Review of Butter, a smooth meeting platform for facilitators

review Butter online meeting facilitation

Companies bombard me with offers to check out online meeting platforms. Sadly, I simply don’t have time to explore most of them. But every once in a while I hear about a platform that intrigues me enough to schedule a demo. Butter is an online meeting platform that is designed to support the facilitation of great interactive meetings. The demo impressed me enough to delve into the platform, and I liked what I found. So here’s my review of Butter, a meeting platform for facilitators to shine.

In this review of Butter, I’ll share a big picture overview, what I think is Butter’s finest feature, an example of how to implement a meeting design in Butter, and my closing thoughts.

The usual caveats

Butter is less than a year old. Like just about every recently introduced online platform, its developers are continually updating it. (In fact, my demo focused on a brand new capability which I think is one of the best features of the product.) So by the time you check it out, some aspects of this review may be inaccurate or incomplete.

In addition, this is not an in-depth shakedown of the product. I haven’t had an opportunity to take Butter through its paces with a full crew of participants and co-facilitators. If you do so and have additional observations, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Butter — the big picture

Butter is a meeting platform designed for planning and running online “workshops”. I’ve written about workshops that aren’t, and I’m happy to report that the Butter design team defines workshop as I do: a meeting that emphasizes the exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques and skills. In other words, workshops involve significant amounts of participation and active learning.

What I like about Butter is that it’s easy to use, has a short learning curve, and, most important, its design provides efficient and effective meeting facilitation. I’ve facilitated in-person meetings for decades and online meetings for the last ten years. And, as facilitators with experience in both environments know, there’s a significant workload difference between these two environments.

The challenges of facilitating online versus in-person

I can normally facilitate an in-person workshop with, say, fifty participants by myself. If there are tools I need — whiteboards, flip charts, a few slides, sticky notes, pens, room layouts, etc. — I can set them up in advance and bring them into play if and when needed. Because these tools are an integral part of the physical environment, introducing them during the session is a natural part of the facilitation process.

I can’t run an online workshop of the same size without additional help. Guiding participants through the session while paying attention to group energy and dynamics takes all my attention. I simply can’t do this well while simultaneously handling the event production. (For example, setting up breakouts, running polls, monitoring chat, noticing that a breakout group has only one member, reading participant energy from a host of tiny windows on multiple screens, etc.)

Butter makes facilitating online workshops easier. I explain why below.

A perfectly serviceable platform for most online meetings

It’s worth mentioning that, while Butter lacks some features available in competing tools, it’s a perfectly serviceable platform for vanilla online meetings with fewer than 200 participants. So it’s reasonable to consider adopting Butter for all kinds of online meetings with a specific group. This can ease the inevitable learning curve issues associated with introducing any new tool.

The finest Butter

[Sorry, but this 1982 commercial sprang to mind.]

I think the best feature of Butter is its recently introduced Session Planner. The Session Planner provides an integrated run of show, called the agenda, which is more than a detailed production agenda. Many production teams use spreadsheet tools like Google Sheets or Excel to create production schedules, though high-end run of show software, like Shoflow, is also available. What’s cool about Butter’s Session Planner is that it integrates any desired combination of Butter’s tools into the run of show agenda, so they become available for use when needed.

The Session Planner allows you to prep your entire workshop beforehand, just like I do at in-person workshops where I set out my tools in advance. You build a Butter agenda with blocks, and each agenda block can be customized to your needs with the tools — whiteboard, breakouts, polls, Miro boards, Google documents, Youtube videos, and more — that you’ll need for that block.

What’s more, the same agenda, minus the production details, is also available to attendees, so they know what’s going on.

Integrating your chosen tools into the production schedule in this way makes it much more feasible to effectively facilitate an online workshop by yourself. (Butter’s paid versions allow you to add co-facilitators.)

How Butter spreads

Butter’s excellent orientation and Handbook provide detailed information on how to use the product.
review Butter online meeting facilitation

Butter rooms

Butter sessions take place in rooms.

You can create and preplan as many meeting rooms as you like. Paid Butter plans allow you to share your room designs with other users.
review Butter online meeting facilitation

Let’s hold a meeting session in Adrian’s workshop room.

review Butter online meeting facilitation

Each room has its own link (which you can customize) and share in various ways with attendees.

