If you want to make software developers squirm, force them to watch people using their software.
At the Eighth International Python Conference, HCI (human/computer interaction) expert Dr. Randy Pausch talked about doing just that for his educational software project, Alice. Patrick Phalen, a developer who attended Pausch’s talk, recalls: “I vividly remember laughing out loud when Randy described the extreme methods they used to get their users to adopt beginner’s mind. They required developers to sit on their hands in chairs behind newbies to observe them gaining familiarity with Alice. They were not allowed to reach over and commandeer the mouse or keyboard.”
Developers who possess deep but tacit knowledge of complex hardware and software environments are notoriously unable to project themselves into the beginner’s mind. Observation is the only way to bridge the gap, but Pausch’s innovative exercise notwithstanding, that’s easier said than done. It’s expensive to rent a so-called “fixed lab” and to bring people there to conduct a formal study. Even commercial developers can’t do this routinely; many enterprise developers never get the opportunity to see users interact with their wares.
Portable labs -- available from Alucid Solution, Ovo Studios, and UserWorks, among others -- are a cheaper and more convenient alternative to fixed labs. These are typically suitcases packed with gear for capturing and editing videos of both onscreen activities and the users performing them.
It was inevitable that this cluster of capabilities would intersect with increasingly powerful and media-capable PCs, and that’s exactly what is happening.
TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio is one of the leading tools used to capture and edit videos of screen activities, and the company recently released Morae, a Windows-based suite of tools for capturing and analyzing Windows-based software experiences. UsersFirst, another leading vendor in the market, is preparing to beta-test VisualMark, a similar suite. The VisualMark observation and analysis tools run on the Macintosh and will be used initially to capture and analyze Windows-based experiences. Because the product is based on the VNC (Virtual Network Computing) remote viewer, it will also be able to observe both Linux and Mac desktops.
There are shoestring alternatives to such tools. Remote screen-sharing coupled with a phone call can yield valuable insight into user experience. When problem scenarios can’t be reproduced during a live remote session, conventional screen video tools are another option.
Windows Media Encoder 9, for example, which is available free from Microsoft, offers a capable but little-known video screen-capture capability. You can use it to record screen activity -- plus voice-over -- to a compact WMV (Windows Media Video) file that can be easily exchanged or viewed on the Web. This is a great way to produce simple training videos.
It can also be useful for tech support and basic usability observation. But for more formal observation, you’ll want a solution that’s less intrusive, captures video as well as audio, and supports analysis and editing of the raw material.