Tech Tools for Impact Networks
Updated March 31, 2021
Most impact networks will benefit from an assortment of simple and effective software tools for tasks such as written communication, audio and video conferencing, polling and group decision-making, ideating and whiteboarding, collaborative document and spreadsheet creation, file sharing, and scheduling, as well as asset mapping and social network analysis.
The right set of tools can drastically amplify the network’s ability to stay connected and self-organize. Choose the wrong tools and you might be stuck with steep learning curves and annoying tech issues. Here we have compiled our favorite tech tools for impact networks, focusing in particular on nine primary collaborative use cases:
- Polling and group decision-making,
- Collaborative whiteboards,
- Audio and video conferencing,
- Messaging and chat,
- Document creation,
- File sharing,
- Project management,
- Scheduling, and
- Network mapping
We scored each tool reviewed against a set of criteria — including overall effectiveness, ease of use, group size flexibility, cost, mobile integration, and email integration — to determine our recommended collaborative software stack.
Here are our favorite tech tools for impact networks.
Polling & Group Decision Making — PollEverywhere
PollEverywhere is a polling and decision-making tool that will increase engagement among virtual groups of any size. Organizers can generate a wide range of polls and questions — including open-ended, multiple choice, word clouds, clickable maps, ranking, and upvoting — and participants can add their responses by visiting an always-live link on their computers or texting in via their phones. Responses can then be presented in real-time back to participants, to give a live look at the sentiments in the room. We have used PollEverywhere to help get a lot of voices into the conversation and make decisions as a group, and we have noticed that because responses are typically anonymous, participants tend to be even more honest using PollEverywhere than they would be in normal conversation, particularly in online environments.
Slido is another well-designed polling tool. You might find it to be even more simple to use with a cleaner design than PollEverywhere. However, its range of functionality is much more limited — it does not offer many of the different types of polling options that PollEverywhere offers and that we’ve found to be especially valuable, such as upvoting.
Loomio is best for making decisions when you’re not in the same space together. Loomio integrates very well with email, such that you can send a proposal out to large groups and receive input across a designated period of time.
Consider.it is very simple, and is good at taking a ‘temperature check’ of a specific proposal that can be organized on a spectrum (for instance, strongly disagree to strongly agree). However, it doesn’t have nearly the range of customization as the other tools listed above.
Miro is a simple collaborative whiteboard tool that allows teams to simultaneously add post-it notes, write text, upload and annotate documents and photos, and more — all on an infinite canvas that can expand to be as large as you need. Miro also has lots of useful templates to help get you started quickly.
Mural is also quite powerful in its capabilities — it has even more features than Miro, including allowing facilitators to hide portions of the board and reveal them as they move through their agenda. For teams that plan to use whiteboards as a central part of their collaborative work we recommend Mural as a great choice. However it does not have a free option like Miro (Mural is minimum $12/month), which is why we have it tied with Miro as our top pick.
Google’s Jamboard is extremely simple to get started, but didn’t have the range of functionality we were looking for in a collaborative whiteboard.
Zoom is the most simple, and most reliable, audio and video conference software that we have tried. Whereas WebEx is unnecessarily complex, Zoom is a breeze to setup and use. Other than the host, participants are not required to have a Zoom account to join a call. And unlike our experiences with Skype and Google Hangouts, we almost never experience dropped calls, and audio & video quality tends to be quite high.
Before using Zoom or any other video conferencing system for a meeting, first note that you will need to adjust your default Zoom settings to ensure “Zoombombing” doesn’t happen to you, and recognize that Zoom’s video and chat features are not truly encrypted end-to-end.
If you’re wary of using Zoom, WebEx is the next best alternative we’ve found. It is simple to use, has a generous free version, and allows for breakout rooms — an essential feature that many videoconferencing tools are missing.
Messaging and Chat — Slack and Microsoft Teams
In our opinion, Slack is the best messaging software available today, with a simple interface, a great mobile app, and the flexibility to expand as your collaboration grows. Slack’s default settings cause frequent notifications, but it’s easy to receive notifications for only the channels you choose, only when you’re mentioned, and/or only on your desktop or your mobile device.
