Software cinema verite

In recent months I've been experimenting with narrated screen videos. I have in the past looked at Windows Media Encoder 9, one of Microsoft's best-kept secrets.

In recent months I’ve been experimenting with narrated screen videos. I have in the past looked at Windows Media Encoder 9, one of Microsoft’s best-kept secrets. Using this free tool, you can capture a demo of any Windows application.

I’ve blogged some of the resulting WMV (Windows Media Video) files and have also experimented with other tools, Camtasia Studio and Qarbon, that can capture and edit live software experiences. Both of these (among others) produce SWF (Shockwave Flash) output, a format that’s even more convenient and universal than WMV.

Since I analyse and write about software for a living, it’s natural for me to want to add this technique to my repertoire. But there’s more to the story. Properly leveraged, these tools can help you market your software. They can help you train people to use it. And most profoundly, they could help close the feedback loop that ought to connect users to developers but doesn’t.

A growing number of vendors now use Flash videos to augment the obligatory lists of customers, features and benefits that they publish on their marketing pages. It’s a strategy I highly recommend. What hadn’t occurred to me, until it happened this week, was that users might do this for you. Paul Everitt, director of the Zope Europe Association, blogged a video of himself using oXygen, the XML and XSLT (XSL transformation) editing tool that he prefers. And as I mentioned on my blog, his accompanying written testimonial was authentic in a way no vendor page could be. Everitt noted the absence of a feature available in a competing product, but endorsed oXygen anyway.

Prospective buyers of a product crave access to the experiences of users of that product. So in addition to published reviews, we seek out written accounts in Usenet newsgroups — and more recently on blogs — in order to tap into those experiences. Now users can not only write about those experiences, but they can also share them directly without much more effort than it takes to capture and post screenshots.

Users won’t just post glowing testimonials, of course. They’ll also begin to document, in excruciating detail, the usability nightmares they’re forced to endure. Last week, for example, a web order form rejected me and lost my data, because my phone number wasn’t formatted to its liking. Then it rejected me again and lost my data again, because of a similar problem with my credit card number. The application could have spared me this hassle with a single regular-expression search-and-replace operation. Instead I went away empty-handed and angry.

This happens all the time, because developers rarely get to watch users interact with their software. It’s expensive to bring people into the usability lab and make them struggle with software while developers watch and squirm. And having been one of those watchers and squirmers, I can tell you it’s something I’d avoid if I could.

I have a hunch that’s about to change. Video, in the hands of civilians, has the power to bear witness in ways that can’t be denied. On a scale that includes the kinds of human rights abuses documented by, bad software doesn’t even move the needle. But clueless developers shouldn’t be surprised when users start holding up the mirror of accountability.

Udell is lead analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.

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