taking questions.

The stream was also very grainy. I was on a fast connection, but the default speed was on the lowest setting nevertheless. Fortunately, once I increased the resolution on the finished video, the video did get better. I don’t know if you could increase the setting during the stream.

Last but not least, I couldn’t present in full-screen mode as the window wouldn’t be recognized. I’ll have to try again and see if it works if I screenshare my entire desktop as it would be nicer not to show the browser toolbars.

Not sharing of links

When you are not the owner of the stream, you cannot post URLs. I’m pretty sure that is to prevent trolls misusing public YouTube events to post links. However, it’s pretty inconvenient for the rest who want to hold meetings and webinars and share content. You can’t post a single link. Only I as organizer could post links. Unfortunately, I found that out only after the event as I was logged in under a different account.

Being used to many other web conferencing software, I’ve come to like the backchannel and the possibility to post additional material, which are in many cases links, so people can simply click on them. This was impossible in the YouTube live event as I was only a regular user. And even had I logged in with my creator account, which I’ll certainly do during the next session on Friday, nobody else would have been able to post a link. That is very limiting. I wish it were possible to determine whether links were allowed or not.

Editing the stream

Once the event was over today, I went back to the video, but couldn’t find any editing tools. I started being discouraged as I had hoped to simply trim the front and the back a bit from non-essential chatter and then just keep the rest of the video online rather than trimming my local recording that I had done on top of the online recording, encoding that and uploading it. Before I could get sadder, I had to do some other work, and once I came back to the recording, I suddenly had all my regular editing tools available and rejoiced. Apparently, it takes a bit until all functionality is at your disposal.

So I trimmed the video, which was not easy, but I managed. And then it did its encoding online. After some time, the shortened recording was available and I didn’t have to send out a new link to the video. ūüôā

Summing up

What does that mean for the next live event with YouTube events?

  1. Click the “Creator Studio” button under my Google / YouTube profile to get to the editor dashboard easily.
  2. Invite people who should have audio privileges through the Hangout rather than giving them the YouTube Live link, which is displayed more prominently.
    • Co-presenters are invited via Hangout.
    • Viewers get the YouTube live link.
  3. Open the YouTube Live event with the event creator account in order to be able to post links in the chat on YouTube. Have both the Hangout and the YouTube Live event open so you can see the online chat of those who aren’t in the Hangout.
  4. Take into account that there is a delay until the content is shown on YouTube.
  5. Once finished, wait a bit until all editing features are available and then go into post-production.

Remembering all these things will put me into a better position for the next webinar, which is a repeat session of today’s and showcases the new features of Mahara 16.10.

Update: Learn some more about YouTube Live events from my second webinar.

11 Oct

Mahara Hui @ AUT recap

I’m playing catch-up and working my way backwards of my events. Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the NZ MoodleMoot¬†on 5 October 2016. Just a day before that, AUT organized a local half-day Mahara Hui, Mahara Hui @ AUT 2016. Lisa Ransom and Shen Zhang from CfLAT (Centre for Learning and Teaching) were responsible for the event and did well wrangling everything and made all attendees feel welcome.

It was great to catch up with lecturers and learning technology support staff from AUT, Unitec and University of Waikato, and with a user from Nurseportfolio. We started the day out with introductions and examples of how people use Mahara.

Mahara in New Zealand tertiaries

At AUT, the CfLAT team trained about 630 students this academic year, in particular Public Policy, Tourism and Midwifery. Paramedics are also starting to use ePortfolios and can benefit from the long experience that Lisa and Shen have supporting other departments at AUT.

Linda reported that Mahara is now also being used in culinary studies in elective courses as well as degree papers. They use templates to help students get started, but then let them run with it. Portfolios are well suited for culinary students as they can showcase their work as well as document their creation progress and improve their work.

She also showcased a portfolio from a new lecturer who became a student in her area of expertise, going through a portfolio assignment with her students to see for herself how the portfolios worked and what she could and wanted to expect from her students. By going through the activity herself, she became an expert and now has a better understanding of the portfolio work.

