Silverback Exposed | May 28, 2008

Since my last post people have been clamouring for more details on Silverback, so I thought I’d explain where the idea came from, then show you a few screenshots.

Clearleft are a very user-focused agency and we try to do at least one round of usability testing on every project. We keep things as simple as possible by using our own premises, recruiting our own subjects and feeding the results straight back into the design process. Instead of expensive suites we’ll set up a computer in an empty meeting room and train a video camera on the screen to capture what the subject is saying and doing.

We tried using dedicated testing software like Morae, but it took ages to set up, didn’t play well with Parallels and was, ironically, very difficult to use. The app was packed full of features making it perfect for a dedicated usability lab but was far too bloated for the type of guerrilla tests we ran. What’s more, with a price tag at around $1,500, it was just far too expensive for the majority of small agencies to use. There had to be a cheaper way, so we looked around but we couldn’t find anything.

Around the same time a friend of ours participated in a usability study run by Leisa Reichelt. Simon explained how Leisa had opened up the iSight preview pane, and then set her screen capture software running. The result was a single file showing both screen activity and the users reaction. We really liked the idea but felt that the ever-present video would be distracting to use. Realising there was a need for something more sophisticated we set about building our own.

Development on Silverback started in late December and we had a very early alpha version working by early January. However developing in a desktop environment was new to all of us and we were amazed how fickle it was. In fact, it was surprisingly similar to developing for the web, with it’s own text display issues and 3-pixel spacer bugs. Some things that looked difficult were surprisingly easy, while other things that looked easy were frustratingly tricky. Luckily we had a great Cocoa developer, Martin Redington Redington, helping us along the way.

We also called on the services of Jon Hicks to help with the logo and interface design. As the application was for Guerilla usability testing we’d been using the working title of Silverback as an in-joke since day one. When it came to thinking up a proper name we brainstormed for ages but couldn’t think of a better one. We knew we wanted an illustrated gorilla as our icon and after toying with a few ideas, including dressing Silverback Steve up as Che Guevara, we settled on the lab coat and clipboard look.

For such a deceptively simple application, it’s actually gone through a lot of iterations, and we’re currently reaching our 60th build. We’ve spent a huge amount of time tweaking the interface, optimising the output and streamlining the code. The development of Silverback has very much been a team effort and we’re getting to a point where we are almost ready to launch.

At this point I’m starting to feel a little like an expectant parent. I’m really excited about the launch but also slightly nervous. Like all the best applications, Silverback scratches an itch and it will be a welcome member of the Clearleft family. I just hope you guys love it as much as we do.

Start screen

New session screen

Editing a new session

Exporting a session

Preferences screen

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There and Back Again | May 23, 2008

My antipodean adventure is coming to a close so I thought i’d reflect on my time away. The trip started with a two day lay-over in Hong Kong to break the journey. I’ve been to this amazingly vibrant city before and it’s one of my favorite places in Asia. It’s a bit of a cliche but Hong Kong really is a city where east and west collide. A city where hundred year old temples sit next to trendy bars and street hawkers compete with international food chains. Like many Asian cities, gadgets rule supreme in this town and none more so than the ever ubiquitous mobile phone. The streets are a blur of activity both day and night, and as dusk falls the city is lit by a forest of neon. Like stepping into a scene from Blade Runner, you expect Decker to come round the corner any minute.

Getting from the Airport to Mongkok is a breeze, and a living example of public transport done right. Riding the MRT is also a joy, especially if you grab an Octopus card. These little cards can also be used as currency throughout the city, so remember to top up. The flight wasn’t too onerous so I turned up at the Langham Place Hotel in pretty good shape. However for an extra bit of R&R I went for a quick swim followed by a relax in the hotel spa. The view from the 56th floor Oriental hot tub was awesome.

I’ve done the normal tourist things before, such as going to Victoria Peak, taking a sanpan round Hurricane Bay and browsing the stalls at Stanly Market. I’ve also done some more out of the way things like walking the dragons back to night wave bay. However the one thing I’ve always meant to do but never managed was a trip to the races. With betting almost banned in Hong Kong, this is one of the few opportunities city dwellers have for a quick flutter. Luckily they take this opportunity with gusto. I took some amazing pictures of the event, but as my hard drive dies when I reached Auckland, I guess they are consigned to my memory now.

I didn’t know what to expect from Auckland and I have to admit that it provoked a bit of a mixed reaction. The main drag around Queens Street was pretty characterless, although Vulcan lane and some of the other side streets proved a pleasant escape. Definitely check out the ‘hash brown stack’ at the Vulcan Cafe if you want a hearty, artery hardening breakfast. However it was the areas of Parnell, K Road and especially Ponsonby that caught my interest. Still, the city was pretty spread out and obviously not designed to be circumnavigated by foot. Sadly I didn’t manage to get out of the city and see the hot springs of Rotaroua or the beautiful Bay of Islands, but this provides the perfect excuse to come back.

