Home » Moving on from Miro: Using Google docs as a low-tech alternative

Moving on from Miro: Using Google docs as a low-tech alternative

Quote from article: "The conversation was around what we were writing, not how we were writing it."

Replicating the job of an in-person activity doesn’t mean you have to make it look exactly the same. Here’s how I used Google docs instead of Miro to brainstorm, affinity map, dot vote, and storyboard ideas at a community workshop.


Miro’s pandemic success

I can’t be the only person who plays ‘Investment Time Machine’: if you could go back in time and buy shares somewhere, what would you do? For me, it’s going back to at least 2019 and investing in Zoom or Miro.  From raising £1.3 million in seed funding in 2017, Miro is apparently worth well over £100 million now, with over 20 million users, according to their own site.

Alternatives include Mural and Microsoft Whiteboard, but it seems to me like Miro has the ‘lion’s share’ of the market. It’s nice. It’s pretty. It does some cool stuff.

But here’s the thing: it’s not very accessible. I know they are trying to address it, but there still are some core issues in terms of screenreader use, keyboard navigation, movement, and cognitive overload.

Collaboration in person

Is it less accessible that what it replaced – in-person events with postits and sharpies? I’m not sure. It’s certainly differently accessible. Remember that accessibility is not a yes/no, and neither is it a sliding scale. It’s a spectrum – you can be brilliantly accessible in one area, and fail horribly elsewhere.

Personally, I would much rather use Miro than travel to an event where I’m expected to stand around a lot. I know other people might have the opposite view.

But regardless of the medium, we should be aiming to make it as accessible as possible to achieve our aims. Digital channels provide a great way to make things more accessible; the argument that something is fine because it’s no worse that what came before seems unconvincing.

Trialling Google docs as an alternative to Miro

I recently handed in my final piece of work for my course with the Service Design Academy in Dundee. I had a co-design piece to submit, which involved collaborating using an online space – by default, most used Miro.

However, having asked around in the past about what a more accessible alternative might be, I thought this was a great chance to try something different – hopefully, more accessible.

In professional environments I work in, most people I come across are already familiar with Miro. But this was a community project, so that wasn’t the case; before using Miro, I would have to teach Miro.

It didn’t seem like Google docs had the same barrier to entry.

Essentially, it worked great. I would absolutely use the approach again. It wasn’t perfect, but overall was much better for what I needed.

Collaboration jobs

Here’s some comparison of the different jobs you might need and how I achieved them. I’m not focusing on features here. The features aren’t the point. The point is the job they do.

Producing ideas

Brainstorming, brainwriting, whatever you want to call it: this job is about people coming up with ideas, normally at the same time, and writing them down quickly.

In-person workshops typically use sharpies and post-its. Miro tries to replicate this same experience using virtual sticky notes. This involves a learning curve of how you produce a sticky note, and dexterity to create, move, and resize the note. Miro have worked to make them readable for screenreaders, but this apparently ‘works best’ on a paid plan, and on a desktop or laptop.

With Google docs, I just used lines of text. This could very easily be done under a simple heading, although in my case I used a table. I was using the ‘ABC Avalanche’ approach to come up with ideas, so I had a simple 2 column table, one with a letter of the alphabet, and one to write ideas starting with that letter.

Perhaps letter headings would have been even more accessible than a table, and in using a table I really ought to have put in a proper header row. But it was super easy for everyone to understand what they needed to do here, and the conversation was around what we were writing, not how we were writing it.

Screenshot from Google docs. A heading reads "ABC Avalanche" and is followed by a line of instruction: " Write an idea for each letter. You can do more than one; just use a new line". Then there's a table with two columns. Column 1 has the first 5 letters of the alphabet, and column 2 has ideas beginning with those letters: "Ask people to be more considerate when walking dogs / using the beach and links x Ban jetskis - quiet water sports only - see entry under M x Community consultation when there is a big decision to make about the Links, charge to use boat ramp Donation from the shows - one day’s takings donation to [redacted] for community use xx Dog Poo Crime Catchers Dog wardens need to be serious Electric jet skis? Quieter? Environmental impact report on [redacted] x"

A screenshot from the ABC Avalanche exercise in Google docs. Some details have been crossed out for confidentiality,

Affinity mapping

After coming up with ideas, you often want to group them. Again, with physical or digital sticky notes, you move them around the physical or digital canvas.

The same is true for lines of text. Move them around. Add a heading. Scroll up and down to see what others are doing. It’s the same thing, just easier and more semantic – which equals more accessible.

You can only do it in one direction, and it lacks some of the subtlety Miro has where you can put things close together or further apart. That’s a mixed blessing though – see below about finding your way around.

Voting

When you’re generating ideas in a group, you’ll often need to take some sort of vote.

In person, you can strictly allocate physical sticky dots for people to add to their favourite post-its. I have been in sessions where we used an exact reproduction of this idea on Miro, with little dots to move around. On paid accounts, though, Miro goes a little fancier, with allocated votes and a timed slot – votes are then automatically counted up. I like it. I couldn’t even start to get it working using keyboard navigation, though.

The Google docs alternative was just to put an “X” next to the thing you want to vote for. Just like in a polling booth. Count the “X”s at the end.

Yes, you have to ask people to be honest about placing no more than their allocated votes. This comes down to trusting a group of adults, and judging how important it is if they do ‘cheat’.