John, an¬†AUT practicum leader, who was new to AUT, came along to the hui and said that they were starting to use portfolios for their lesson plans and goals. Reflections are expected from the future teachers and form an important aspect. I’m sure we’ll hear more from him.

Sally from Nursing at AUT is looking at Mahara again, and the instructor could form connections directly with Unitec and Nurseportfolio, which is fantastic, because that’s what these hui are about: Connecting people.

JJ updated the group on the activities at Unitec. Medical imaging is going digital and looking into portfolios, and they also created a self-paced Moodle course on how to teach with Mahara effectively so that lecturers at Unitec can get a good overview.

Stephen from the University of Waikato gave an overview of the portfolio activities ¬†at his university. Waikato still works with two systems, MyPortfolio.school.nz for education students becoming teachers, and the new Waikato-hosted Mahara site. Numerous faculties at Waikato now work with portfolios. If you’d like to find out more directly, you can watch recordings from the last WCELfest, in particular the presentations by Richard Edwards, Sue McCurdy and Stephen Bright. Portfolios will be used even more in the future as evidence from general papers will need to be collected in them by every student.

We also discussed a couple of ideas from a lecturer and are interested in other people’s opinion on them. One idea was to be able to share portfolios more easily in social networks and then see directly when the portfolio was updated and share those news again. The other idea was to show people who are interested in the portfolios when new content has been added. The latter is already possible to a degree with the watchlist. However, there students or lecturers still need to put specific pages on the watchlist first rather than the changes coming to them. The enhancements that Gregor is planning for the watchlist goes more in that direction.

Mahara 16.10

In a second part of the hui, I presented the new features of Mahara 16.10, and we spent a bit of time on taking a closer look at SmartEvidence.

I’m very excited that this new version will be live very soon and look forward to the feedback by users on how SmartEvidence works out for them. It’s the initial implementation. While it doesn’t contain all the bells and whistles, I think it is a great beginning to get the conversations started around use cases besides the ones we had and see how flexible it is.

Next hui and online meetings

If you want to share how you are using Mahara, you’ll have the opportunity to do so in Wellington on 27 October 2016 when we’ll have another local Mahara Hui,¬†Mahara Hui @ Catalyst. From 5 to 7 April 2017, we are planning a bigger Mahara Hui again in Auckland. More information will be shared soon on the Mahara Hui website.

There will also be two MUGOZ online meetings on 19 and 21 October 2016 in which I’ll be presenting the new Mahara 16.10 features. You are welcome to attend either of these 1-hour sessions organized by the Australian Mahara User Group. Since the sessions are online, anybody can tune in.

10 Oct

One-day of Moodling

Last week, the 10th New Zealand MoodleMoot took place at NorthTec in Whangarei. After a night of torrential rain, the community day, the one that I attended on 5 October 2016, brought bright sunshine and warm temperatures. That was a good start to the day. After a short walk and sinking one of my shoes almost ankle-deep into mud on the way to NorthTec, we found the venue, the Interactive Learning Centre, but nobody was there.

Everything was very quiet, not what I had expected from a conference that was to start in about 30 minutes. Fortunately, we did meet a few other conference attendees. An attendee from NorthTec showed us the way to the registration desk, which was half-way across campus in another building. That’s where all the pre-moot activity was. Lots of smiling faces, and Moodlers I hadn’t seen in a while. I must admit that my last MoodleMoot had been a few years ago. It was nice to be back in the fold and catch up with a number of people throughout the day.

Once everyone was settled in the lecture theater, the short presentations could start. Stuart Mealor, the co-organizer from HRDNZ, was the MC and did a wonderful job introducing every single speaker with a personal note.

I liked that we had a single stream. That made the decision very easy, which presentations to attend, and allowed everyone to talk about them during the breaks knowing that we had all been listening to the same.

Moodle in New Zealand and other places

What follows are some insights from the presenters on the day. If you want to see what others had to say, check out Twitter #mootnzx.

Chris Gaul from NMIT talked about online exams using Moodle and what NMIT has learned by trial and error. While the exams worked really well on laptop and desktop computers, students working on iPads had quite a lot of problems as pages froze. In future, they would need to do more testing on mobile especially when they want to allow students to use their own devices for the exams. The exams take place on Moodle, but students still sit them in a room at NMIT and are supervised.

