Visual-first collaboration is coming

Visual-first collaboration is coming

  • I accepted an offer from Bluescape as a CSM
  • I believe that collaboration tools will eventually all converge into one global platform, where all cross-functional teams will work out of
  • All software apps that we use are just glorified filing cabinets, and our brains love it
  • Deeply integrated infinite canvas apps are disruptive to the collaboration space - they will become much more popular over the coming years
  • Communicating the value of collaboration tools is easy, quantifying it is hard
  • Although quantifying value can really help, it’s not required

Personal Foreward

It’s official! I am extremely excited to share that I have accepted an offer to work at Bluescape as a Customer Success Manager to help grow the adoption of their platform. Bluescape is a virtual collaboration platform that enables teams to work together in real time, from anywhere.

For several years, I have been extremely interested in how collaboration platforms can create more efficient and productive teams. Even in my personal life; I have tested and played around with many different tools to get a better understanding of how they could help me personally, and how they can extend into larger teams and business outcomes. With that, I couldn’t be more excited to join the Bluescape team in a growing space to help build the worlds best visual collaboration product🎉

In spirit of starting my journey at Bluescape, I’m writing this quick post on why I believe visual tools are the future of the collaboration space by explaining what industry barriers ‘whiteboard’ or ‘canvas’ style products are breaking, and why ‘quantifying’ business outcomes for SaaS products is becoming less important (at least for collaboration tools).

And listen, I’m no fool - I definitely have a lot of gaps in my current knowledge when it comes to properly scaling new ideas or disruptive technologies into the world, so please do share your thoughts and let me know if you agree or disagree.

With that in mind, here are a few resources that are on my roadmap of learning that will definitely bring new perspectives to my ideas laid out in this blog post:

  1. The Cold Start Problem - Andrew Chen
  2. By nature, collaboration products need 1+ persons get the intended results, but one of the keys to success for any software nowadays, is to create viral growth and exponentially growing product value through the advantages of “the network effect”.

  3. Customer Success - Nick Mehta
  4. Subscription pricing and cloud based products have changed the way businesses operate - the quicker you can understand this idea and its associated intricacies, the better.

  5. My experience at Bluescape (well, duh)
  6. It would be very interesting to write a ‘part 2’ to this post after I have spent some time working with the team over at Bluescape. We will see!

Defining ‘Collaboration Tools’

In a recent blog post of mine, I explained that as companies continue to grow and expand their suite of tools, you tend to see them trying to become the one stop shop for most of a teams work. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ‘classify’ collaboration tools into their own little niches as the line continues to fade between their use cases.

Collaboration in the workplace has traditionally been separated by the type of work being done

Here are some of the various ‘buckets’ of tools that different teams need:

  • Presentation style (Prezi, Canva, Powerpoint, etc...)
  • Writing (Word, Google Docs, Pages, Notes, etc...)
  • Communicate (Slack, Teams, Google Chat, iMessage, etc...)
  • Project Management (Jira, MS Project, Asana, Monday, etc...)
  • Product Management (Productboard, Aha!, Trello, etc...)
  • Design (Adobe, Figma, InVision, etc...)
  • Development (Github, VS Code, CodePen, etc...)
  • The list goes on...

The way I see it, the next natural iteration of collaboration growth is to bring all these cross-functional team members into one space. With the use of visual ‘canvas’ style platforms, where teams can bring all of their work together and place it strategically to inspire a larger scale collaboration process, this might become possible.

How do we store our ideas, anyway?

To start, I wanted to review what fundamental systems allowed for collaboration tools to take off in the first place. It just feels natural nowadays to document our work and ideas into different spaces, which we now refer to has ‘files’ or ‘folders’, but I hope that you all aren’t taking this system for granted, as this wasn’t always the case..

As with all pre-invention ways of living, I found it very entertaining to see how written information was stored in the good ol’ days.

It wasn’t until the 1890’s that the filing cabinet came into existence and changed the way we orient ourselves with respect to all of our documented ‘stuff’. Craig Robertson, the author of The Filing Cabinet - A Vertical History of Information, explains that filing cabinets encouraged “the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.” And yes, you read that right; there is an entire 300+ page book on filing cabinets - hopefully everyone here knows what a filing cabinet is, but after reading this article, I’m not so sure I can count on that.

So, you might be asking why I just wasted 30 seconds of your lives reviewing what filing cabinets are. Well, 1. I just wanted to remind you that we’ve come a long way from holding paper documents in stockings and 2. The logic behind the storage structure of folders exist in some of the most innovative technologies and tools that use today. The filing cabinet is really our first principles understanding of how the computer directory structure functions; a hierarchical system of folders that are nested within one another until you get to that final document/file you want do access.

