Picking from the peck of platforms (videoconferencing platforms, that is)

It’s no wonder we get so many questions from mediators about what we looked for when picking a videoconferencing platform to use for our distance mediation service.  The panoply of platforms that is available these days is positively dizzying.  Add to that the highly sensitive and confidential sessions that are intrinsic to mediation, and you have a choice that can be both difficult and intimidating to make.

What features make a videoconferencing platform suitable for mediation?  Every mediator’s area of practice, client group, personal style and comfort with technology is, of course, different which makes this question an impossible one to answer definitively.  In spite of this, our research and experiences with distance mediation have led us to conclude that certain features are well worth insisting on when picking from the peck of videoconferencing platforms (sorry, folks – I can’t help myself) that are out there.  Here are six of those features:

1.  Strong security frameworks:  In selecting our videoconferencing platform we looked for clearly described security features, acceptable to both government and corporations.  We got professional technical advice about security, and took that advice – the minimum acceptable security framework should include SSL to begin the session and AES 128 to encrypt data for the remainder of the session.  In addition to this, we asked ourselves two key questions when reviewing the different platforms:  How easily can data, video and audio transmissions be accessed by external parties?  How easily can parties record or copy discussions?  We conducted our investigations fully understanding that there are no guarantees when using any information and communication technology – that it is not possible for a mediator to ensure that all communications will be confidential or to completely control where or how some personal information may be collected, stored or accessed.  At the same time, as we believe it is a mediator’s duty to make every effort reasonably possible to protect client privacy and confidentiality of information, we made security a priority in our selection.  We felt strongly enough about this that we were willing to sacrifice some user-friendliness in order to get security frameworks we had confidence in.

2.  Robust host controls:  Given the special nature of family mediation, we wanted a platform that provides the mediator with maximum control over mediation-relevant conference features.  For example, because of possible safety issues relating to domestic violence, we rejected any platform where parties are able to continue discussions after the mediator ends the mediation session and disconnects.  For similar reasons, we eliminated platforms that do not allow the mediator to control whether parties can send each other private text chats.  We did not accept platforms that pose other obvious risks; for example, we avoided ones that do not give the mediator complete control over how his/her desktop can be seen by parties during file sharing, to lower the chance of parties seeing confidential documents and automatic e-mail notifications on the mediator’s computer.

3.  Compatibility with a range of systems:  We found, despite some advertising claims, that not all of the videoconferencing platforms work equally well on PCs, Macs, smartphones or tablets.  We also found a difference in how well platforms are able to accommodate hardware accoutrements such as webcams and headsets.  Considering the smorgasbord of systems parties (and mediators) come with, we felt that broad system and hardware compatibility is essential.  How did we go about testing platforms for this?  We routinely met on different platforms, using our own particular computer systems and hardware.  We also, shamelessly and relentlessly, invited friends and colleagues to join us on the platforms so we could check out how well various system configurations work.

4.  Quality video and audio:  In our experience, it is the video and audio capabilities that make videoconferencing a superior choice for distance family mediation.  However, we also found that if the quality of either of these is compromised, it actually impacts communications negatively.  Accordingly, we tested platforms with an eye to examining the quality of their video and audio – including sharpness of picture, clarity of sound, and consistency and reliability of both.  As part of our analysis of quality, we considered the sophistication of video and audio related features.  For example, we looked at how many individuals can send their video simultaneously, how large the video panes are, whether the audio is voice activated, and how easy it is to do on-the-spot troubleshooting if either video or audio malfunctions.

5.   Document and program sharing:  The benefits of being able to share documents and software programs with parties during mediation became evident to us very quickly.  Because of this, we looked for a platform with a versatile, easy-to-use whiteboard and file sharing capabilities.  For the latter, we wanted the mediator to have the ability to display documents to parties, as well as to create and edit various types of documents, live-time, while meeting with parties.  We also considered whether the platform allows the mediator to share web-based content.  While we did not see this feature as being of critical importance for mediation work, we did feel it is potentially quite useful as it gives the mediator the option of pulling up information posted on the Internet – Federal Child Support Tables, being an example – to show to parties at the very time the topic arises during mediation.

6.  Support 24/7:   The availability of training in how to use the platform, as well as ongoing technical support, were key features we looked for in making our selection.  It is here, in our view, that some of the platforms shine.  The best offer tutorials (self-learning videos and courses), instructor-led webinars, step-by-step written guides, searchable knowledge bases, 24-hour turnaround e-mail responses to questions, and 24/7 live technical support for meetings (yes, real people to answer your toll-free call).  The tone and quality of the support is something we also considered.  We wanted a platform that was backed by easily understood information and courteous, helpful and articulate service staff.  Why did we put such an emphasis on support?  No matter how easy it is to use a platform, it seemed virtually guaranteed that at some point in time someone participating in a distance mediation would need assistance.  As we are not communication technology experts, and neither are the vast majority of parties using our mediation service, we felt it was essential to have immediate access to quality technical support, whenever and wherever we needed it.

So . . .  you may by now have started wondering whether I’ve forgotten the one feature that every review of videoconferencing products seems to highlight:  Cost.  My omission is, in fact, deliberate but not because we ignored cost when making our selection.  Rather, we discovered that in the context of our desire to provide professional, high quality family mediation services, the cost of the platform was not a primary consideration – at least, not when compared to security, host controls, system compatibility, support and the other features listed above.  Sadly, it seems that when it comes to picking a videoconferencing platform, the old adage – “you get what you pay for” – applies just as much as it does elsewhere in life.

Photo credit:  “Barrell of marbles” by DCMatt (CC license)

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