Next up was the city of Wellington and possibly the biggest surprise of the trip. I’ve not been to Wellington before but as the seat of government I thought it could be a little grey and lifeless. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Wellington turned out to be a seriously cool city with a vibrant cafe culture, some amazing bars and restaurants, and a burgeoning tech community. I particularly commend Deluxe and Midnight Espresso for their enlightened opening times. Why we don’t have late night cafes in the UK is beyond me.

The Museum Hotel proved the perfect base from which to explore the city, although as Tantek rightly pointed out, it was the type of hotel you’d want to bring a partner to. The room felt far too opulent for one person alone. Another time I guess. Talking about time the schedule was pretty packed, so I ended up being confined to the city limits once again. Otherwise I would have liked to have checked out some of the local vineyards and gone LOTR location spotting. However I did manage to sample some of the Wellington night life thanks to a few members of the local tech crowd. The hospitality was overwhelming, so cheers guys. If you’re ever in Brighton please do look me up and I’ll return the favour.

Next on the itinerary was Christchurch. On first inspection the city feels like an English market town with it’s chain stores and shopping centers. But scratch the surface and you’ll find an active counter culture of trendy bars and restaurants. You’ve just got to know where to look.

As quickly as my New Zealand adventure had started it had come to an end and I found myself heading to Australia and the city of Melbourne. I’ve never been to Melbourne before but have only heard good things. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint. The city is very cool and felt like an anglicized version of San Francisco. From the arcades and alleyways off Flinders Lane to the streets round Fitzroy and St Kilda, cafe culture was very much in evidence. Local hipsters sat in beautifully grungey surroundings, sipping ‘flat whites’ and discussing their plans for the evening. Everybody was incredibly trendy, although not in the self conscious way you find in bigger cities. The cities thoroughfares were also awash with an amazing amount of street art, giving the city a tantalizing edginess.

After my duties were over I took the opportunity to hire a car and drive The Great Ocean Road, one of the worlds best known touring routes. The nature was stunning and definitely on par with the Pacific Coast Highway or the New England backwoods. I visited some great spots including the surfing mecca of Bells Beach and the iconic Twelve Apostles. I then headed inland to sample the mountain air of the Grampains before setting course back to Melbourne. Despite being a well documented route I was glad I hired GPS. Otherwise I’m sure I would have got lost at least a couple of times.

I’m on the final leg now, jetting off to Hong Kong for a couple of days before heading back to Blighty. I’ve been away for almost a month and while I’ve had an amazing time, I’m looking forward to getting back home.

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Silverback Unveiled | May 13, 2008

A few months ago Clearleft accidentally leaked the fact we were working on our own application, known as Silverback. I say accidentally because we had just bought the domain name and thought we’d better post up a holding page. However the combination of a great logo from Jon Hicks and an amazingly inventive parallax technique from Paul meant the page got far more coverage than anticipated. Before the week was out we had over 5,000 people registered for updates and had started to receive comments like “I don’t know what Silverback is, but I know that I want it!? So no pressure there then!

For the last few months we’ve been working in what some people (not me) would describe as stealth mode. That doesn’t mean we’ve been coming to work dressed as ninjas, although that could be fun. Instead we’ve been keeping schtum about the project. You see; we thought the idea was so blindingly obvious we didn’t want anybody else doing the same thing. Greedy I know!

We’ve been beavering away at the app for the last few months, hunting for glitches and tweaking the interface. We’ve put the app in front of some friends for alpha testing and have just opened it up to a semi-private beta. We’re currently working on setting up the support site and hooking in the payment system. Once that’s all done it should be chocks away!

So by now I’m sure you’re all wondering what the hell this Silverback thing is? Well it’s time to put you out of your misery. Very simply, Silverback is an OSX application to help people run their own low-cost Guerrilla usability tests. It captures screen activity, records audio and video from your built in iSight, and then composites it into a handy Quicktime movie for later use. There are a few added features that make it perfect for usability testing, but it’s basically as simple as that!

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Design Artefacts Part 2: Content Inventory | May 5, 2008

If you’re redesigning an existing site, and especially if the site is a traditional content driven site, then one of the best ways to start is by performing a content audit. The process involves going through every page on the site and noting what the page is about and where it sits within the existing navigational structure. Looking at the content from a macro level allows you to generate a clear picture of how the site is currently structured and whether this structure makes sense.

If the site has been around for any length of time, new content will almost certainly have been added since the original schema was devised. Unless the structure is particularly robust or well planned, there is a good chance that some of this new content will have ended up in areas where it doesn’t quite fit. This is understandable as it’s very difficult for organisations to anticipate their content needs several months in advance, let alone several years.

Unfortunately websites tend to become dumping grounds for content that doesn’t fit elsewhere in the organisation. I’ve seen countless sites become little more than glorified filing systems, full of annual reports and messages from the board. Content that nobody cares about or will ever read, but that needs a home. This is very much an organisational-centred rather than a user-centred approach to content, but sadly one that is still prevalent in many of today’s websites.

