Show It and Support It

Andrew MacNeill, AKSEL Solutions,August 2005

 

Use both commercial and free tools to promote, train and support your application

 

As many third party vendors will tell you, building the product is only half the battle. The next part, getting people to use it, can be just as tricky. This isn't just a "vendor" issue either. Almost every application being put into production in any organization faces an uphill battle towards adoption. This is where all the great features you've spent months building help to get users excited about using it. But what good are features if your users don't know about them?

 

It used to be that building a self-running video or demonstration of software required a great deal of expertise and money, hiring a production company who did the work in their own studio. Today, developers and trainers are building these "screencasts" themselves and in this article I'll go through several options that are available to you.

 

Basics of Recording Demonstrations

 

There are two different schools of thought when it comes to online demonstrations: do you include sound and rely on verbal communication to get across the point or do you use call-outs and still images. The benefit of using sound is that users get the feeling they are connecting to someone who is showing the product, much as though they were in a training class. This can be further enhanced by adding video. One problem of relying exclusively on audio is that your users may not have speakers attached to their computer. The other problem is one of comfort – not many people like to listen to their own voices and feel fairly self concious. As a result, many try to skip over this and use captions or call-outs overlaid on top of screen images. While this approach may seem effective, most communicators and trainers think this is a bad approach. Think of the last time you actually READ a PowerPoint presentation and you'll appreciate why. Yes, you can read the content with very basic equipment but the effect simply isn't there and users typically learn best when given two different sensory inputs.

 

Quick and Easy Video

 

Microsoft had a little application that shipped with Microsoft Office 1997 that allowed you to record screen activity. This screen capture utility created a Windows AVI file that could be played on almost every Windows machine. The problem is that the AVI file was typically fairly large, even when recording on small 640x480 screens. Now, they provide a better tool for recording that can be downloaded for free. The Windows Media Encoder records screen activity, video and audio and creates a Windows Media Video file (WMV) that may be played using Windows Media Player. Download it from www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia

 

The interface to this product isn't the greatest (see figure 1) but it does provide some Wizards and Quick Starts to make it a little easier. The New Session Wizard for screen capture prompts you to specify if you are capturing individual windows or the entire screen and the quality level.

 

Figure 1 – Figuring out Windows Media. The Windows Media Encoder interface isn't the prettiest but it lets you record audio, video and screen captures for free.

 

Click Start Encoding to start the capture. Demonstrate your software, providing narration along the way and when done, click the Windows Media Encoder button in the Windows task bar and choose stop.  The file is instantly created and is ready to be put online or on a CD for easy viewing.

 

The encoder doesn't provide any editing facilities. The utilities include tools for making the output file more accessible with markers and scripting but if you mess up a word or find yourself filling the air with "ums" and "ahs", you will likely need to re-record it. I recommend making smaller clips of individual features that can then be viewed independently or in sequence. To be fair, Windows Media Encoder isn't just designed for capturing screens. You may also use it for broadcasting live events and pushing them up to a Windows Media server or other sources.

 

Now, Windows Media Encoder doesn't provide any editing tools but Windows XP does with Windows Movie Maker. Although marketed more for "Home use", it's fairly good at taking the output from the Windows Media encoder, editing it and providing transitions. You can also mute out your original audio and record additional snippets. The best part about Movie Maker? Since it was designed for home use, it can be learned fairly easily.

 

A basic Movie editing session is broken into four different areas (see figure 2): the task pane (which individual tasks are listed), the Collection pane (where video and audio clips are displayed separately), the Preview pane and the Timeline/Storyboard window. If you've recorded several individual videos, you can import them into a single collection or have multiple collections that you pull from. Drag the video or still images down from the Collection into the time frame window to start building your movie.

 

Figure 2 – Making movies of your application. Although you may feel it's just an on-screen demo, you are, in fact, the director of your own very small screen feature.

 

Movie Maker also lets you split apart larger movies into individual clips. Right-click on the Clip in the collection and choose Create Clips. It took my five minute video and created 5 individual clips that I could then re-arrange. You can also create your own clips using the Timeline. The timeline shows your video by minutes and seconds. Click along the timeline and the Preview will display what is being shown at that moment. At the point where you want to create a separate clip, click the Split button located on the right hand side of the Preview.

 

The benefit of having multiple clips is now you can add titles and transitions between the clips. If you have a one hour video on how to use your application, you can split the video into 10 minute clips that users can watch and review along with titles about what they are learning along the way. Make your video even more spectacular by adding in swooshes or video effects in between each clip. While you can't create call-outs or boxes that point to particular areas in your video, you can add title clips on top of existing clips. You can also create a freeze frame of a single frame by clicking the Camerica icon in the preview window. With a single frame image, you can put additional audio or title clips to further explain a point.

 

When you've finished assembling your video, go to the Finish Movie set of tasks. While it starts with a basic set of tasks like Send in Email, Save To CD, etc, Movie Maker has pre-defined Movie Settings that will render your demonstration so it can be viewed on a TV, a broadband network, a local network or even downloaded for a Pocket PC.

 

But I Want My PowerPoint!

