CompetitiveAnalysis-DanielRitchie

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Contents

Restatement of Idea

My group proposes to create an application that will help math/science teachers make better use of whiteboards during class by helping them (for example) to decide where to put items on the board and when to erase them.

Our Group Brainstorm page is located here.

List of Competitors

As expected, there are no applications (mobile or otherwise) that specifically deal with the improvement of whiteboard usage. The related applications I selected (with a few exceptions) fall into the following categories:

  • Mobile whiteboard simulators: Apps that turn the iPhone screen into a miniature whiteboard.
  • Mobile whiteboard capture/management: Apps that allow users to record whiteboard usage with the iPhone camera.
  • Presentation tools: Tools (mobile or otherwise) to help users create presentations or improve their presentation skills

Without further ado, here's the list:

  1. Presenter Pro
  2. Whiteboard Capture Pro
  3. Whiteboarder
  4. Whiteboard Pro
  5. Whiteboard
  6. A+ Whiteboard
  7. InstaViz
  8. Balsamiq Mockups
  9. PowerPoint
  10. SMART Board

Analysis

Presenter Pro

Presenter Pro targets business professionals who would like to improve their presentation skills. It contains a host of tips on structure, speech, word choice, visual aids, and other presentation essentials.

The app's "Visuals" section--designed to help presenters design better visual aids--drew me to this app. This section of the app contains advice on how to best make use of pictures, various shapes, and color in order to convey information better. While aimed at business professionals, these techniques have general applicability for anyone striving to design better figures. Figure design is an important component of good whiteboard usage, so teachers using whiteboards might benefit from this knowledge.

Our proposed application, however, does not make any effort to help the user design better figures. We're more concerned helping teachers manage where they put their content on the board, not what exactly the content looks like. Our app would focus on helping the teacher quickly identify where new content should go, and if necessary, what existing content should be erased to accommodate it.

A key usability concern for our target user group is speed--does the app respond quickly enough to make it usable while the teacher is actively writing on the board? Presenter Pro, which functions more like a mobile cheat-sheet, does not meet this criterion. Looking up advice on figure drawing while in the middle of a lecture/discussion would be prohibitively time consuming with this app.

Whiteboard Capture Pro

Whiteboard Capture Pro is an app that allow users to take photos of their whiteboard work, correct the resulting images to remove glare and other artifacts, and then organize the final images for future referral. It seems to have a broad target audience (anyone who uses whiteboards, apparently)--I've read user reviews from business professionals and high school teachers.

The app could be potentially useful for a teacher looking to improve his or her whiteboard usage. By taking a pictures of boards that she has written on, a teacher can create an archive of her board usage. Later, when she has more time, she can review these photos and identify problem areas in her board usage. If she has a whiteboard at home, the teacher could also use this app to plan whiteboard-heavy class sessions ahead of time by writing out a "test-run" of the class session on her home whiteboard. Photographs of these boards, saved to the iPhone and organized well, could serve as a sort of mobile sheet of notes during the actual class.

While we do not intend for our app to make use of photographs or any other literal representation of whiteboard content (it would use symbols only), it still offers functionality that this app does not. As mentioned in the above review, our app will help the teacher make decisions about where on the board to place new content. The teacher might have been able to use Whiteboard Capture Pro to plan out content placement in advance, but if the course of the presentation changes in the middle of class (as often happens), the plan can become useless. Our app will be able to adapt to changes in plans.

Also, the app's intrusiveness might be a usability concern. If the teacher wants to capture her board work for later evaluation, stopping the class to frame and take a photo of the board would likely be a serious and unacceptable disruption. We intend to make our app minimally intrusive; ideally, the teacher could use it with just one hand and a few quick glances at the iPhone screen.

