Since the day I’ve heard of the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen (www.livescribe.com), I’m fascinated of the possibilities you have by the combination of writing on real paper with a pen, recording the corresponding audio signal and archiving this on my computer for a later full-text search with having the possibility to hear again what was said, when I wrote the text.
As a Scrum Master and a Scrum Coach, I’m thinking about the possibilities of using the Pulse Smartpen in software development projects and especially in agile software development projects. In the following article, I will refer to Scrum, but the idea works for other agile methods using real paper to write down user stories, tasks, etc. the same way.
One of the most important aspects of Scrum is the focus on communication between the Product Owner and the Scrum Team (according to the Agile Manifesto, which says “customer collaboration over contract negotiation”). The requirements are not written down in a lengthy requirements specification, which is the result of a long analysis phase, but the ideas of the requirements are formulated as so called user stories, which consist of a small description like “As a user I want to see my current bank account so that I know, how much money I have available for shopping.” and some acceptance criteria. So the user stories act as placeholders for the real requirements. A more detailed “specification” evolves during the Product Owner talking with the team about the User Stories during the the estimation meeting, the sprint planning meeting or during the sprint itself. The classical approach of writing down user stories is using index cards, which contain the user story on the front and the acceptance criteria on the back. These index cards are stored in boxes (e.g. containing the product backlog) or are pinned to a pin board with the sprint backlog. In the classical Scrum approach, there’s another set of index cards. During the sprint planning 2 meeting (or even later during the sprint), tasks, which have to be done by the team members are written down on index cards and pinned to the task board. Team members look at the task board at short intervals and choose which task they do next or which they have done already. These cards are placed in the appropriate sections of the task board.
So far, so good, that’s nothing new. What’s a typical problem with verbal communication? Often things are misunderstood, either by acoustic problems or by misinterpretation of spoken words. Also it depends on the level of concentration of the people talking to each other, how much information they remember after a few days, weeks or months.
The idea is to use the Pulse Smartpen to write the index cards for user stories, tasks or impediments and to record the talks during the meetings with the pen. One important feature of the smartpen is, that at a later time you can tap on the paper with the pen and it plays back the audio signal it recorded while the information on the paper was written (or drawn). This means, that e.g. while discussing and formulating a user story, the pen records the conversation and the Product Owner or a team member can listen to this conversation again later by just tapping the pen on the paper. By using this technique when writing the task cards, team members with the knowledge where to change what in the code can tell this while writing the task cards, which enables new team members to start the task directly after listening to the recording again. This reduces the amount of information you have to write down.
This means, that the index cards work as a team brain of what was talked about during the planning meetings or other discussions. A big advantage is also, that team members, who missed one of the planning or estimation meetings are able to listen to parts of the conversation and get the information later on.
An interesting aspect of this idea is, that by connecting the smartpen with an associated computer all the written and spoken information can be archived on the computer. Using the desktop application, all written pages can be read and the recorded audio can be listened to. So if there are discussions in the future about “Why the f**k did we implement this feature this way, we can’t remember!”, you can listen to the discussion again and get the insight.
There are also some little drawbacks when you plan to implement this method. The first one is, that you depend on exactly one Pulse Smartpen and one computer for archiving the information. Currently, it is not possible to connect and synchronize two or more smartpens together to share information. Therefore the used pen would typically reside at the task board or would be taken to the meetings. Team members being at other locations cannot use the pen to retrieve information or gather new information in parallel. This also means, that during the planning meetings only one team member can write at the same time, which could slow down the process. Another drawback is, that you need special paper which enables the smartpen to recognize, where the pen is positioned to. According to the technical specs of the pen, it is able to do this on an area which is as big as Europe and Asia together. But as the paper is patended by Anoto and must be licensed to use it, you rely on available books, notepads, etc. for sale or on a set of 4 x 25 different pages, which you can print for free using the desktop application. The practical approach is printing out these pages and cutting them into pieces used as index cards or smaller task cards. Normally a set of controls is printed onto each page, which can be used to control the pen (Which is really wired! You tap with the pen on a printed button on the paper and it starts or stops recording e.g…). These controls wouldn’t be accessible on each index card after that, but that’s not a real problem. A problem in larger projects will be the amount of different usable paper pages (4 x 25 = 100), which can be used. As soon, as the printed pages are completely full and you print out a fresh set of pages, you have to archive at least 25 pages on the PC. This means, that they are stored in the desktop application and can be read and listened to, but the pen cannot differentiate them from the pages printed newly.
The best solution would be, if Livescribe would add the ability to print out a larger number of “index cards” in different sizes with the desktop application, which you cut yourself or sell regular index cards, which can be used with the pen. It would also be nice, if Livescribe could add the possibility to sync the content of several Pulse Smartpens to use them in teams.
One warning concerning the protection of personal rights: In Germany it is forbidden to record someone speaking without his knowledge and his explicit agreement by law. Therefore you have to ask everyone attending a meeting, which you will record, in advance, if the recording is OK for him or her. I assume, that in other countries there are similar legal requirements.
I used the smartpen several times in meetings already to record all information instead of just getting a fraction of it and I love this pen. I think that the combination of writing on paper and recording audio could support the classic agile approach of using index cards a lot. Let’s see, if Livescribe can us support with offering a good amount of index cards to print out for free or at least by selling them for a reasonable price. I think this could boost Pulse Smartpen sales also a lot (no, I don’t work for Livescribe, I’m just fascinated about this technology! ðŸ˜‰
If you like this idea and use a smartpen in your agile project, feel free to tell us your experiences!