Tip from Tabitha Roder: Don’t have all exam questions on one page as the page will time out at some point. Break the questions up over multiple pages.

Scott Huntley from Pukunui Technology¬†over in Australia, a¬†Canadian working for an Australian company with a Kiwi name, shared his love for all things Pi, Raspberry Pi. He brought along a bag full of different Pis and shared, which ones can run Moodle well, and which ones were an experiment. It was incredible to see the $5 computer, the Pi Zero. Did you know that it was shipped on the cover of a magazine in the UK? Talk about disposable technology. Granted, Moodle only ran very slowly on it, but if you take a Pi 3, it’ll be a pretty decent experience.

Justin Hunt, the maker of PoodLL, talked about his journey as independent developer of Moodle plugins. While Justin is most well-known for PoodLL, the way to do audio and video recordings in Moodle, he’s actually developed over 40 plugins and maintains a good bunch of them. It was interesting to learn that Japan is still far behind in eLearning in his opinion and that it’s mostly foreign teachers who are¬†enthusiastic about it. Justin predicts though that Japan will take off at some point and when it does, it’ll be doing great innovative things and in a well-designed way as so many other things are done in Japan. Watch out for the Japanese eLearning wave.

Pete Jones from New Zealand Language Centres (NZLC) talked about the transformative effect that Moodle had on delivering a better experience for all his clients, not just the students learning languages, but also centre instructors and administrative staff. NZLC took its placement test online. In doing so, staff reviewed the then existing test and its deficiencies and improved it to work better for students and also to yield better results for placing students into the appropriate groups.

By going online, NZLC examined a number of processes¬†closely and took the plunge to change them. For example, students now fill in the registration form online preventing admins to decipher bad handwriting. Lecturers can more quickly grade the placement test and are not as rushed when it comes to giving the students their results. They also start classes on Tuesday morning rather than Monday afternoon after the Monday morning placement test giving students the opportunity to get to know each other a bit more before classes start. By taking the placement test online, students now sit comfortably in front of a computer screen rather than on tables of 4 to 5 people getting into each other’s way with the papers.

Yvonne Hamilton from EIT discussed how EIT uses groups in Moodle for teaching. Instead of selecting a group or grouping for each activity in Moodle, they figured out that sections can be set to be visible for certain groups and that those permissions propagated through to all activities within that section. Now they create all the sections, place the activities for each group in to their respective section and then set the group permissions. That is much less work than doing that on an activity level. EIT also uses the One Topic format to reduce the number of tabs and scrolling that students and instructors have to do.

Chad Outten from My Learning Space in Australia talked about gamification in Moodle and its benefits. There are a few aspects of games that we humans like: flow, resilience, progression, motivation, goals, rules, choices, feedback, status, access, power, and rewards. He did mention that gamification improves engagement and motivation, but there are not clear indications for better learning. More research is still needed. Chad likes a few plugins that can be used to bring more gamification into Moodle, amongst them Level up and Stash. I think Stash could be used for individual activities that then cumulate in a course badge.

Tip from Tabitha: Use Stash in group activities where individual members’ actions contribute to the group stash and everyone needs to contribute before certain other activities are unlocked so as to engage all group members.

Barbara Stokes from¬†EIT¬†presented a moving example of how she came to love teaching again by transforming it and taking it online with Moodle allowing her to increase student engagement and make her teaching and the learning for students more interesting. For example, she uses the Q&A forum to encourage students to post their answers without seeing other students’ answers already. It is also a good place to give students feedback on their answers.

Yong Liu from Unitec¬†had everyone sitting on their seat’s edge during his fast-paced presentation on the ingredients for a good Moodle course. Moodle is not a repository for files, but should be used with its interactive capabilities in order for learners to be active. Take a look at his slides to see for yourself.