Whiteboarder

Like Whiteboard Capture Pro, Whiteboarder is a whiteboard capture app that uses the iPhone camera. It has a few additional features that Whiteboard Capture Pro does not have, such as the ability to interactively crop photos. Of most interest to our target user group, it can apply corrective projections to photos taken at oblique angles. For a teacher using the app as a way to document his board work for later revision, this could reduce the amount of time he would need to stop the class in order to set up his photo.

Whiteboard Pro

Whiteboard Pro is a drawing application whose display simulates the look of an actual whiteboard. The user must even tap on the various colored markers sitting at the bottom of the screen to change drawing colors. This mimics the experience of drawing on a whiteboard about as accurately as possible on the iPhone, which could be useful for our target user group. Teachers on the go could use an app like this to try out ideas; seeing even a lo-fi representation of a figure is often enough to determine whether it works.

This app's usefulness to our target user group extends no further than planning--it's simply too slow and intrusive for use as a "previs" tool during actual class sessions.

Whiteboard Pro (and the apparently unrelated "Whiteboard Pro: Collaborative Drawing", see here) presents "collaborative drawing" as a major selling point. This feature allows nearby users to connect to one another and draw together on one shared whiteboard space. As of this writing, I can't think of a use for this that applies to our target user group. It seems like excess technological baggage.

Whiteboard Pro's target user group is not well defined; the ability to draw on a virtual shared surface has broad appeal.

A+ Whiteboard

A+ Whiteboard, like Whiteboard Pro, is a portable Whiteboard simulator. I like it for its pared-down nature--it doesn't have extraneous features such as collaborative drawing or image importing. The benefits it might afford our target user group are similar to those of Whiteboard Pro.

I could not find a single review, testimonial, or video of this app in action, so I can't attest to its quality.

InstaViz

InstaViz describes itself as a "mindmapping" application. I would, much more modestly, call it a flowchart generator. The simple touch-based, shape-recognizing interface allows for apparently quick and easy construction of flowchart-like diagrams. Reviews of the app indicate that it is as easy to use as its screencasts suggest.

I can see an app like this being useful for planning out how to draw graph-like figures on a whiteboard. This skill is essential for a teacher of a class on algorithms, graph theory, data structures, and other subjects. When starting to draw a graph-like entity, it can be hard to tell how best to arrange the nodes--InstaViz solves this problem. What's more, it seems fast enough that, if the user is willing to forgo entering labels, she could update a graph on-the-fly during a class session. This speed is very much in the spirit of the app that my group proposes to design.

While useful in its own right, InstaViz tackles a very specific problem. Our app would address the much more broad issue of how best to organize whiteboard content, rather than how best to organize the content in a single whiteboard element (such as a graph).

Balsamiq Mockups

With this entry, I take a turn away from mobile applications. Balsamiq Mockups is a desktop-based, low-fi user interface prototyping tool aimed at designers and software engineers. It aims to replace the conventional pencil-and-paper approach to UI mockup that has become widespread in interface design. Customer testimonials are largely glowing, indicating that the application succeeds at providing a fully-featured prototyping environment without sacrificing the speed of the pencil-and-paper method.

This product may seem like an odd choice of competitor for my group's proposed application, but I think it has something to offer math and science teachers as a planning tool. For a lecturer who uses whiteboards to give essentially non-interactive presentations, Balsamiq Mockups could work well as a preparation aide. Many of the principles governing good user interface design have their roots in effective communication of information--a goal also shared by presenters using whiteboards. Thus, Mockups could allow teachers to experiment with different ways of visually organizing the content they want to present--graphs, figures, theorems, example problems, etc.--in a flexible manner that allows quick iteration.

The drawback to this product is its lack of mobility. The teacher could have Mockups running on a laptop while he's in the lecture hall, but he would still eat up time going back and forth between the whiteboard and the computer. And of course, the app's usefulness goes out the window in a setting like a discussion section, as the teacher can't plan for what the students will want to discuss.

