Let’s Hangout!

The scenario:

Much of my course work has a team or group component. While it’s great to distribute the workload and have the opportunity to collaborate, coordinating schedules and getting everyone in the same room is often a challenge if not impossible.

To address this problem, the teams that I’ve been working with have adopted Google Hangouts. In the class that I’m taking right now, we’ve had four projects due, and outside of class we’ve only met face to face once. Intrigued? Read on.

What is a Hangout?

Hangouts are a feature of Google’s social network Google+. Up to 10 people can simultaneously video/audio chat and collaborate over the internet with this powerful tool. Participants can join Hangouts from their laptop/desktop/smartphone or be dialed in if they are in an area without internet service.

Getting Started:

In order to use Hangouts, there are a couple technology pre-requisites.

1. You need a Google account.

2. If you’re using a desktop/laptop you’ll need to install the Google Voice and Video chat plugin .

3. Navigate to http://plus.google.com to get setup with Google+ (setting up your profile, etc)

*optional* If you want to connect using your iOS or Android device, be sure to download the Google+ app.

*optional* For each class, I create a Circle, an organizational tool in Google+. This semester I’m taking EPS7545, so I’ve created an EPS7545 circle that I’ve added my four team members to. This just makes my life easier when I’m setting up the Hangout.

Time to Hangout

Now, assuming that you and your group members are all setup (meaning they have their Google+ accounts set up), it’s time to get to the good stuff, starting a Hangout!

Navigate to http://plus.google.com

On the right hand side of the screen you’ll see a Hang out’s section and a Hang out button. Click on the Hang out button:

A new browser window will open up with an interface that looks something like this:

The first input box is where you enter the names/e-mail addresses of the people you want to hang out with. Hangouts will default to inviting everyone that we’ve placed in circles. For our cases, however, we’re looking to hang out with a specific group, so remove the “Your Circles” blue button in the invite box. If you did the optional step and created a circle for your group, all you have to put in is the name of that circle, otherwise you can enter the e-mail addresses or circles of the people you want to invite (*note* they will need a plus account to join and will be prompted to create one if they don’t have one).

To keep things simple, there’s not a real reason for us to name the Hangout or enable Hangouts On Air, so you can skip these steps.

Finally click on the big blue Hang out button, you’re Hanging out!

So what does it look like?

Let’s take a moment to talk about what’s happening in the Hangout interface. Google divides the interface into three functional areas:

  1. The People area – Along the bottom third of the Hangout screen you’ll see the video thumbnails of the people who have joined your Hangout and the Apps that are currrently enabled for the hangout.
  2. The Content area – In my screen shot, I’m the only person in the Hangout, otherwise you’d see whomever was talking in the content area, the app that was active or the screen that was being shared.
  3. The Upper menu – Above the main content area are a series of button that will allow you to text chat, invite more people (including dialing someone in over phone), share an application or your whole screen, bring up a google doc for everyone to edit, bring up a youtube video for everyone to watch or add one of the many Hangout apps that are available, such as a sticky note brainstorming wall, mind-mapping diagramming, etc.

How to join an existing hangout:

How do your participants know that the Hangout has started? There are actually a few ways. If you have Google Chat installed, you’ll get a chat message with a link to the Hangout automatically when you’re invited. If you’re on your Google+ page there are a few ways to discover Hangouts that you’ve been invited to

  • In your activity stream (just click the blue Join button).
  • In your notifications (Red number in the upper right hand of Google Plus).
  • By clicking on the Hangout button in the left hand nav (if you don’t see it, click on the More button).
To configure how your notified of hangouts, visit Google’s help page on Hangout Notifications.

Conclusion:

That’s about it. If you get stuck, Google’s help for Hangouts is also fairly comprehensive. It may seem like several steps to get up and running, but it’s important to remember that once you’ve done the set up the first time you’re done, each subsequent time you’ll be up and collaborating in seconds. There are many alternatives to this. WebEx, Skype, etc, but the integration with Google docs and the price (free) make Hangouts a winner for me. What are you using to bring your team together? Let me know in the comments.
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Google Drive/Docs – Cloud Collaboration

While it may seem to many that Google Docs (Now a part of Google Drive) might be an obvious choice for group collaboration, I’m surprised by how many people I talk to that are not aware of how effective this cloud based app is, or have written it off as a cheap Microsoft Word imitation. I thought I’d just run through a couple of use cases of how I incorporate it into my daily workflow.