Paul Devine¬†from NMIT¬†talked about making Moodle beautiful. He didn’t regard something as¬†“beautiful” in the typical sense of “pretty”. He said that “‘beautiful’ is less what it looks like but more how it makes you feel.” Paul showed results from research that showed how better design increases engagement and emotional attachment. Sometimes already very subtle changes can bring forward a better design that is more pleasing to the eye. NMIT experimented with colors and icons and differentiating individual sections of courses more easily to guide the learner through a course.

In order not to make the course to impersonal, they also have sections of “tutor notes” where a picture of the tutor and a speech bubble are displayed so that the tutor can provide more information, rephrase it or ask reflective questions. This makes the course more human than if there were only the activities.

Other speakers included Wendy Macaskill from the National Library’s Services to Schools¬†who creates courses in Moodle for a variety of adult learners in the role of library support at schools. In these courses, group activities as well as learning journals play a big role. Hazel Owen¬†from Ethos Consultancy talked about assessments in Moodle and the possibilities that are available there, and¬†George Horwath¬†and Dani Mao from Otago Polytechnic presented their way of using Moodle with international students. Martin Dougiamas from Moodle¬†sent a video message as he couldn’t be at the Moot in person.

If there were an award for most-referenced presentations during the moot, it would go to Pablo Guerrero from WIRIS. His graphs and maths impressed everyone although New Zealand did not always get the best results.

And what about ePortfolios?

What would a MoodleMoot be without some love from its friends? ūüėČ I would say that Mahara falls into that category because both go very well together. However, since this was not a Mahara Hui (Note: The next national one in NZ is going to be held in Auckland from 5 to 7 April 2017; more information soon on the hui website), I could not just talk about Mahara. I started talking about portfolios in more general terms and then illustrated the integration that is possible using Mahara.

Preparing for this presentation it was great to see how tightly Mahara and Moodle work together and that ePortfolios can really complement an LMS allowing learners to take control of their own learning and keeping the learning evidence they wish to keep independent of what they need for a particular course at this time in their learning journey.

The majority of the presentations on the community day could only be a maximum of 15 minutes long and that included questions and discussion. So I thought the best approach would be a pecha kucha with 20 slides and 20 seconds for each slide (I removed the timer now that the presentation is over to make it easier to move from one slide to the next). I do actually like pecha kucha quite a bit as I need to be very disciplined in what I can say as time is limited. It does require more preparation to get the timing right, and as I’ve seen in a pecha kucha earlier in the year, I do need to watch my speed and leave time for breathing.

Unfortunately, not all was smooth sailing.

I knew that Slides would support remote presentations, meaning that I could present from my computer and show the presentation on the big screen even though I could not connect¬†my computer to the projector itself. Everything went without a hitch during the preparation and testing in the room, but when I was about half-way through the presentation, I realized that the slides on the big screen were advancing slower than on my screen. I hadn’t noticed before because I had my back to the projector and didn’t check each slide as I thought I saw the correct slides on my computer screen and don’t like it when presenters talk to the screen rather than the audience.

Trying to speak and problem-solve is tricky, but I could get the projector to show the correct slides again and advanced them manually as I knew what I was saying and how much time I needed for each slide.

I did record the presentation afterwards again as I could not use the recording from the day.

In this session I learned that I would need more preparation time in the room with timed presentations. I’ve given a number of remote presentations with the live view of Slides before that didn’t have a problem at all. I just hadn’t done remote presentations with my computer being on a different network than the presenter computer. This will need some more testing.

I think, my next few presentations will not be timed ones though so that I don’t have to fret immediately about running into technical problems, but can be a bit more relaxed.

01 Jan

Engaging software requirements review

A few months ago Catalyst was asked by a potential client to go through the project requirements with them in a workshop. There were about 120 requirements with the majority being “must have”, a few “should have” and a couple “could have”. The requirements themselves were mostly of a high level nature and thus providing them with an estimate that was not a ballpark was challenging. The workshop was to help us understand details of the requirements.

In this blog post I describe the idea that we implemented for the workshop, describe the material needed to run it and present its benefits. We ran this type of workshop for the first time and thus only have anecdotal evidence of its success. Nevertheless, I hope that it can serve as inspiration to you for re-thinking a similar session you are asked to run and try some of the ideas.