Once you’ve created a room, you can add a Waiting room, co-facilitators (paid plan), custom Tools to be used in this room, and the all-important Agenda.

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.

Waiting for Butter

review Butter online meeting facilitation

When participants join a meeting, they arrive in a waiting room, like the one above. There they can add their name and a profile image (photo or avatar) if they don’t have a Butter account. Attendees have the opportunity to download the Butter desktop app and can test their camera and microphone while waiting.

You can customize a waiting room can with an image, background color, and optional wait music that an attendee can mute. (Butter has some audio clips or you can upload your own). You can also choose whether attendees can enter a meeting session immediately or must “knock” for the meeting room owner to let them in.

In addition, you can choose to share the meeting agenda with attendees in the waiting room. And a Tips menu informs waiting attendees about how they can react to what’s going on in the meeting and Butter’s hand-raising system for queuing participant comments, questions, or ideas.

Butter tools

Butter includes a comprehensive toolset that you can customize and add, as needed, to a room’s meeting agenda blocks. Each room has its own unique toolbox. A really important feature is that some of the tools — Google Drive: docs/slides/sheets, YouTube, Miro, and Whiteboard) — integrate core resources from other providers directly into Butter. For example, participants can work collaboratively on Miro boards during a session without having to run Miro in a separate app or browser window. Similarly, you can display and work on Google Drive files and watch Youtube videos in a seamless fashion.

Butter breakouts

Importantly, Butter provides breakouts quite similar to those available in Zoom, and with some features that Zoom lacks. You can prebuild two kinds: Rooms and Groups. Participants can move between Rooms, and initial participant assignments can be prechosen or random. With Groups you decide the number of participants you want in each Group, and Butter assigns people automatically when the breakout begins. Participants cannot move between Groups.

In addition, you can assign tasks for breakout groups. Butter shows these tasks in each breakout, and breakout members can mark them complete. This is a nice feature that obviates the need for the session facilitator messaging breakouts to tell them what to do.

What’s especially cool is that you can assign tools to breakout groups! Members can watch a video, or work collaboratively on a Google Doc or Miro board.

While breakouts are going on, a facilitator can monitor what’s happening in each breakout. You can observe a breakout without joining it, and see the tasks they’ve checked off. Participants can ask for help and you’ll be notified and can join their breakout. You can broadcast messages to all breakouts. And you can reassign participants to different breakouts, or reshuffle Groups to get a fresh set of people in each.

Butter breakouts provide a well-designed feature set and user interface that other meeting platforms would do well to adopt!

Polls, timers, and whiteboards

Basic polls are another tool. You can create multiple-choice or open-ended polls, which should be sufficient functionality for most situations. Upvoting is available for open-ended polls.

Buffer’s integrated countdown timers provide a welcome tool for keeping sessions on track or timing a break. You can prep them beforehand and start them with a click. Facilitators can stop the timer, and add an extra minute. Participants see a timer task description and can click a button when done. The facilitator can see how many have finished. I love this feature!

Tool use flexibility

You can preset just the tools you need for each agenda block, ready to use when the time comes. But should you need a different tool during a session you can add one on the fly.

The heart of a Butter session — the Agenda

To give a taste of the heart of Butter, here’s a hypothetical meeting design and how you might implement it in Butter.

Meeting design case

Twenty-one people are meeting for the first time as a group to work together on an issue: increasing governmental and non-profit support for the elderly population in their region. The group will meet regularly over the coming year. Some of the attendees know a few other people in the group. The first desired outcomes for the meeting are that:

  1. Participants get to know each other better;
  2. The group creates a coherent set of initial issues and topics to address at subsequent meetings, and;
  3. The group identifies who is interested and willing to work on the selected issues and topics.

Oh, I nearly forgot, we have just one hour for our initial meeting. Obviously, that’s not enough time to completely address these outcomes, especially #1. But let’s see what we can do in the available time.

A possible design

To begin, after a brief welcome, we’ll use one of my key facilitation techniques: The Three Questions. (See my book Event Crowdsourcing for detailed instructions for designing and running this powerful process.) Because of the limited time, we’ll run The Three Questions in trio shares. This will start to satisfy the first desired outcome, while simultaneously uncovering issues and topics that the group wants to explore. Next, we’ll address #2 using a Miro board for participants to share the issues and topics they think are important and/or want to work on. Participants will also cluster what they share during this block, addressing outcome #2.

