In case you are catching up or need a reminder: My co-founder, Dave, and I met whilst helping a public sector body in the UK deliver a project to review 500 design standards in 30 months (previously, the typical time for just one was 36 months). The project involved a drafting team of over 400 people and over 2000 stakeholders reviewing drafts.
We witnessed how passionate technical experts get bogged down and struggle to collaborate; meaning that drafting documents takes far too long and the products often aren’t actually very good. People get jaded and accept imperfection. The reason, we hypothesised, is that collaborative document editors aren’t designed for documents where more than five people are involved. The result is some poor soul whose job it is to wrangle and merge copies, chase people and keep on top of version control. Experts don’t like others seeing their thinking in real-time, and even if they did there are too many distractions jumping around the screen. This delays drafting, kills momentum and there’s always the risk that someone is working with an out of date copy.
We founded Barbal to solve this problem. The name is a smashing together of Bartley and Balderstone — demonstrating collaboration as the bedrock of the company .
Dave, being a software engineer, spotted that drafting complex documents is similar to how software teams build software code. There’s typically a lead who will work on one aspect and then others will review and test the code. The software industry solved the problem of large teams collaborating on source code in the early 2000s. Thousands of engineers at Google and Facebook work on a single code base without it falling over. Volunteers from anywhere can contribute to open-source projects without the owner giving up control of their baby.
What if we could adapt those tools for people working on text documents?
From prototype to alpha to beta
Early in 2019 we released the first prototype of the Barbal platform and by summer we had two customers using the alpha version (branded as StandardsRepo - see my previous post) to support the development and review of standards for an open-source community and an inter-governmental organisation.
For the alpha version we tried to follow software development workflows closely. When software teams work together they divide the work up in to discrete items of work or features. Changes are developed in private and shared when ready. This is approach is called “branching”. Anyone else working on that feature merges their changes on to the same feature branch.
In this way, separate themes (we called them proposals) within a document can be handled independently through defining the work, drafting, review and approval.
The idea was a good one and raised a number of interesting challenges for us to overcome.
First, the technical challenge of making a rich text document behave like software source code in version control. Our approach has necessarily become increasingly proprietary. The documents are stored as HTML files and kept in Git version control (avoiding unnecessary vendor-lock), but we’ve had to build our own algorithms for dealing with merging copies, displaying tracked changes and handling merge conflicts.
Which leads on to the second challenge, making the branching workflow intuitive to users. It works for software code, but it doesn’t work for documents. Well written software by its nature is very modular so different parts of the code rarely bump into each other.
Barbal’s users really like the ability to track and approve themes across a document from idea to implementation. However, in contracts and standards, whilst the clauses are drafted as discrete elements, there is much more interdependency between different parts of the document that feature-branching makes impossible to reconcile with an intuitive user experience.
I’m over the moon that in January 2021 we will begin piloting our beta version with users across standards, construction and commercial law. We’ve completely rethought the collaboration workflow so that the drafting experience is much more familiar to users of MS Word but without the chaos that can ensue when lots of people edit the same file in real-time.
Theme tracking will remain a key feature of the product, but it will no longer drive the workflow. We will also retain the functionality for people to chunk up work and draft in private, only sharing when ready, but the focus will be on how the collaboration is organised. We’re introducing a new teams functionality, which allows you to set up groups who might represent different organisation or working groups.
We’ve also been working hard on the security of the application. The beta software will launch ready to handle sensitive documents. The platform meets the 14 Cloud Security Principles published by the National Cyber Security Centre and the audit for Cyber Essentials Plus is in the diary for early in the new year.
Here’s a preview of how the beta software will work. If you’d like to be part of our pilot programme, please contact me or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Developing our brand, vision, mission and values
As we grow our team, which is now 10 people, it’s becoming more important that we communicate why we’re doing what we do so that team members can take more decisions for themselves.
We developed a new set of statement that reflect the change Barbal will make in the world in supporting our users to do what they do; whether that’s defining new open-source standards involving as many people as possible, or negotiating commercial terms where privacy is of the strictest important.
We’ve found communicating what we do to be one of our biggest challenges. I’m not sure if it’s that people don’t believe we’d try to replace MS Word or that there are so many file repository vendors.
The “collaboration” category isn’t an easy one to be in. Our vision and mission have become key in how we say what we do.
Everyone’s voice heard
Our vision is be the leading provider of co-authoring software, where everyone’s voice is heard — even in large groups, working across remote teams and different organisations. With Barbal, deadlines are met, milestones are hit, deals are closed, contracts are negotiated — faster.
To remove inefficiencies and liberate expertise by enabling people to work together on complex documents and reach consensus faster.
People feel liberated when working with Barbal, because it saves so much time when co-authoring complex documents. We automate tedious administration, leaving you free to focus on the job you are expert in. This means you can deliver more value for clients and stakeholders.
We remove the inefficiencies which happen when you’re editing large, complex documents. We solve the pain of continuous updates and help you work faster. New clauses or paragraphs can be proposed, edits can be submitted and the document owner can see what changes were made, by whom and when.
People know they can trust Barbal; it is safe as well as easy to use. Our software is designed to protect the master version, capture the audit trail and give you an excellent user experience. This way, everyone’s voice is heard and the document is completed as fast as possible.
2021 is set to be our most exciting year yet. With a product team of four engineers as well as a user experience specialist and customer success management, the product will be progressing at a rate of knots and our customers will start to see real value from the tool. We have a major international project kicking off immediately and several blossoming partnerships on the horizon.
Whilst we started to focus on standards, we quickly got pulled into different types of documents, so have rebranded the product as “Barbal”. The tool is a document editor that allows lots of people to work together efficiently. We plan to support all its uses, partnering with companies to understand the nuances for different use-cases and even looking at reseller models for different markets.
We will be working with legal firms and in-house lawyers, construction firms and clients, regulators and standards bodies. The vanilla system meets the baseline needs for them all and is a huge step forward compared to the incumbent systems. The objective is to limit the number of organisations we work with to between 12 and 15 so that we can build close relationships and let our early adopters help shape the platform. It’s all a balance as we look to trade off our costs with revenue.
Given the vast efficiencies that organisations could achieve (the average lawyer leaves up to £72k/yr unbilled through faffing with MS Word) and the end-user outcomes that could be derived if people could do consensus-making quicker or there was full traceability of why edits were made, we know that investing in the pilot programme will be worthwhile for many organisations.
We’ve had brilliant support from dozens of organisations over the past year who have given their time for user research and I would like to extend my personal thanks to them all. Barbal truly is a co-creation project with our users who continue to show patience in testing and giving us feedback. Like any collaboration, it wasn’t perfect at the start but the end product will be worth it.
2020 has been a challenging year for us all, personally and professionally. Everyone at Barbal is counting their blessings that we’ve been able to grow whilst many others have struggled, but optimism is on the horizon.
Onwards to the roaring twenties!