Coming up with an idea for the workshop

Since I heard the word “workshop”, I immediately went into workshop thinking mode. I did not want to have a session in which everyone was hunched over their multi-page 8-point font size printouts of the requirements spreadsheet or try finding the line item in the electronic document and waste time searching for items rather than discussing them.

Recently, I had also read the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo and was all excited not do run a “regular” meeting but incorporate more visual and engaging elements.

Thus, I took a fresh look at the requirements. They were categorized according to functional and non-functional areas and labeled “must have”, “should have”, and “could have”. We had also provided information on which functionalities Mahara, the open source software we were proposing for the project,

  • had available out of the box;
  • required only minimal configuration effort;
  • needed some development effort whose scope was pretty well defined;
  • would potentially need quite a bit of development effort depending on what the client envisaged.

Since the vast majority of the items were non-negotiable requirements, I decided to ignore that categorization. It was also of less importance to keep the topical categorization because we needed to look at the entire solution. Therefore, I focused on the third type of information, namely what the software could already provide and where we needed more information in order to determine whether development work was necessary and if so, how much that would be.

Focusing on the software and the elements already available would also help us show the organization how much they would already get by using Mahara as basis. Most of the time, an organization’s requirements are not a 100% match with any software and thus a minimum of customization is required. Identifying the particular items that would need to be customized is important and also having a good understanding of the effort needed in relation to the available budget in order to suggest functionality to start with and then expand on over time.

My expectations for the workshop

In preparation for the workshop, a colleague of mine in Australia and I had a teleconference to discuss what the organization wanted us to do, what we wanted to get out of the session, what information we had available and how much time we would have realistically. This session was very helpful to me in formulating the first ideas for the session and then ponder them over a weekend without the interruption of emails and other work.

The workshop would need to allow for the following:

  • Engage all participants and not have them get stuck behind computer screens or lost in spreadsheets.
  • Allow participants to get up and talk to each other right at the start.
  • Encourage participants to draw ideas and work flows on a whiteboard spontaneously to support their ideas.
  • Have the requirements that we are discussing present at all times and thus easily accessible.
  • Make it very clear what we already know and where we need more information.
  • Use our time wisely: Spend time only on the items for which we don’t have enough information rather than going through every single item. We probably had a maximum of 5 hours and most likely no possibility of extending the session due to the schedules of all the participants (there were nine from the organization and three from us).

I came up with a card-sorting idea that would take all these expectations into consideration and hopefully deliver.

Note: It can very well be that somebody else already described a similar activity in a book or online resource on facilitating meetings and workshops. I haven’t looked specifically for any. If such an activity already exists, please let me know in the comments.

The workshop objective

The objective of the workshop seems simple enough: Remind participants of all requirements, quickly deal with the requirements that only need clarification and then go over to discussing the requirements that need more information in order to understand them better and thus be able to estimate their development effort.

The workshop preparation

The preparation for the workshop consisted of a lot of copying and pasting, sorting of cards and making hand-written notes so as not to forget elements during the workshop.

Things needed

  1. Project requirements
  2. Template file that contains the cards as well as the headings
  3. White 160g/m2 paper
  4. Four colors, one for each category
  5. Printer
  6. Cutting board
  7. Post-it notes in one color that does not correspond to a category color
  8. Highlighter in category colors (or approximations of them)
  9. Sharpie and pen
  10. Two differently colored voting dots (optional)

Set up the main categories

The four categories in which all requirements could be sorted are:

  • Know / configure: Out of the box functionality, configuration, non-application requirements;
  • Double-check: Some changes may be needed depending on the interpretation of the requirements;
  • Clarify: Know what needs to be changed; no major analysis;
  • Analyse more: Need for more information to understand the requirement.

Non-application requirements such as setting up of a hosting contract, offering user support fall under the “Know / configure” category as they are well-understood and part of the contract negotiation rather than software development.

