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Planning Poker: Tools for online estimation sessions

23.6.2022 | 8 minutes of reading time

Many agile teams are using Planning Poker or Sprint Poker to estimate the size of their product backlog items. Shifting to remote or hybrid work, your team might look for a solution to hold virtual Planning Poker sessions. Luckily there are a lot of solutions that provide that experience nowadays (the number of tools rose massively during the Covid pandemic). In this article, I will explain the benefits of using a digital Planning Poker tool and I will share my favorites with you.

What is Planning Poker?

Planning Poker is an agile estimating technique to reach a consensus about the size of a new product increment (for example, a new feature, service, story, etc.). It can be played in a dedicated session or is part of the Product Backlog Refinement.

At the beginning of the session, the estimators are provided with Planning Poker cards. The cards hold the values that the team uses to estimate the size of a new product item. This can be an abstract unit such as story points or T-shirt size. But it can also be any other unit the team uses to estimate. Teams that use Story Points find it beneficial to use the Fibonacci Sequence as unit values. The sequence goes: 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,…
After the cards have been handed out the Product Owner then describes the new product increment. The estimators discuss the details of the new feature with the Product Owner. Once everyone understands every aspect of the feature and feels able to vote on the issue, the voting can begin. Each estimator secretly picks a card that represents their estimate. At the same time all cards are revealed (Showdown in Poker).

If all estimators picked the same value, then the value becomes the estimate for the new product increment. If the cards show heterogeneous values, a discussion should start. Estimators should share the reasons for their estimate. Especially the team members that picked the highest or lowest value should have a chance to speak. After more discussion, the next round is played and estimators should privately choose a value and all reveal their cards at the same time.

This goes on until a consensus is achieved or it is decided that a feature requires more information until it can be estimated again.

What are the benefits of Planning Poker?

Fun & productive: First of all, Planning Poker can make tedious refinement sessions fun. It is a game and everyone likes games. Even more when you can play them at work.

Inclusive: A strong benefit is that everyone is encouraged to share their opinion – independently of each other. This precludes unfair discussions where one senior developer shares their opinion and all others follow silently. Everyone needs to pick a value on their own and provide a reason for choosing this card. Everyone is encouraged and can contribute equally. This gives silent people a voice.

Easy to play: The rules of Planning Poker are very easy to learn, so the entry barriers are very low. You do not lose much time when introducing the game.

Speed: If you combine the Showdown with a timer, you will get a mood picture very quickly. Gone are the times of long discussion where your group is spinning in circles! This makes refinements more productive.

Common understanding: After all cards have been revealed, a discussion about the results will start. The discussion is an essential part of Planning Poker. When team members share their opinion on why they rated a product increment high or low, this might unveil misunderstanding (“Oh, that is what this story is about!”) or lead to new ideas (“Hey, oh great idea, I have not thought about that!”).

Team ownership. When everyone shares their opinion and they come to a consensus, the team feels involved from the beginning. They will feel more responsible for their estimation. This is a very important step towards team ownership.

Why does it make sense to use Planning Poker in a digital version?

Location-independent: With the ongoing Covid pandemic and shift towards more remote work, you might have no other choice than to switch to a digital version of Planning Poker. The virtual version makes it possible for people to join from anywhere and gives you more flexibility in holding a session.

Accessibility: Using a Planning Poker tool makes Planning Poker sessions more accessible. Well-designed tools will work for all people whatever their hardware, software, language, location or ability is.

Better votes analysis: Some tools provide an informative overview of the voting results that show the average value or distribution of votes. This makes it easier for the team to jump into the discussion and generate insights about the reasons for the chosen value.

Since digital Planning Poker is essential in times when remote work is more standard than exception, selecting the right tool is the next step.

What are my requirements for a digital version?

