** Update** – we have a new winner! Google’s Jamboard is now the free tool I recommend – scroll down for a very brief review.
While designing my Practical Appreciative Inquiry online course (the next one is starting soon if you want to take it), I auditioned various virtual whiteboard tools for online collaboration.
These can be very useful for a virtual team or distributed group to quickly knock together a presentation, a high-level plan, or collaborative vision boards for the ‘Dream’ stage of an Appreciative Inquiry process.
This doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive evaluation of every whiteboard tool and app out there (there are loads of them), but a quick comparison of the ones I tried out, with pros and cons.
I’ve also included the one I found after the course had finished, that actually would have worked much better for my needs than the ones I used.
I tested the free entry-level versions only, so this is what the pros and cons apply to.
- No signup needed
- Up to 10 users free
- Various text options (standalone, ‘sticky note’, box, speech bubble)
- Participants can upload their own images
- Eraser tool so you can erase part of an object
- Free session limited to 20 minutes!
- Limited palette of shapes (line, rectangle, round-cornered box, circle/oval)
- No arrows
- Ugly (to the eye of this Mac user) old-fashioned Windows-looking user interface. Rather ‘skeuomorphic’ design with drop shadows.
Tool aimed at software design teams
- Some pre-made images (aimed at software designers, but you do get smiley faces, ‘people’, lightbulbs, clouds, speech bubbles)
- Still not that many pre-made images
- ‘Undo’ button seems to be the only way to erase mistakes
- Boards on the free plan can have only up to 5 collaborators
- Very similar to the ‘draw’ tools in Microsoft Office, so no learning curve for most users
- You have to be signed in to Google (e.g. with a Gmail account) to be able to draw on the board
- Still quite a limited library of built-in shapes
Even many people who use Zoom.us as their course delivery or call platform (I prefer it to Skype as a) call quality seems to be a bit better and b) you can record the calls very easily without additional plugins) don’t seem to know that it has a whiteboard feature inside it. You can share the whiteboard with your call or course participants and allow them to draw on it.
<edit> But there is one horrible limitation that I found (unfortunately, in the middle of using it for a facilitated event)! Which is that if you’re not the Zoom host, you can create shapes, text boxes, etc, but after that you can’t move them.
Which makes a two-stage process where you have to migrate objects from one shape to another (e.g. the Fishbone/Swim Lanes process for developing an interactive plan rapidly) pretty much impossible, or at least very clunky as the host has to do all the moving for the participants.
- Right there in Zoom
- Eraser tool
- So limited that there’s not much of a learning curve
- Free version of Zoom only allows 40 minute calls if more than two participants
- Very limited library of shapes (rectangle, oval, diamond, arrow, heart, star, tick)
- ONLY THE HOST CAN MOVE OBJECTS AND TEXT ONCE THEY’VE BEEN CREATED – GAAAH!
- Lots of templates (e.g. Kanban, customer journey, mind map, fishbone, Venn diagram, 6 Thinking Hats, and more!)
- Includes ‘Icon Finder’ app so lots of images immediately available – I found many choices for cars, dogs, even zombies!
- You can change transparency of objects
- Lots of export options
- Unlimited team members
None that I could findUsers need to create a (free) Miro account. This may defeat some of your less techie users, if, for example, the confirmation email from Miro ends up in their spam box.
So Miro was the clear winner for what I needed (conducting the Dream stage of Appreciative Inquiry online)! I was actually amazed at how many features even the free version has, but after a non-techie participant in an Appreciative Inquiry process couldn’t get it to work, I realised it would be great for a team that uses it regularly, but not so good for one-off events where participants would be using it for the first time.
So I started looking for a replacement, and I found…
Recommended by a couple of consultant colleagues for its ease of use, this is the tool I moved to after giving up on Miro.
If you Google ‘Jamboard’, you’ll find a lot of material about a ’55-inch digital whiteboard’ that sits in your physical meeting room and presumably costs an awful lot.
Don’t be put off by this though – there is also a free online version that runs in an app on tablets or phones, or in browsers.
Jamboard is very simple to use, with a toolkit consisting of pens and brushes, eraser, select tool, sticky note, add image (by uploading it from your own computer, or using the built-in Google image search), text box, and ‘laser’ – which is a red line you can draw which then fades rapidly, useful for highlighting objects.
You can invite at least small numbers of users by email to share and edit the board – users on Google’s support forum report limitations of 25, 20, and even 16 on the free version, and there seems to be no ‘official’ guidance from Google on this. So best use it for smaller groups.
The people you can invite don’t have to have Google accounts (e.g. a Gmail address), although it seems they don’t have the ability to upload images or use Google image search, which is a bit of a limitation.
There’s some suggestion online that Jamboard doesn’t work as well on Safari or Firefox browsers as it does on Chrome – I haven’t found this when I tried them on my Mac.
So it’s not as full-featured as Miro – no clipart icons, for example, although it does have Google image search and image upload for people with Google accounts.
But it does score on users not needing to sign in or create accounts, making it very easy to access. So overall, it’s my tool of choice until something better comes along.
- Easy to use
- No signup needed
- Built-in Google image search (if you have a Google account, e.g. a Gmail address)
- Owner can allocate read-only or full edit access to invitees
- Limit to possibly as few as 16 users
- No image search or upload for users without Google accounts
So overall, none of the tools were absolutely perfect, at least in the free version, but Google’s Jamboard comes closest to combining ease of use with features.
There’s a more in-depth review of it, plus some ideas of how you could use it, by Rachel Mamiya Hernandez here.
If you liked this post, you will probably find this one by Greg Digneo useful too: 53 Online Collaboration Tools to Help Your Team Be More Productive (plus even more tools mentioned in the comments)
Bonus entry! Milanote
(added later – I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote the original article. I should also let me know that the nice people at Milanote offered me a lifetime Pro subscription if I wrote a review)
Milanote is slightly different from the other platforms in this review, in that it’s intended as “The Evernote for creatives”. It excels at things like moodboarding and storyboarding.
You can invite other people to the board to be able to edit it, or just comment on it, or just view it, as you choose.
- Access to thousands of beautiful photos and images on unsplash.com
- It gives you a quick tutorial at the beginning and it’s very intuitive to use
- You can invite collaborators in the free version
- Great for design/creative applications.
- Lots of templates for Kanban, storyboarding, worldbuilding, customer journey maps etc
- You can upload your own images
- You can add links that preview websites
- You can add videos
- Easy to export as pdf, png, or even a linear Word document
- No basic shapes (squares, circles etc) built in – apart from arrows
- No clip art for quick and easy visualising – although you could put in some hours and upload images from your own computer
- Free version is pretty limited – although you can share unlimited boards, you can only use 100 notes, images, or links, and upload 10 files. (The Pro version gives you unlimited images, notes, links and files, and is searchable – and it’s only $9.99 pm)
Do you have a favourite online collaboration whiteboard tool that you think beats Jamboard – or Milanote for creative professionals? Post it in the comments!