 

You may have already created a PowerPoint outline that walks through key features of the application. Yes, you could run your PowerPoint slide and record it using Windows Media encoder but there is an alternative. Microsoft has a little known product called Microsoft Producer, a free download for owners of PowerPoint 2003. With Producer, you can import in existing presentation slides and apply some very basic video transitions and effects. Microsoft Producer also has screen capture built-in so instead of using Windows Media Encoder, the Capture Wizard will manage the process for you. Producer doesn't have as many bells and whistles as Movie Maker – in fact, it only has real type of output and that is web-based. Producer provides presentation templates designed for businesses to put their presentations directly onto the web. Your final output combines PowerPoint-style slides and bullet points, your video presentation with audio commentary and, maybe even a live video narration, putting it onto a web server or folder as though it will be run directly on the Internet. Users can move to individual areas they want to, using the table of contents frame (see figure 3 for what it can look like). It still uses Windows Media Player technology and requires Internet Explorer to really take advantage of the templates.

 

Figure 3 – Using Microsoft Producer. The output from Microsoft Producer for PowerPoint combines your existing PowerPoint and video into a great web page, but lacks the feature richness of a screencast.

 

 

 

Capturing Single Screen Shots

 

So far, I've been discussing capturing entire screens for long playing videos but it can also be useful to capture individual screen shots. This is something that developers have grappled with for years. Some use the Microsoft HTML Help Image Editor provided with Visual FoxPro. Others prefer a tool named SnagIt, from TechSmith ($39). One of the benefits of SnagIt is that it isn't just for capturing images when doing training or videos; SnagIt is also a COM server that you can build into your application.

For example, if you wanted to capture the screen a user was currently on, run the following:

 

ImageCapture1 = CreateObject("SnagIt.ImageCapture.1")

WITH imagecapture1

   .Input= 0  && Capture the desktop

   .Input= 2  && File name

   .OutputImageFile.FileNamingMethod=3 &&Automatic

   .OutputImageFile.LoadImageDefaults(3)

   .OutputImageFile.FileType= 3  && siftJPEG

   .OutputImageFile.directory= "C:\"

   .EnablePreviewWindow = .f.

   .Capture()

 

   IF .iscapturedone()

       ** Now pick up the JPG file.

   ENDIF

ENDWITH

 

This can be exceptionally useful for reporting errors and providing better support. You could also use this for helping to write your own training manuals. Rick Strah's West-Wind Help Builder includes direct support for Snag It's COM Server.

 

Raising the Bar

 

TechSmith, the makers of SnagIt (see sidebar), produce a product known as Camtasia, that has become one of the standard screencasting or screen–recording products used. Camtasia Studio 3.0 ($299) has an interface very similar to that of Movie Maker, making it very easy to learn how to use (see figure 4). Instead of a Collections pane, it uses a ClipBin where you can see all of the elements of a particular video project. Like Microsoft Producer, it can also directly integrate with PowerPoint.

 

Camtasia makes it easy to both record and edit. The Recorder lets you set up keyboard shortcuts to pause, resume, zoom in on certain areas and even add markers to the recording while it's been created. After the initial recording has been created, right-click on the timeline and add additional markers, noting areas of interest. Add text-based call-outs and use the Zoom-n-Pan to draw attention to specific areas on the screen. Click and drag areas of the recording and delete them or click the Split button to create additional sections. Camtasia 3.0, the latest version, also adds Picture-In-Picture if you want to include a live video during the video.

 

Figure 4 – The Camtasia Production Studio. Camtasia offers far more than just basic screen recording – zooming, call-outs and the ability to export to the Internet-friendly Flash format.

 

Perhaps most importantly, Camtasia isn't just about creating a Windows Media file – instead, it's about creating a variety of options. Halfway through your recording, add a Flash-based quiz that tests the user for what they've seen so far (see figure 5). Flash quizes are only supported when you export your final video to the SWF Flash format, a format that may be viewed on virtually any web browser.

 

Figure 5 – Ask Me a Question. Flash-based quizzes are fairly easy to implement in Camtasia.

 

Camtasia can also export out to Windows Media, AVI, QuickTime, RealMedia or a proprietary format with their own player. It can also create DVD style menus for directing users to multiple videos. If you have to create a lot of videos, use the Batch Production menu option to create the final output for multiple projects all at once. Since creating the final output may take up to an hour for a single video, being able to batch the process overnight is a huge time saver.

 

Other Tools Available

 

As creating online demos, or "screencasts", has grown more popular, new tools are always becoming available. Both CamStudio and Wink are freeware packages that create SWF files while Macromedia's Captivate and Qarbons' Viewlet Builder are commercial tools that include e-learning features like Camtasia's quiz feature.

 

And this has to do with what in development?

 

If you've read this far, you likely get that teaching users about new features or how to best use a particular product is part of the product deployment process. If you're lucky enough to work in a large company where they have other people do this for you – but these days, every developer is expected to do more. Imagine how cool your application would look when they choose How To from the Help menu and get a video of how to use your application, running within your application. Making training videos or "screencasts" isn't hard – in fact, it can be a lot of fun and a great way of stepping out of the development cycle and into the real world.