Before I started my search for a tool that provides me with a great online experience of Planning Poker, I made a list of my requirements:

Must-haves

* It should be free of charge
* No registration/account required (to start a session)
* Customizable card deck
* Public (better: private) rooms
* Member names
* Real-time voting

Nice-to-haves

* Set people as a spectator
* Timer mode
* See previous estimations
* Asynchronous estimation (e.g. set up a list of items to be estimated)
* Import stories (.csv or JIRA)

What are my favorite tools?

Based on that requirements I tried out many tools over the last years. Over time I narrowed my toolset down to three solutions that I am using most of the time.

codecentric Planning Poker

URL: https://planningpoker.cc/
After joining codecentric I found out that some developers created their own Planning Poker tool. I know that they use it for estimation with a client. It offers the basic features I would expect from a Planning Poker Tool when it comes to functionality. You can create a room, customize the card deck, enter names for users stories and set a player name. The UX is very simple and straightforward. It is also possible to join as a spectator so that you do not need to participate in the voting.
The biggest advantage for me is that you can use it for free and there are no ads. So if you need a sleek Planning Poker Tool that it is easy to set up, codecentric Planning Poker is worth a try.

codecentric Planning Poker: Card Decks can be customized using comma-separated values

codecentric Planning Poker: The UI comes without any ads

codecentric Planning Poker: Results are clearly visible

PlanIT Online Poker

https://www.planitpoker.com/
PlanIT Online Poker is actually the first tool I used for Planning Poker. It covers basically all needs that I was looking for (and it was actually the first hit on Google). It can be used without an account (however you can create an account as well), you can create a public room and it is possible to select between different number sequences like (Fibonacci, Sequential, Scrum, Playing Cards and T-Shirt). Additionally, you can customize the parameters for a room and add multiple stories for asynchronous estimation, you can set a timer or decide if a player can change their vote afterwards. And it is free of charge.

The results of a voting session reveal information about the average and how many players voted for each option. That might be a good indicator for starting a discussion (“So why do 70% of you think it is a big story and only a few say it is not a big deal?”)

One of the downsides was that it was not working correctly with many players in a session (votes were only shown or updated after page refresh).

PlanIT Poker Online: Options for customizing cards and room settings

PlanIt Poker Online: Moderator can start and stop voting sessions

PlanIT Poker Online: Average and vote distribution make the voting analysis easier

Planning Poker Online

URL: https://planningpokeronline.com/
Considering the problems I had with PlanIT Online Poker regarding the performance with larger teams, I decided to look for another tool. After some research, I found Planning Poker Online. The functionality is very similar to PlanIT Online Poker. You can use it without registration and create a new game without any hassle. One of the big upsides is that you can create a customizable card deck (remember the dog scale ;)).
Another big advantage is the JIRA connection. This means you can import the stories from JIRA and sync the results back to it. No more manual entering of user stories. And last but not least the Planning Poker Room looks like a poker table with the players placed around it. This is also charming.

So what’s the catch? Well, Planning Poker Online is limited in terms of votings per game and issues voted per game. In the Basic Version, you can only have nine votes per game and five issues voted per game. If you need more, you are required to switch to Premium, which will give you unlimited voting. At the time of this writing, the cost was $30/month. You have to consider for yourself if the tool is worth the money.

Planning Poker Online: Provides pre-defined card decks but also provides the option to define your own card deck

Planning Poker Online: Presentation is based on a real gaming table.

Planning Poker Online: The robot at the bottom shows you how much agreement the average voted size has.

Conclusion

Since I have worked with remote teams for many years now, I have always been looking for tools that enable me to hold virtual Planning Poker sessions. I cannot imagine anymore to do a remote estimation session without them. All tools have their pros and cons and I know that there are a lot more options available. In the end, you should opt for a tool that your team can work with. See this list as an inspiration to start your search for a suitable Planning Poker tool.

But now I am curious what are you requirements for a good online Planning Poker tool. What tools did you try out already, what did you liked and what could have been better? You can let me know in the comments below the post.

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