Finally, we’ll switch to a facilitated group discussion on what’s been suggested, and work on next steps for future meetings (outcome #3), followed by a short closing.

Agenda example

Here’s a potential Agenda for the one-hour session.

I built this Agenda quite quickly in Butter. It’s built of Blocks, each of which can be given a title, description, duration (with the option to show to participants or not), associated tools (see above), and private notes for the facilitator(s).

In the above example, I’ve added several tools to the relevant session blocks, Google slides to introduce The Three Questions, a Group breakout for trio sharing answers, and a Miro board for sharing, clustering, and reviewing topics.

When I begin this session, each Block’s tools are shown in a sidebar, with a Start button for each tool. A click activates the desired tool. Like this.

I haven’t seen an easier online platform for facilitative process tool integration than Butter.

Check out Butter’s extensive Agenda help to learn more about how it works.

Additional capabilities while spreading Butter

Butter includes a spotlight mode, which you can use to bring one or more participants “on stage”, as shown below.

And Butter includes two well-designed participant interaction tools: Reactions…

…and the especially useful Raise Hand Queue. This is another feature that facilitators will love. Here’s how a participant raises their hand, with an idea, comment, or question.

And here’s how a facilitator chooses who speaks next.

Butter also includes public, private, and facilitator-only chat. Chat can be “popped out” to a separate window, which is handy if you want to read it on a second monitor. Nice!

Butter quality, onboarding, help, and more

I found Butter unusually easy and intuitive to learn. You can run it in a browser (preferably Chrome) or a desktop app. The user interface is simple and logical. I never found myself thinking “now how do I do that?” — a common experience with other online meeting platforms. I think most new users will have little problem getting up to speed.

Though I haven’t used Butter in a demanding environment, I encountered no errors or glitches while investigating its capabilities. The only limitation I found is that I can only access my root Google Drive folder; I can’t see its subfolders. Hopefully, Butter will remove this limitation in the future.

The Butter Handbook succinctly explains how to use the platform. It’s clearly written, available during a session, and includes excellent graphics, animated when appropriate.

When the platform needs a moment to implement what you’ve requested, a lighthearted message appears letting you what’s going on. The whole product has a “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” vibe.

You can invite participants via Google Calendar, a Room link, and even during a live session.

Online support from Butter is built into the platform. It currently states a response time of under two hours. I didn’t hear back in that time period, but, hey, I asked on a Sunday…

Butter’s parent company, MeetButter ApS is based in Denmark and Butter has a clear privacy policy and GDPR.

A review of Butter costs

Butter currently has three pricing plans: one free and two paid. The free plan, which I used for this review, includes up to 50 participants and one facilitator.

The Pro plan ($25/month or $300/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 100, allows up to 2 co-facilitators via shared rooms, and includes the capability to record sessions in the cloud.

Butter’s Legendairy(!) plan ($42/month or $500/year) ups the maximum number of participants to 200, and allows unlimited co-facilitators.

Cheska, my demo partner, told me that Butter is reviewing its pricing and may drop the maximum number of participants in the free plan to 20 in the future. I asked about one-off pricing and she told me the company was considering it.

In my experience, it’s common for new platforms like Butter to adjust their pricing models over time, so check here for current information.

Wrapping up this review of Butter

Butter’s tagline is “Virtual collaboration as smooth as butter“. While I have enjoyed thinking up butter-related phrases to use in this post, I’m not a big fan of the product name. (But I’m not a marketing expert either.)

Want to learn more about Butter? You can:

I hope this review of Butter has been helpful. I’m a fan! I encourage you to add questions, corrections, and your own thoughts in the comments below.

Improve conference sessions and workshops with Color/Advance

Color/Advance Luncheon of the Boating Party 11005726293_f7bdd2ae6c_z

Last week in Montreal, during a pre-workshop at the fabulous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference, I realized how an improv game, Color/Advance, could be used to improve group process.

At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.

At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. Improvisors typically use the game is to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback to determine when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.

It struck me that one could use Color/Advance in a different way, as a group process tool in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.

This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.

So I propose to offer Color/Advance as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.

How to use Color/Advance

After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to include, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what was said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.

I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.

If you have thoughts about or used this technique, please let us know in the comments!

Photo attribution: Flickr user ncindc