Collaborative Sessions: Combining Analogue and Digital Tools

Teams often use collaborative methods such as brainstorming and affinity diagrams to gather ideas and organize information. Pen and paper are typically used to capture notes during the sessions. These analog notes are then converted into a digital format. This conversion process is often inefficient and results in media discontinuity. This article describes the Hybrid Affinity Diagram Manager (HADM), which combines the advantages of the analog and digital worlds.

Pen and Paper Versus Digital

Using pen and paper in collaborative, creative sessions gives participants the ability to quickly note, sort, and retrieve ideas. Participants can easily view a large number of ideas (or data) if notes are arranged on a surface such as a wall. Pen and paper can also display several kinds of information types such as text, pictures, graphics, or charts without the need to switch between different software programs.

Many consider the haptic feeling of using a pen to write on paper superior to the experience of writing on a glass surface. Using pen and paper is also perceived as less formal—it’s easy to quickly scribble and doodle ideas and pictures during meetings or design sessions. Everyone is also familiar with pens and there are few obstacles related to their use. This ease of use is essential in creative collaboration.

The major disadvantage of pen and paper is that we frequently need results in a digital format at some point. Hence, ideas that start on paper eventually go through some sort of digitization process (see Figure 1). At the very least, they are captured with a smartphone camera. In some cases, only high-level findings are digitized, while in others, some poor soul is given the arduous task of digitizing all the output. That’s why practitioners often opt to start with a digital format, skipping pen and paper methods. and losing the associated collaborative and creative advantages.

Digital tools allow designers to quickly and easily edit, transform, and manipulate data. Designers can share digitized data over the Internet within seconds, work simultaneously on the same document with others, and record the progress and replay it on a time slider.

Both the digital and analog tools have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. A perfect solution would combine advantages from each method and represent the same content in both formats. Changes in one would result in immediate changes to the other (see Figure 2).

Diagrams showing computer, printer, paper and person in variations of the cycle

Figure 1 (left). Media cycle manually connecting the analog and digital world.
Figure 2 (center). Media cycle without any obstruction through media discontinuity.
Figure 3 (right). Reduced media cycle for the HADM.

Digital Integration of Pen and Paper in Collaborative Creative Sessions

Existing products that have attempted to integrate digital and pen and paper methods for optimal collaboration, such as the Tivoli by Xerox PARC and Designers’ Outpost by the University of California, have been large, clunky, and experimental. The solution I have engineered at the University of Constance, Germany is called the Hybrid Affinity Diagram Manager. It is a software program capable of managing hybrid affinity diagrams (see Figure 3).

HADM takes advantage of the features of a commercially available product, namely, the Anoto ballpoint pen, which is like a normal pen but has a small infrared camera at the tip. The camera reads tiny black dots. The dots can be printed on paper with a standard printer, which results in slightly grayish paper. The dots are arranged so that a group of six dots forms a singular coordinate on a 60-million square meter surface (over 190 million square foot).

A user moving the ballpoint pen over this paper creates analog strokes that are read by the camera. The coordinates of the pen are simultaneously calculated and transmitted to the software using Bluetooth, and the strokes are represented and recorded digitally. The effect is that handwritten notes are instantly converted to a digital format that everyone on a team can share.

To create an affinity diagram, the user starts with the special paper cut into several note card-sized pieces (see Figure 4) and uses the Anoto pen to write on it. It’s just like using a regular pen and paper. In this case, though, the data are simultaneously represented digitally as you write. Several pens can be connected at the same time, which means large groups can simultaneously write and draw.

A paper diagram with an electronic pen

Figure 4. HADM cards and the Anoto pen.

Each notecard also has defined areas that provide additional functionality. For example, users can directly change the color of the digital representation of the card, delete the card, or reset the card by tapping in a specific area (see Figure 5).

Even better, because the session is now digital, it can be stored and used at any time. Notes can be searched by keyword and cards can be sorted. Essentially, the Hybrid Affinity Diagram Manager offers all of the collaborative advantages of pen and paper combined with the versatility and flexibility of digital.

The card, with color names and cut, copy, paste, delete functions

Figure 5. Drafts of the defined card areas for additional functions

Future Prospects

In a focus group of HCI experts at the University of Constance, we discussed new ideas, such as collaboration over the Internet and embedding other technologies like the Microsoft Kinect camera, which tracks gestures. Metadata including the creation date, author, and tags could be added. The Hybrid Affinity Diagram Manager could also be extended to include other collaborative methods that rely on pen and paper. Finally, one can imagine that new methods and forms of collaboration can arise with smooth integration of pen and paper in the digital world. Perhaps in the future, digital paper could have the same characteristics as standard cellulose-based paper and cost the same. Then everything could be seamlessly displayed and transformed at all stages.

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