Digital whiteboards have been a lifesaver during the pandemic — at least for visual thinkers like me. I’ve mainly used three: Miro, Mural, and FigJam. They have comparable features, although some do some things better than others. What none do well is allow you to find your stuff after a while.

I like these systems because they allow my teams to externalize our thinking in shared environments we can easily add to over time. I’ve used them in this capacity for teaching (in professional and academic contexts) and managing design projects.

These are often multi-month engagements. As material accretes over time, it becomes harder to locate particular items. After a month or so in the project, I often find myself asking questions like “where did you put the notes for the latest interview?” and “where are we sharing these models?”

Because of these environments’ open-ended structures, determining what goes where becomes an ongoing negotiation. I’ve tried organizing boards upfront, defining what should go where at the beginning of projects. But those structures seldom last; the project’s needs often call for new boards to be created on-the-fly. (E.g., particular material may need to be shared with third parties.)

I’ve also tried having a single “war room” (I dislike the martial metaphor) board to capture everything about a project. In theory, this solves the “proliferating boards” problem. But the challenge then becomes finding material within the board.

One solution is to add clear text titles to clusters of material on the board. But as the board grows, you must make these titles larger so you can read them when zoomed all the way out. This makes them awkward when zooming in.

But an even more significant challenge with the “everything in one board” approach is that the system’s performance decreases the more material you add to a board. Simple tasks, such as zooming in and out or panning around the board, become sluggish. So, eventually, folks start moving stuff out to individual boards, which takes you back to the proliferating boards issue.

Search could be a possible solution to improving findability in these systems, either within boards or across all boards in your account. But in practice, I’ve found these products’ search capabilities to be hit-or-miss. For one thing, much of what you’re searching for isn’t linear, as in a text. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional plane that might have multiple instances of the searched term peppered around. For another, much of the material isn’t text at all — it’s images. Also, some products don’t even provide board-level search capabilities.

Another approach could be keeping a running index of materials on board and asking team members to keep the index updated. So, you could have a Google Doc or a dedicated board with links to other boards within the project. I haven’t tried this, but one challenge I foresee is the added overhead. Projects move fast; folks will unlikely take time to document new boards and board sections comprehensively.

I’ve had more success with findability in digital whiteboards when teaching. But that’s up to the fact that teaching is a much more structured activity. For example, I know the structure of my systems course upfront: it’s 15 weeks long and covers particular materials and exercises in a specific sequence. So, at the beginning of the semester, I pre-structure boards and instruct students on how to use them. This makes it easier to find stuff later.

But professional projects don’t have that luxury: they’re more fluid and less structured. I haven’t yet found a good approach to quickly find things in shared boards while a project is underway. But it’s even more challenging to do so after time has passed. It takes me a while to re-find material in boards I haven’t touched after a year or so.

Shared digital whiteboards are great for collaboration. They open possibilities not available with more structured text-based systems. But current digital whiteboard products seem more focused on building excellent in-the-moment collaboration features than on making it easier for users to find stuff. I hope this changes over time as the core features in these tools mature.

Have you had success finding stuff in shared digital whiteboards? If so, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you.