We’ve used Slack in groups as small as 5 and as large as 1300, and it works well for organizations and networks alike. Once you get the hang of it, Slack will reduce unnecessary email load and keep related messages organized and archived all in one place. Slack is free for most use-cases, with upgraded plans available.
Discord is another great communication tool for groups, similar to Slack in many ways. It is especially well suited for open networks that allow anyone to join. Discord integrates voice, video, and text within a single platform.
Microsoft Teams is another high-quality messaging platform that is an especially attractive choice for those used to working with Microsoft Office 365 products. One of its best features is how allows for nested channels — you can have channels within channels that break down a topic even further. Microsoft Teams also has video conferencing built in. We personally prefer the simplicity of the Slack desktop and smartphone app, but Microsoft Teams is a great choice as well.
Twist is a well-designed tool that mirrors Slack but with a more intuitive “thread” system within channels, and more customization options for notifications, which is a big plus. However, because Slack is far more popular and ubiquitous, there are fewer switching costs — it’s much easier for people to join a new team on Slack than it is to learn and use a new tool in Twist. Still, Twist is certainly worth checking out, particularly if notifications give you headaches.
Our other runner up messaging software is Azendoo. Azendoo pairs an effective messaging platform, like Slack, with a simple task management system (like a more simple version of Asana — see below). It is a good option for groups who want to combine their messaging and project management system into one.
Document Creation — Google Docs/Sheets/Slides
In a test between Google Docs/Sheets/Slides, Office 365 (Word Online/Excel Online/Powerpoint Online), and Pages (Apple’s iCloud-based document software), we found Google Docs/Sheets/Slides to be most easiest collaborative document creation software to start, learn, and use.
However, Google Docs and Google Sheets are both far from perfect. For one, Google Docs’ editing feature, “suggestions,” could be better (it tends to create a sense of messiness), and Google Sheets isn’t quite as powerful as Excel Online. Moreover, Office 365 products integrate better with standard Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents, so there were fewer formatting issues when we transferred documents from Word or Excel to the online software.
If you use Microsoft’s OneDrive and tend to work primarily from shared Word and Excel files, go with Word Online/ Excel Online. However, if you use Google Drive, our preferred file sharing system, Google Docs/ Google Sheets gets the job done.
File Sharing — Google Drive
Compared to its competitors, Google Drive provides the best bang for the buck, offering 15GB of free storage (compared to 10GB for Box, 5BG for OneDrive, 2GB for Dropbox, and no free option for Amazon Cloud Drive), and 200GB of storage for $3/month. Syncing files among multiple users is easy, and setting permissions is a straightforward process. If you tend to use Microsoft products and plan to use Word Online/ Excel Online, go with OneDrive. Otherwise, take advantage of Google Drive’s generous amount of free space.
Trello’s kanban-style project board is extremely intuitive and easy to use. Its simplicity is its greatest strength, as it sidesteps the intimidating learning curve of project management software platforms. This makes it more likely that people will actually use it, which is really the whole point! And, even as it maintains its simplicity on the surface, Trello also features tons of different plug-ins (which they call “power-ups”), adding layers of customization to fit your needs.
Notion features a breadth of capabilities and flexibility of use. It is place to take notes, track projects and tasks, and create collaborative documents, wikis and spreadsheets all in one. I highly recommend that anyone looking for an all-in-one collaborative workspace check out Notion and test out its live demo.
Asana is a straight forward task-manager excelling at breaking down projects into discrete tasks, assigning them to team members, creating due-dates, and visualizing next steps in a timeline or calendar. It also integrates with email to make reminders a breeze.
Bitrix24, Basecamp, and Podio are feature-loaded platforms that can do everything, including messaging, project tracking, and CRM, and Podio has broad flexibility and customization, and includes a messaging component. Both Bitrix24 and Podio are great tools for running an organization, but they aren’t as well suited to a network, and they can intimidating for new users to learn. Basecamp is stuck in the middle, without enough features or flexibility to match Bitrix24 or Podio, and not as simple to learn and use as Trello, Notion, or Asana.
