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Whenever the question comes up on which Agile tool to use use there always some people that answer "don't use an electronic tool because you will lose the big-visible-board advantage which better generate team conversation".

Is this always the case or are there any contexts where an electronic tool is a better choice? What are some of the pros and cons of each approach?

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Please consider not voting to close. As you can see, there are already a couple of very useful, thoughtful answers. This question asks about real world issues that are important to programmers. –  Bryan Oakley May 16 '13 at 13:51
My apology. I am a bit new on this. "Not voting to close" means keep the question open so people can keep answering? –  Kulawat The Eidos May 17 '13 at 21:41
Yes. Three people have voted to close this question so I was appealing to other people who were tempted to follow their lead. My comment wasn't directed to you. I think you wrote an interesting question and I didn't want it to get closed. –  Bryan Oakley May 18 '13 at 0:17

4 Answers 4

Advantages of physical whiteboards:

  1. Usually cheaper. Even free software requires a server to run on, data backed up and so on.
  2. Easier to use than software, particularly for less technical people or those involved temporarily.
  3. Easier to customize. Write on it, add a sticky note, add a heart sticker and so on. Many software packages are less flexible or require customization.
  4. More visible. A whiteboard in a common area is something people see everyday. It reinforces the tasks at hand, communicates process and can be impressive to those outside the team. Acts as a focus point - a team "campfire" where people meet and discuss team issues.
  5. A minor point but some people also like the tactile satisfaction of moving a sticky note from one column to the next or creativity in drawing pictures and symbols to show state or impediments rather than looking at columns of text.

Advantages of electronic tools (usually software):

  1. Easier to backup. "Backing up" a physical whiteboard or even keeping it in sync with software can be time consuming and frustrating.
  2. Keeps history and an audit log whereas a whiteboard only shows current tasks.
  3. Less fragile. Sticky notes on a physical whiteboard can fall off. Writing can be erased or smudged. Important details can get lost.
  4. Scales up beyond the physical surface size to more tasks and people, particularly with a projector.
  5. Automated integration with other tools, such as defect tracking and project management.
  6. Can enforce standardized process, such as phases or steps.
  7. Can produce metrics, graphs and reports automatically, such as burn down charts.
  8. Can be distributed across different teams in the same building, different buildings, different cities or even different countries.

I would recommend prototyping new processes with a whiteboard or similar but, as the team scales up or out, move to an electronic system. Losing your team's status to spilled coffee is hard to explain to management. That said, every team is different and, as others have said, there are few, if any, absolutes in software development.

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+1 for physical whiteboard being a focus point. This important aspect is easy to overlook. –  Ilari Kajaste May 17 '13 at 9:02
For backing up a whiteboard, use a digital camera. If you spill coffee on the wall, well, you deserve to explain that to management. (smile) –  Mike Sherrill 'Cat Recall' May 21 '13 at 3:13
@MikeSherrill'Catcall' whiteboard photos are a poor backup. To make it effective, you need to write down its content in a structured way, which is time consuming. –  Simon May 21 '13 at 12:47
A digital camera is a far better backup than a method that doesn't get done because it takes too long. –  Mike Sherrill 'Cat Recall' May 21 '13 at 13:20
@MikeSherrill'Catcall' ... and that is both its greatest strength and weakness. –  akton May 22 '13 at 2:12

The short answer is "no". The long answer starts with the realization that there are no absolutes in software development or most other fields: it all comes down to what you need and who will need it.

A physical whiteboard is an awfully versatile and useful thing. You can write on it, you can tape things to it, you can put index cards on it with magnets and shuffle them around, you can get up and look at it even when the internet/intranet is down. A whiteboard can contain very dense information - drawings, text. It has a bigger effective resolution than a computer screen so you can see more information at once.

Overall, It is a low tech and easy-to-use tool for a lot of typical development communication and tracking.

Of course, a whiteboard is low tech and therefore many things we're used to as developers are not achievable, or difficult. You cannot put hyperlinks to click on an index card on a whiteboard. You may miss changes that other members have made to the whiteboard when you weren't looking. If your team is not all in the same room then some team members will not be able to interact with and around the whiteboard. This is the most common argument against using whiteboards: they do not work very well with geographically distributed teams.

If you have a project manager then that project manager is likely to be interested in all sorts of metrics that could be easily derived from an electronic tool, not so from whiteboards.

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Just as an addition to the other answers:

There's no need to make this an either-or situation -- you can have an electronic board and a physical one.

Our team uses an electronic board as the main working tool (we use Kanban) and as the authoritative source of information. The electronic board has all tasks, is updated as tasks are worked on etc.

In addition to that there is a physical board, which only has major stories. It is mainly meant to create visibility, especially to outsiders, such as PMs and stakeholders.

This does mean that changes to the electronic board need to be manually replicated on the physical board, but this is doable, as only major stories are tracked there, which usually take at leas a day.

We find this a good combination: The electronic board is useful for small stuff, for day-to-day work and for metrics, and allows comments, links to specs etc. The physical board gives a quick overview of project state and makes it easier to see the "big picture".

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Nice. Any rule of thumb for which stories are "major" stories? –  Kulawat The Eidos May 22 '13 at 2:57
@KulawatTheEidos: We put up most stories that come from the business (unless they are trivial). We omit most team-driven tasks (internal stuff like refactorings and build tool changes), most bugs and the sub-tasks for a story. That way we only have about one paper card per 5-10 electronic tickets. –  sleske May 22 '13 at 7:36

An electronic agile board is a necessity for distributed teams.

For those of us where the entire team is in one room, the physical board is easier and more versatile, but lacks integration into other (electronic) systems.

There are teams in between, where not everyone is in the same room, but nearby. In this case a combination of both solutions might also make sense.

In general it depends on your demands whether you prefer one over the other or even both at the same time. The key point is that there is no such thing as the one solution for everyone. Try to achieve visibility, a place to talk about things, exchange ideas, a place to document things (and other demands the project poses) with your team and find out what board option or combination fits the demands best - that is your solution.

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