A couple caveat’s.

  1. Google Docs is not Microsoft Word  – The faster you can come to accept this, the easier you’ll be able to realize its full potential.
  2. The Google Docs interface can be frustrating and confusing – There are definitely some UI changes that I would make to docs if I were king of Google, but I feel the same way about Word or when it comes down to it, any application.
  3. Changing habits takes time and a certain level of commitment – Like an exercise regimen, it’s easy to quickly adopt and abandon new tools and workflows (I recently told my partner that she should put “Look a Shiny Thing” on my tombstone). If you choose to adopt Docs, stick with it for awhile.

Why?

OK. Now that we’ve let go of our software inhibitions, on to the reasons why Google Docs is worth a look…

You’ve got your browser open anyway, why open another application and slow down your machine?

I’m not sure about you, but I’m constantly juggling resources on my machine, and having one less application open is always a plus. Combine this with the fact that my browser (Chrome) is always open, Docs is just a tab away!

Did I click save before my computer crashed? No need to anymore!

Docs is constantly saving automatically, so there’s no worry about losing work. In addition, Docs saves a history of previous versions as it goes. While I know that version history is available on platforms like Sharepoint, what I like about Docs is that it requires no effort from me as a user.

My files, everywhere

This goes a little bit to my previous post around persistent file storage, but I feel that we’re evolving as a technology culture to the point that while we enjoy our machines, our personal content (our music, our pictures, our documents) and their constant availability to us is no longer a convenience, it’s an expectation. Anything that I put in my Google Drive is available to me no matter where I am. As long as I have a browser, I have access and can continue to work. I’ve even got my kids using Docs for their homework so there’s never an issue of lost homework (until there are virtual dogs to wreak havoc).

Sharing – Painless

Sharing is dead simple with Google Docs. In the upper right corner of any document you’re working on is a bright blue Share button. Click it, add the e-mail addresses of the people you’d like to collaborate with, specify what privelges you want to give them (Read Only, Read/Write, Ownership) and you’re set. Your collaborators will get an e-mail and a link that will take them right to the document. Not only can you share single documents you can share entire folders.
 Docs Share Button

Live collaboration

While I’d argue that the reasons above are the most practical to adopt Google Docs, live collaboration was the feature that the geek in me was most excited about. What do I mean by live collaboration? The basic idea is that multiple people can work on the same Doc/Spreadsheet/Presentation at the same time and you can watch changes happen live. As everyone types, you’ll see a customized color cursor updating the document while they type. For group and remote team work this is a fantastic time saver. At work, my group has adopted docs as our default note taking application. When a meeting starts, someone creates and shares out a doc. As the meeting progresses, we are all adding to the shared document and time is saved when nobody has to merge or e-mail the doc after the fact. In addition to the collaborative editing, Docs also has embedded chat (just like Instant Messaging, but just with collaborators that are working on the doc with you) and commenting with e-mail notifications.

Add images directly from Google Images

While editing a Google Doc, just click on Insert>Image>Search, and get thousands of possibilities to enhance your document!

Google Image Search in Google Docs

File Storage

Drive gives you at least 5GB of storage (more if your school or business has Google Apps), which is plenty of space for documents, but the best part is, your Google Docs/Spreadsheets/Presentations don’t count against that quota! If you have existing documents/files that are in formats other you can store them in your Google Drive. Which leads to the last reason….

Search

This one’s kind of a gimme, given that Google is a search company (or advertising company 🙂 ). Keyword search is capable across all documents (both google docs and most other document formats, including .doc, .docx, .xlsx, .pptx, and .pdf). While I haven’t tried it, word is it’s keyword search works for images too!

Conclusion

I’m a big fan of Google Docs/Drive as you can probably tell, but there are several competitors out there, including Microsoft’s Sky Drive that offer similar capabilities. What are you using for cloud document storage and work? Leave a comment.