These four categories are then laid out according to their increasing difficulty and receive a different color each. Initially, I thought of using differently colored paper, but I decided against it because none of the colors that were available went well together. Using white paper and printing color accents on them gives a much more professional look in my opinion. You can even use your brand colors if they lend themselves to it. I was lucky that our color palette allowed for such flexibility and thus I did not have to search for suitable color scheme.

Create the requirement cards

This is the part that takes the longest and is the most important. I transferred each requirement onto an A6-sized card and reviewed the category into which it fell. I also transferred any additional notes that we had already provided the client. Remember, I wanted to avoid that we needed to look up information in a spreadsheet and our proposal document. Therefore, all the information had to be readily available on each card.

You can download the LibreOffice Impress template. I set up each card on an A4 slide and then printed 4 slides on 1 piece of paper to get my desired card size. Only the category headings were printed as A4. All cards come out very nicely on 160g/m2 paper because they are easy to grasp and don’t feel flimsy.

A4 paper with 4 cards on them
A4 paper with 4 cards on them

Here you can see the individual elements that went on a card. Due to confidentiality, I cannot show any of the original cards.

A sample requirements card
A sample requirements card

  1. Provide the number of the requirement so it can be found easily in any document if needed, give it a short title and colorize the background according to the category into which this requirement falls.
  2. Write the word “could” or “should” in this circle if this requirement is optional or use any other word that your client uses to identify additional functionalities that would be nice to have. You may need to shorten a phrase to one word.
  3. Paste the full requirement in this box. If it is very long, adjust the font size. Everything needs to fit onto the front of the card.
  4. If you provided a response to the requirement to the client in the proposal document, paste it in here. This is done in a slightly smaller font to set it apart from the actual requirement’s text.
  5. If this item relates closely to another or is a duplicate, note this down here by mentioning the requirement’s number. This will help you group the requirements later more easily, though you don’t have to think about grouping yet. That is done later.

Transferring the information onto the cards also gave me the opportunity to think about questions that I might want to ask during the workshop for the cards in the “Clarify” and “Analyse more” categories.

Once I had transferred all requirements and additional information onto the cards and verified that they all had the correct category associated (represented by the colored bar), I printed and cut them giving me a nice little stack of cards to process further.

I jotted down my questions and comments on the back of cards for which I did not want to forget a question or additional comment during the workshop.

Group the cards

I now had all my cards and could start on grouping them into themes. These were partly themes taken from the requirements document or very loose themes only to help review the cards more quickly during the workshop. For example, I grouped all green cards relating to graphic design and all that dealt with support questions. I laid out all cards, took a Sharpie and my little post-it notes and went to task. I did not print out any little cards for this task because I wanted to be able to stick the notes to the cards easily and also make adjustments on the fly if needed.

Not all cards ended up in groups. I did not force the grouping but only used it where it was beneficial.

The following shows an approximation of what the cards looked like when we had them on the table at the beginning of the workshop.

The cards all categorized on the table
The cards all categorized on the table

You can see that there are a few green and yellow cards in the “Analyse more” red group of cards. I decided to put them there so that they’d be together with the other requirements that were very close so they could all be discussed together.

The workshop itself

On the day of the workshop, my two colleagues and I arrived early so we could set up the meeting room for the card activity. It does take a bit of time to lay them all out. We also brought flip chart paper, flip chart and whiteboard markers, blue tag and voting dots along. Due to the room’s layout and size, we ended up not using the flip chart paper and only had a narrow walk way between the table and the whiteboard.

The workshop started with the usual introductions of the participants and the aim of the session. After we had outlined the idea for the workshop to all participants, they were game for it and we started right away. As we were informed of the time constraints of some of the participants, we made a couple of adjustments to our plan and left out the voting of requirements which I’ll explain as an option later.

We asked all participants to stand up and take a look at the requirements and their categorization. This was to familiarize them with the requirements again and put cards into a different category if we happened to have them categorized incorrectly. This wasn’t the case though and we could move on to the next phase after about 10-15 minutes. This phase was not intended to re-read every single requirement, but to just get an overview again and take in the requirements that were grouped differently now.