This concept is very easily understood by our brains, because it allows us to standardize, classify, and easily access granular pieces of knowledge. Our brains are lazy, so it benefits from a little bit of mental/memory offloading.

Every software application that we interact with today has some sort of user interface that prettifies the underlying data structures, where we end up with buttons that we can click that bring us to a new page with all sorts of new information. For example, if you take a look at my demo Trello board below, you will see that by clicking onto the ‘How to Use This Board’ you are then displayed more information that was nested in that ‘card’:

Trello board example

Now, if I were to visualize the same thing in terms of how the underlying folder structure works, at a very basic level it would look something like this:

Folder structure

Although I wouldn’t be able to tell you how every app in the world structures their data, I could guarantee that a very high level the same ideas apply.

Expanding the Scope of Collaboration with Infinite Canvases

Ok great, we have these amazing tools that create an extremely user friendly interface, with cloud based technologies that allow for real-time collaboration, now what? Well, I still can’t help but ask myself “what is the next iteration of this”?

As ‘pretty’ as some of these platforms are, we are still confined to the list of available actions (mainly restricted by design) in the immediate environment we are in. What if we gave free-reign to the user to do whatever they wanted instead? What if they could decide on the entire the visual structure on their own? That’s exactly what visual-first collaboration tools do.

If you want a demo of what kind of platforms I am referring to, please check out Bluescape, Miro, or Mural, as they seem to be the top players in this space. I don’t want to beat around the bush either; after trying to explain what Bluescape does to my family & friends, I am very aware that it looks like a digitally glorified whiteboard. But that’s exactly why it’s exciting! Throughout university, I have seen many professors and students alike, making any excuse to get on a whiteboard and teach or share their ideas there. My roommates and I even went out of our way to each buy a whiteboard for our own bedrooms, convinced that it was more efficient than just writing in our notebooks or tablets (We both got this one).

We have had digital whiteboard solutions around for many years now, but the education world seems to be resistant to give up their high inducing dry-erase markers. It’s even still surprisingly common to see business teams having physical brainstorming sessions or “war rooms” with physical whiteboards and hundreds of sticky notes.

Now, there are several reasons for why these technologies might not have been widely adopted yet, some of which I’ve listed below, but these reasons are the exact ones that lead me to believe that visual collaboration is a disruptive innovation in the collaboration space.

Some reasons why I believe digital whiteboards have not been widely adopted yet
  1. The physical components to these technologies are still relatively expensive
  2. For the web app versions, no one wants to draw with a mouse, and buying a tablet is just another expense
  3. There is no ‘network effect’ at play (yet) - they have not hit a point where there is a community induced growth/virality
  4. As with all new technologies, there isn’t a consensus on ‘the best one(s)’ yet
  5. There has not been a catalyst to switch (until COVID-19)
  6. Mark-up-able functionalities are still mostly used in the education & design industries - it’s really deep integrations that will eventually lead to the extended scope of use
  7. Switching ROI is not easily understood
There’s probably several more (complex) reasons but these are the first that came to my head

By definition, disruptive technologies are ones that innovate on low-end or new markets, so while all these other collaboration tools continue to add new products and features, they continue to miss out on the simple idea of an entirely ‘visual’ experience. This is because they really don’t need to create that functionality, as their platforms already do the job that most users need it to, and that means they are making $$ either way.

Disruptive Innovation Model
Great graphic on disruptive innovation from
Great graphic on disruptive innovation from Harvard Business Review

In comes the design world! As the competitive landscape stands right now, I have yet to see tools that deeply integrate the work of both development and design teams into the same spaces as most of their non-technical counterparts. I just feel that giving users access to an almost infinitely manipulatable canvas, would allow teams that had a traditionally harder time directly collaborating in the same space the ability to do so.

Whether or not you agree that it is disruptive, or will be added to most collaboration spaces, I’m sure you can see the possible use cases here. Which begs the question: how can the success of visual tools be measured over time? We’ll get to that.

The Nature of Value

Something I’ve noticed over the years of trying to encourage my friends and family to use Notion and other tools to track their life and create better systems is that: a lot of the time they already have systems, and they work!

One of the hardest things to do is take someone from what they are currently using and convince them that your way is:
  1. Better
  2. &

  3. Worth the hassle of switching (effort to implement < perceived benefit)

What makes it even harder is that this perceived benefit is usually different for each individual, which depends on several things, but the main being a combination of where they lie on the customer adoption curve (laggards would almost be impossible to convince over an innovator), and some of the reasons I mentioned above.