There is a strong chance that the site publishers haven’t taken a proper look at their content since it was initially developed. So a site audit is a handy way to find and cull out of date or irrelevant material. Stuff that has been hidden in the dark recesses of the site for years and left to gather dust. As such it’s a good idea to note the date the material was created and who has responsibility for that page. That way you can pass the information back to the relevant people and get it updated or removed.

With a full understanding of the existing structure, you can tell wither the schema is still working. If not, the process should have provided you with enough insight to start forming opinions on a credible new structure. This is ultimately the goal of the content audit.

However there is one added benefit of the content audit which I’m yet to mention, but which I think is vitally important. A structured review of the site forces you to read every singe page, understand the content and talk confidently about the results. By doing this you gather a huge amount of intelligence on what the organisation does, how they work and how they communicate with the outside world. It’s a great way of developing your domain knowledge and getting up to speed on a project or organisation.

A thorough content audit will often unearth important information that has hitherto been brushed over or forgotten. Stuff you may never have learnt from your clients or only found out when it was too late. You may even end up knowing more about the organisation than many of its employees, who will often have a particular specialism, area interest or personal bias. This thousand-foot view can come in very handy as it allows you to cut through a lot of the politics and make informed strategic decisions.

The information architecture reasons for a content audit should never be overlooked. However it’s the deep understanding you develop for the content, the organisation and ultimately the domain where I think the real value lies.

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Disconnected in Auckland | May 4, 2008

Hey sports racers. I’m in Auckland at the moment, on the second leg of my world tour and feeling decidedly disconnected. I’m not sure if it’s just bad luck but I’ve been having WiFi nightmares down under.

Like most chain hotels the Internet connection in my room isn’t free. Unfortunately the Internet connection in my room also isn’t working. So I grabbed my laptop and headed out to find a cafe with free WiFi. A scribbled note in the guide book I borrowed from Simon and Nat indicated that the cafe across the street had a free connection. Sadly the Wifi was no longer free and also no longer working.

I tried two or three cafes but the so called “Fast Internet Broadband” was neither fast or particularly board. At Cafe Melba I was forced to register my details before I was allowed the honour of paying them my money and pretty much all of them charged. The networks I did pay for were incredibly slow and much to my surprise charged for data transfer as well as time. So collecting email was fine but uploading my pics to Flickr was a no-no.

I did find one place called Mecca which proudly exclaimed that their WiFi was free. Sadly the network was password protected and none of the staff new what the password was or could be bothered to find out. So despite trying as hard as I can to support local small businesses I’ve found myself back at Starbucks who seem to have the only reliable net connection in town, despite being over twice as expensive as everybody else.

I do have one last tip off. Apparently the traders of Parnell Road have all clubbed together to offer street wide free WiFi. It’s a bit of a walk out of town, especially when it’s raining as it has been the last couple of days. But I may try to make one last sortie out there tomorrow in search of the mythical free connection.

Now I deeply object to paying for WiFi. First off I know that by it’s nature WiFi doesn’t cost much. The charges come from setting up a billing system, offering technical support and then skimming a profit off the top. The bigger problem is that it leads to a really bad customer experience. Instead of being permanently connected and being able to check your emails or Twitter whenever you want, you’re forced to meter your usage. Logging off whenever your activity goes quiet to conserve those precious minutes.

It reminds me of the dark ages of dial up and feels like internet rationing. I’m sure when I tell my children about the old days when you had to conserve your Internet usage they will roll their eyes and say “Oh daddy, don’t be so silly, the Internet doesn’t cost money!”

I don’t know if I’m spoilt and this is the norm, but Brighton is literally dripping in free wifi thanks to the lovely chaps at Loose Connection. Similarly most of the US cities I visit have plenty of free wifi cafes and some of them even have free municipal connections. Even Singapore airport offers a free net connection to all it’s travellers.

I do think in this day and age WiFi should be offered as a free service to cafe patrons, much the same way as they offer free newspapers or use of the washroom. WiFi is extremely easy to set up and by it’s very nature wants to be free. You have to go out of your way to lock it down and start charging for it.

I imagine that the cafes don’t make any money out of this. Instead a salesman from a big telecom company has come round and offered them free kit in exchange for the opportunity to fleece their customers. On the surface this sounds like a good deal, but you’d get much more custom and generate much better feelings if you simply set up your own WiFi router and opened it up to the public. I know that I frequent cafes and bars that offer free WiFi much more regularly than other establishments, even when I’m not looking to ‘log on’. And I would have been there every day for breakfast and lunch if just one cafe in Auckland offered a free connection, instead of being continuously disappointed.

I’m heading to Wellington and Christchurch next, before hopping over to Melbourne, so if you can recommend a nice cafe with free WiFi in any of those places, please let me know.

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