More of an issue is that people need to remember how many votes they’ve used, which can be a problem if your short term memory isn’t great – my lovely ADHD brain would for sure forget if something distracted me halfway.  This didn’t come up for this particular workshop, but I’d speculate that using initials or another allocated letter/number/symbol might work, although that does remove the anonymity.

Miro goes on forever! You can group things under each other, next to each other, sort of near each other. You never run out of space, ever!

This is where a camera would pan in to the terror on my face.

I can never find anything on a Miro board. I never know the correct level of zoom to be at. Have people gone down the page or across it? What is happening?

It is possible to put in strict structures, but again, that comes with a learning curve and explanation. And navigating that on a phone is still incredibly difficult. Remember that many people still only have internet access over mobile, and this disproportionately affects lower incomes.

One of my favourite features on Miro, then, is ‘bring to me’ – where you can get everyone to come to the part of the Miro board you’re on. I love doing it, and I love having it done to me. It really helps mitigate getting lost on a board.

Google docs doesn’t have this, but it does have cross-referencing tools. I added a simple table of contents at the start of my document, and if I needed people to go to a certain part, they could just select the relevant link, and not get lost. At the end of each section was a ‘go back to contents’ link. Simple, straightforward navigation, that should be easy to use with extra assistive tech, like screenreaders.

Exporting and understanding

A lot of folk are making the very valid argument that Miro isn’t meant to be a communication tool. It’s a collaboration tool. You’re supposed to take the results and do something with them.

That’s very valid, but at the end of the day, that’s not how a lot of people use Miro. Many folk absolutely use boards as comms tools. And even if they don’t, then someone has the job of moving everything captured on the board into a more understandable format.

You can export your Miro boards directly to PDF, but to make them even visually accessible, you need to format them very carefully. And as far as I can tell, the PDFs generated are not accessible in other ways – I certainly couldn’t get NVDA to pick up any of the content on mine. (NVDA is the free screenreader I use for basic testing, but I’m not a native user so I’m happy to be corrected here – please do comment/get in touch).

A whote page with a bunch of virtual postits on it, some of which are cut off at the edges Some are readable, some are not. The spacing is odd.

A small part of the hot mess which was one of my Miro boards exported to PDF

To export a Google doc, you don’t have to do anything at all. It is already in a file format you can send to others. And because there’s a linear structure, it should be understandable.

Adding images

If you’re an image-based sort of person, Miro can be great. It has an icon library, or you can just draw something if you’re comfortable doing that on your device. Until recently, you used to be able to insert an image straight from Google into Miro. That feature is “temporarily disabled” and I’m not sure it’s coming back.

But do you know what does integrate great with Google? Google!

Select insert – image – Search the web, and you can add any image from Google search into your document. You can also add images from your device, or create your own drawing. Importantly, you can add alt text, too. It would be amazing if Google could automatically bring over the alt text from an online image, but it doesn’t look like it does that yet.

Something else you don’t seem to be able to do is draw on the document itself. You can’t draw arrows linking concepts together and making relationships clear, for example.

For my purposes, we were building a storyboard and just need to add some flavour images, and the Google web search worked great for that.

A screenshot from the collaborative Google document. Text reading "Atends Dig Day" is above a cartoon image of someone digging, then text reading "Dig Day has a sausage sizzle - volunteers get free food, passers by can help raise money" is above a photo of barbecued sausages and sweetcorn

Basic image insertion on a storyboard

Not throwing up

I’ve never seen this listed as a ‘job’ in a digital context, but what I mean here is that Miro makes a lot of people seasick. It’s terrible for people with vestibular disorders, for whom excessive movement on screen can trigger migraines, vomiting and more.

Does Google solve this problem? No. Does it help? Probably. There is still movement, but it’s generally just up and down rather than going side to side as well.

Timing

Miro has a lovely little inbuilt countdown clock for activities. I do really like it, though I quickly discovered the music disables some people, so I use it without.

Google doesn’t have anything inbuilt, but there are plenty of online stopwatches out there. It’s not a dealbreaker.

Google v Miro: a summary

Miro more precisely mirrors an in-person collaborative workshop. Drawing tools let you link ideas well when you’re in full creative flow, and map things out with greater subtlety. The inbuilt timer and smart voting functions are great. They do also have an accessibility team who are working hard on improvements.

Miro’s Accessibility Statement

Google is perhaps not as pretty. But it replicates basic jobs in a way that ultimately works just as well. It has a linear structure that’s easy to understand out of context and cuts down on motion sickness, it enables alt text and is easier to keyboard navigate (which will include screenreaders).

Disclaimer: More testing is needed

It’s important to be clear that this was my first experiment doing this, and of course we need more. I don’t know for sure what access needs the community group had in this instance –  I asked them and no-one disclosed any, other than nervousness around tech, but this doesn’t mean there weren’t any. I do know that no-one in the group was using extra tech, like screenreaders, speech-to-text, etc.

I’d really like to test this approach with people who do use that kind of extra tech. If you do, and fancy a play around for mutual research, please get in touch.

So this is a very broad overview of possibilities. It’s not in any way meant as a thorough guide to a definitive alternative. Always test everything with diverse disabled users. Then test it again.

But I’m hoping it’s given a good insight into the potential of lower-tech approaches. Often the simplest approach is the most accessible. Use what works for everyone to do the job you need to do.