Whiteboard

Whiteboard is a collaborative drawing app, like the aforementioned Whiteboard Pro. Unlike the previous "whiteboard simulators" that I've covered, Whiteboard seems to target a more professional audience, as it makes mention of "conferences" and "conference rooms" in its description. It also has the ability to connect to a projector and display to a larger screen. Taken to the extreme, this could allow a teacher to do away with a traditional whiteboard altogether, which might eliminate some of the usage problems my group has noticed (i.e. putting something important in the center of the board causes trouble when it can't be erased to make room for new content).

However, reviews of the app indicate that the drawing functionality is simply not sensitive enough to support the kind of detailed figures that teachers expect to put on whiteboards. Thus, it seems like Whiteboard would be a poor choice as a whiteboard replacement. The next two competitors are both whiteboard replacement candidates that work better.

PowerPoint

This list wouldn't be complete without including PowerPoint. PowerPoint competes with our app in a couple of ways. First, a teacher can choose to use PowerPoint in lieu of whiteboards. Doing so allows for a much higher degree of organization at the cost of flexibility. Second, a teacher can use PowerPoint to plan presentations that will later take place on a whiteboard. After all, PowerPoint has perfectly good tools for organizing text, figures, and graphs--why not use them to previsualize board work and identify potentially problematic areas in advance?

PowerPoint's main weakness for our target audience is its inflexibility. If the course of a class shifts, the teacher can't keep editing her PowerPoint presentation on the fly. Rather, she'll have to "wing it," or rely on instinct. Our proposed app would allow the teacher to stay organized even when circumstances change unexpectedly.

SMART Board

The SMART Board by SMART Technologies is an Interactive Whiteboard. SMART has different models of this board targeted at businesspeople and educators, respectively.

Interactive whiteboards look like the ultimate solution to board usage problems. Did you put that drawing in the wrong place? No problem--just move it to where it ought to go. Do you want to refer back to content that you already erased? (Depending on the software being used) you can probably retrieve it! The existence of interactive whiteboards forces my group to confront a simple truth: our app is a band-aid, while interactive whiteboards look like the cure.

However, not all teachers can expect to find interactive whiteboards in their schools immediately. Many university-level instructors, including GSIs, still use ancient blackboards. My group's app could serve as an inexpensive aid for teachers who find interactive whiteboards cost prohibitive.

There have also been some criticisms leveled at the fundamental nature of interactive whiteboards. Some critics claim that teachers tend to get caught up in the technology, not the educational content, when using them. Others have suggested that they tend to slow down the pace of a class. Only time and further experimentation/observation will tell us the full story, but for the time being we should regard interactive whiteboards with a cautious optimism at best.

Summary

After reviewing the potential competition, it appears that no application out there addresses the same issues that ours does. There are a glut of applications that attempt to simulate the whiteboard drawing experience, but they tend to focus on artistry or collaborative drawing, not education. There are apps that aim to improve their users' presentation skills, but these typically target businesspeople, not educators. Finally, there are a number of apps that facilitate the planning and/or creation of visual presentations, but few are mobile applications and none specifically address whiteboards as the presentation medium.

Of all the competitors I reviewed, the SMART Board seems the most significant challenger. However, the SMART Board, being a large piece of hardware, cannot quickly reach the high number of users that a mobile app can. Our application has a distinct advantage here.

Our app will allow teachers to quickly determine where to put a new whiteboard element (and, if the board is full, what to erase). Ideally, this will require just a quick glance at the iPhone screen and a few thumb gestures (so that users only need one hand to operate the app). I feel that this functionality, if implemented well, gives our app a huge advantage over the competition (with the possible exception of the SMART Board). Most of the competing apps focus on designing static presentations; this approach is inadequate for whiteboard users, who use whiteboards precisely because of the flexibility they allow. While a teacher could attempt to use one of these competing apps interactively--updating the presentation as they go--I don't believe that any of them work quickly enough to be really viable in a classroom setting. We aspire to create an application whose fundamental units of interaction take only a few seconds at most. Anything longer than this, I think, would create an unacceptable classroom distraction.



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