On Making Web Things

Tiny Question

16 January 2014

It’s mid-afternoon on day 2 of the conference. Post-lunch sluggishness is wearing off and you’re excited for the next session. You settle in, and for the next half hour watch the speaker completely nail it. Great topic, unique insights, and expertly presented. A well-deserved swell of applause.

It looks like we have five minutes for questions.

Hands shoot up in the audience. The speaker scans the room and chooses one. You give no thought to how this hand was chosen. One of the conference volunteers runs a handheld microphone over to the questioner. This eats up some time considering the size of the room, but you’re used to it. The conference last month used a standing microphone where inquiring minds hurried to queue. You also gave no thought to how that setup determined which questions were chosen.

The first question starts with some light self-promotion of the questioner’s new startup. It isn’t enough to force the conference volunteers to pull the mic away, but it is enough to make you roll your eyes. A question is eventually asked. The presenter answers. One down.

Hands up, volunteers run around, and question two begins. Except it’s actually four questions, not that the questioner says this upfront. Once the first question is answered the questioner volleys with follow-up, then another answer and follow-up. This cycle continues until the presenter graciously asks the questioner to approach them later in private so that the room can move on to more questions. You sigh and wonder if the questioner is aware of their time monopolization.

The third question isn’t a question. It’s a long, meandering, incohesive statement only tangentially related to the topic. It’s obvious that the questioner is only looking for a reaction from the presenter. Being a professional, the presenter gives their opinion despite the shaky intentions and form of the question.

Time is up. More applause. On to the next session.

We Can Do Better

Odds are if you’ve been to a conference you’ve been to that conference, sat in that session. This is the status quo for conference Q&A sessions and it is broken. Among my complaints:

Attempting to Do Better

Tiny Question is a dead simple tool designed to improve the conference Q&A experience. Here’s how it works.

  1. The presenter logs in to Tiny Question (via Twitter) and creates a new question session.
  2. The presenter shares the URL of this question session with the audience. This is usually done by putting the URL somewhere in the opening slides and telling the audience that there will be Q&A after the presentation, but that questions will be read from this session and not from the microphones.
  3. Audience members who open the URL will also be asked to log in via Twitter. Once they do, they’ll be able to ask questions on the page. As others ask questions, those too will be displayed.
  4. Audience members can upvote questions. Questions stay sorted in vote order so higher upvoted questions float to the top.
  5. After the presentation is over, the presenter opens the question session page, sees the questions sorted by upvotes, then reads and answers them as time permits.

Let’s look at my complaints once again.

Like everything else on the web, this is an ongoing experiment. I hope this method can help solve some of the problems laid out above. We’ll see if it does.

Tiny Question is free for anyone to use. The source is available on GitHub should you want to create your own version of the service. Pull requests are welcome.

Ask Me Questions

Do you have a question about Tiny Question? Ask it here (on Tiny Question) and I will update this post with answers. Questions are closed. One more thing to note about Tiny Question: All question sessions are deleted 48 hours after creation. The tool is not meant as a permanent place for questions to live, but as an aid to a live event.