We confirmed that we did not need to discuss the cards in green in the category “Know / configure”, and we could put them aside. Initially, we left them on the table, but during a short break, I put them all on a pile to have more space available on the table. This also had the nice side effect that the participants could see how many requirements were already fulfilled in the size of the stack.

Size comparison of the requirements
Size comparison of the requirements

We went quickly on to the cards in the category “Double-check” and could deal with them within a few minutes as we only needed to double-check with the workshop participants that we understood the requirements correctly. Where no additional work was needed, I took a highlighter pen and marked the card green. I also noted down the result of the discussion on the card itself. We did the same with the cards in the category “Clarify”.

This now left the rest of the workshop to focus on the cards in “Analyse more”. Initially, I had wanted the participants to rank the cards so that we could discuss them according to their priorities. Everyone would have received five voting dots that they could have distributed onto the cards. The cards with the most votes would have been discussed first. For the end of the workshop I had envisaged participants receiving a second set of voting dots in a different color and voting on the cards again now knowing more about the functionality and maybe revising their priority.

However, since I had grouped the cards already, we had reduced the number of topics. Furthermore, one of the participants had to leave early and thus we discussed the topics that were of most interest to him first.

We reviewed each group of cards and discussed their functionalities, what the participants expected of them, why they were important, what work flows they envisaged and where it fit into their program. This was not a detailed review of the functionalities, but did go deeper than the line items in the requirements document and gave us good insight into the reasons for wanting the functionality and what the workshop participants tried to solve. The discussion also gave the participants the opportunity to discuss their ideas further with their colleagues under some different guiding questions and looking at their initial ideas in a new light.

As I was facilitating the workshop, one of my colleagues offered to take notes. This is very important so as not to lose information and also to be able to consolidate the information from the cards with the notes later on.

We finished reviewing all requirements satisfactorily in just about three hours and everybody left on a high note knowing that their opinions had been heard, discussed and that we had focused on the important ideas that needed discussing instead of blindly going through the requirements catalog from beginning to end.

A couple of participants remarked explicitly that they enjoyed this workshop and that going through requirements had never been as much fun before. One of them also wanted to trial this idea in the future. Needless to say that I beamed for pride and was very happy that I had achieved what I had hoped to accomplish with this session.

Take note

There are a few things that you should be aware of to avoid last-minute panic. Some things may be more out of your control than others and you’ll have to make the best out of what you have available. Improvisation is after all an important part of the job.

  • Venue: If you have the chance, check with the meeting organizer that you have a room available with a big enough table, whiteboard, projection screen, Internet access and also enough room for the participants to navigate. Our room was fairly small with a table that was too large for the room thus making it difficult for people to move. There was a big TV available as projection screen, but it took a bit to figure out how to log in.
  • Review the cards: Have your cards ready at least one day in advance and go over them with a colleague who’s attending the meeting as well. You might spot a card that has the wrong category color or is missing information.
  • Last-minute changes: If you do need to make changes to your cards, know where you can print them if you can’t do so in your office. Our workshop didn’t take place near one of our offices and thus printing changed cards proved to be more difficult.
  • Bring all your supplies: This is a no-brainer for most people, but should still be taken into consideration especially if you do not facilitate workshops often. Bring all the supplies that you need so you know you have everything and don’t depend on the venue. Whiteboard markers tend not to work if there are any available and usually flip chart paper is also nowhere to be seen when needed. Also take along extra white cards in case a new requirement pops up and needs to be added. Also have the requirements and proposal documents available electronically.

Benefits

The benefits of running the workshop as I did were clear to me during the session and also afterwards:

  • All participants were engaged the entire time.
  • Nobody got lost in requirements documents, but had all necessary information in front of them on the table.
  • Participants saw visually how many of their requirements were already fulfilled and how few only needed to be discussed.
  • We stayed on track during our discussions as we knew exactly what we had already accomplished and what we still had ahead of us.
  • We finished early because we didn’t spend precious time discussing items that didn’t need attention.

If you think this idea might work for a workshop that you are facilitating, please give it a try and let me know how things go and what changes you made. I’d be interested to learn if it works for others as well.

Update: A slightly less “stream of consciousness” version can be found on the Catalyst blog.