One of the key benefits of using technologies to organize, collaborate, track, store, is that they are infinitely more scalable than physical or non-dynamic means. Recall what I said earlier, our brains are lazy; they don’t want to memorize a bunch of unnecessary information when it knows you can just document it all and come back to it when it’s needed. Also, depending on the technologies at hand, you might see it where one is significantly more efficient and scalable than another - consider Microsoft Word docs before their live collaboration functionality existed vs. Google Docs.

Continuing with this Word vs. Docs example, Microsoft realized that after almost a decade of competing with a real-time collaborative word processor like Google Docs, they had to create their own real-time editing capability into the classic Word experience. As with all innovation, these companies identified a problem, namely “how can I work with other people without sending a document back and forth?”, and created a solution that was more efficient and made the users lives easier.

Unfortunately, the problem we run into with collaboration tools is that although there are clear communicate-able (qualitative) benefits, they are much more ambiguous and difficult to quantify. To do so, we have to understand some of the main problems that all collaboration tools aim to solve:

  • Silo’ing of knowledge & work
  • Eliminate repetitive work
  • Both of the above lead to: greater team engagement → quicker innovation/iteration cycles (feedback loops) → quicker task/project completion → reducing total costs

So, how do we quantify the above problems? Well, that’s the hard (and probably expensive) part.

Quantifying Subjective Experiences

In preparation for my interviews with Bluescape, I came across their Total Economic Impact Study (you can get it here), which was done by an independent research-based consulting firm, Forrester Consulting. I’m not going to summarize it here, but this study aimed to do exactly what I was mentioning above; giving tangible ROI metrics associated with the implementation and use of Bluescape’s platform. Here is a little snippet of one customer speaking to the benefit they saw in their sales cycles (I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the pieces that emphasize my earlier points about problems that collaboration tools aim to solve):

“Bluescape keeps everyone aligned so much better. If you are meeting every week in the same Bluescape session and you have to revisit something, you can go back and look at it quickly to review a full report. It just keeps everyone aligned by having all the information in one source.”

Forrester’s study does a really good job of taking this kind of information and turning it into tangible outcomes by breaking down the benefits, costs, flexibility, and risks associated with the deployment of Bluescape. Please follow the link above to get a copy of the report if you are interested in learning more about the financial models they used, and how they came up with metrics like: ROI %, Benefits PV, NPV, Payback period.

For many organizations, paying for a 3rd party research firm to do a study like this, or doing it themselves for that matter, is very expensive and not always possible, so they have to rely on other ways to communicate their value. In this case, these teams probably have to rely much more on their internal product KPIs right from the beginning, as they will be the only quantifiable metrics they can provide. Depending on the style of your product, these might change dramatically, but here are a few quick ones that I immediately thought of for a visual collaboration tool:

Some important metrics for collaboration tools
  • Session length/time-in app
  • # of users (i.e monthly active users)
    • # of users collaborating in same spaces
  • # of departments using the platform
  • # of items uploaded
  • NPS/Surveys

Honestly, I had a hard time coming up with these or any more metrics that could be tracked within the product’s utilization itself, as most of the outcome based data comes from the actual user experience, not the current scale of the products general usage. Which brings me to my final point:

You don’t HAVE to quantify everything

You really don’t! As I mentioned in my foreward, The Cold Start Problem by Andrew Chen will be a great read to learn more about how the value of a platform is directly associated with the number of users that engage with it. Meaning, if you’ve done your research and created a really good product that has seen high levels of organic adoption, you probably won’t have to spend as much time, if at all, quantifying all the outcomes that users will see with it, because they already do.

As Marty Cagan put it in his book INSPIRED:

“Life is too short for bad products”

Wrapping up with a Notion case study

As I was writing this post, I came across this amazing article that ties a lot of my (slightly scattered) ideas together in a more focused analysis on Notion’s growth and success as a collaboration tool. More specifically, you’ll see that Notion exploded into a multi-billion dollar startup without posting any quantified results anywhere on it’s website.

Although Notion is not a ‘visual’ collaboration tool in the way that I described in this post, you’ll notice that a lot of the analysis done is similar, and can be applied to the visual tools I have mentioned in this post (Bluescape, Miro, Mural).

That’s it from me - bye for now!

Thank you for making it this far! Please don't hesitate to reach out - feedback is always appreciated.

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