What walls are for

Earlier this week I did a talk at the Mind the Product conference in San Francisco. I was talking about research, but now that i work at Atlassian, the examples I gave included some from the Jira team’s work.

I also showed a slide that was a photo of a team, gathered in a meeting around a wall covered with index cards. No one in the meeting had their laptops out.

This is what people seemed to want to talk about over coffee later in the day. Could it be true that I, spokesperson (one of many) for Jira, would possibly want to see stuff on the wall?  Surely it should all just be in Jira right?

People told me they messaged photos of the slide back to their teams to show them – ‘look, the Atlassian person says it is ok to put things on the walls!’

omg yes. I love walls with post its and index cards stuck on it and sketches on whiteboards. I like walls for planning, for thinking, for communicating and for analysing. And then you capture it all in a tool, like Jira.

This is why.

Walls make it easier to iterate

Digital things look ‘finished’ too soon. when something is a work in progress on a wall, it looks unfinished, so you keep working on it. moving things around, reshaping things, connecting things, erasing things, and making them again. Walls make it easier to iterate. Iteration, in my opinion, is massively correlated with quality.

This is why walls are good for sketching out design ideas and processes. This is why they are amazing for research analysis (don’t care what anyone says, post it notes are still the best tool for research analysis for exactly this reason – no one ever does three (or more) rounds of synthesis using a digital tool).

Walls make it easier to collaborate (in a single location)

There is something about a group of people standing in front of a wall full of sketches, or index cards or post it notes. Its a different kind of collaboration than you get around a table, or in a digital tool. You’re usually standing up, so you’re paying attention, you’re focussed. People physically pick up the card that they are talking about and something about that seems to pull focus even more. Doing a stand up at a physical wall and moving the cards across to done has always felt a lot like the physical act of crossing something off the to do list – so much more satisfying than updating a status on an issue. The messiness of a room full of post it notes when you’re doing analysis almost compels you to finish making that sweep through the data… finding the best place, for now, for every sticky note of data. There is something about the physicality and the embodiment of the work that I have always felt binds teams together more, drives us to do better and more complete thinking about the work we’re doing. There is no science to this just many years of experience. Walls just work better for me, when I’m lucky enough to work in the same location as my team. Walls do suck at remote and distributed teams.

Walls make it easier to communicate

Sometimes the walls are not for you but for other people. Sometimes walls are to send a message. They can say – ‘look how many things people want us to do, this is insane and someone needs to prioritise this’, they can say ‘look how much we’ve done this sprint, yay!’ or ‘look how much we have left to do, uh oh!’, they can say ‘these things are really important to our team, this is what we believe it’, or they can say ‘here is what we’re working on at the moment’.

I’ve been in, and observed many teams who use walls to communicate either the most important messages to the team in a kind of omnipresent way – this is what we believe it, or this is what we are focussing on right now, or these are our values, or here is our goal.

Or sometimes they are designed to communicate to bosses and stakeholders – those walls might say ‘we’d get the things we’ve promised done if you didn’t always sneak in all this unplanned work’ (I’ve seen a few of those).

Some people I’ve know have had jobs that include keeping the digital tool up to date with the wall. Or the other way around. Its not inefficiency. The wall is doing different things for the team.

And that’s another great thing about walls, it doesn’t need to be a zero sum game.

If you’re using Jira, using a wall makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know why you’d do without.

related reading: Alan Cooper – Know whiteboards, know design

2 thoughts on “What walls are for

  1. This:

    “omg yes. I love walls with post its and index cards stuck on it and sketches on whiteboards. I like walls for planning, for thinking, for communicating and for analysing. And then you capture it all in a tool, like Jira.”


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