If you’re looking for an all-in-one solution, check out Bitrix24 (it’s completely free to use, whereas Podio can get pricey with lots of users). However, if you’re looking for a tool that excels at task and project management, try Trello first and see if it works for you.
Scheduling — Acuity
Acuity, once set-up and customized to your liking, makes scheduling a breeze. It allows others to book a meeting based on your calendar availability and the meeting-type and length you offer, and it even offers an integrated payment system. Acuity syncs well with most calendar clients, including Google, Outlook, Office 365, and iCloud, and can be used for groups of up to 36 without breaking the bank. Acuity is $10/month for an individual, $19/month for 6 calendars and $34/month for 36 calendars.
Calendly doesn’t have as much customization as Acuity, but it is a bit more simple to setup and use. It also integrates well with most calendar clients, and is $8/user/month. YouCanBook.me provides a similar service to both Calendly and Acuity, but with less flexibility and a more complex design.
Doodle is optimal for coordinating the calendars of lots of people who don’t use the same email client. However it won’t integrate with your calendar system, so using Doodle for large groups can be tedious.
Boomerang is a great tool for those who use Gmail and Google Calendar. However, it unfortunately doesn’t work with anything else. Boomerang makes it quick and easy to offer available times, and to create group scheduling polls and decide on the optimal meeting time within your email.
Network Mapping — Kumu and Graph Commons with SumApp
Kumu is a mapping software that can create beautiful, interactive network maps, asset maps, and system maps using existing data, on the fly, or — our preferred method — in tandem with the SumApp survey tool. Kumu is constantly adding new features, and it is our favorite to use out due to its flexibility, beautiful design, and its cloud-based format, allowing you to easily share your network map with others and embed the network map into an existing website. Kumu is free for public projects and $9/month for private projects.
Graph Commons is another great network mapping tool that is easy to use, creates beautiful maps, and integrates with SumApp. I particularly like the way it visualizes the different types of connections between nodes, adding a layer of information that isn’t seen as easily in Kumu.
SumApp is a survey tool that is specifically designed for building asset maps and networks maps in Kumu and Graph Commons. The value of using SumApp is that it will provide each participant with a unique survey link that they can return to at any time to update their information — and then that information will be automatically updated in the resulting map. SumApp also makes it easy to add new participants to the survey down the line. SumApp is free for basic use cases, and $15/month and up for more customized surveys designs.
The PARTNER platform from Visible Network Labs is another strong social network analysis tool. Like Kumu with SumApp it integrates the survey process, data collection, and network mapping all together so there is no data cleaning necessary and survey results are automatically loaded into the map. The tool also has useful network science content embedded within it, along with filters that are immediately available to modify the map.
Gephi has lots of powerful analytical tools which may be best for mapping complex technological or biological networks. However it is desktop-based only, so it can’t be used interactively with groups beyond screen-sharing and exporting images, and therefore it has its limitations when mapping human networks.
BONUS — Other Recommended Tools
The following tools will round out your software stack — each is fairly simple to learn, and you’ll be amazed at how useful you find them.
- Meeting Owl — a smart camera/speaker that rotates to focus on the person talking, and provides 360 degree video to capture the whole room. We recently used the Meeting Owl Pro to facilitate a 45 person meeting (7 in person, 38 online) and it worked even better than we expected, capturing the full conversation with its excellent mics and providing a seamless connection between the in-person and online participants.
- Otter — a very effective transcription tool, available on your phone, that captures conversations with surprising accuracy. It does a good job of recognizing when different people are speaking to help organize the transcription.
- Toggl — a simple and effective time-tracking tool.
- Alfred — a lightning-fast search function for mac computers. It is much better than your computer’s default search.
- Weava — a great tool for highlighting online articles and PDFs and organizing or sharing your highlights with others.
- Magnet— a mac app for quickly arranging windows on your screen, in order to view two (or four) windows at once.
We are not getting paid by any of these software tools, and do not make any referral fees by recommending them.
What Do You Think?
Do you disagree with any of our suggestions? Did we miss something? If so, let us know what you think!