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

Posted at May 28, 2008 12:30 PM


Philip Morton said on June 1, 2008 7:59 AM

Cool, thanks for the update. I look forward to seeing the final release.

Nick Toye said on June 1, 2008 10:26 AM

Can’t wait to see the final product, I hope to be a beta tester on the next round so I can get more of a taste, but its looking good.

Matt Wilcox said on June 1, 2008 12:21 PM


It looks fabulous, really the sort of thing I’d love to play with and incorporate into how I design. But, will there at any point be a Windows version? As lovely as Macs are, I don’t have one. And I think that rather a lot of the people in your potential audience for the product would in fact be running a PC. Unless I want to go out and buy a MacBook to take to people willing to test, and get them to do it one-at-a-time, Silverback is out for me.

ponders if AIR could be made to emulate some of Silverback’s functionality, thus making it cross platform

Matt Wilcox said on June 1, 2008 12:27 PM

Sorry, not used to textile. Those sentences were not meant to be shouty bold!

Also, to reiterate, Silverback looks like it’ll be brilliant.

Ian said on June 1, 2008 12:50 PM

Hey Andy,

Silverback definitely fills a niche in the market and an important one at that. Having some ‘affordable’ software to use which can highlight design issues with regard to HCI is great for both freelancers and larger design agencies. It’s certainly an area which has been overlooked and having been one of the lucky ones to be selected for beta testing I can definitely say that I’d look to use it for many of my own projects in the future.

I can see Silverback doing for usability what grids have done for layout and just getting designers to put that little bit more thought into user interaction.

I look forward to the launch… even more so since my beta copy expired this morning. Hurry up already! :)

Piotr said on June 1, 2008 1:54 PM

And yet, your FOWD presentation attendees still can’t play with the beta. I was really excited to hear we’d get invites and nothing happened.

I’m looking forward to the official release as well. I actually convinced my supervisors to go with the usability studies on a few projects of ours and all I need now is an App that would help me run those test :-)

Matthew Pennell said on June 2, 2008 9:02 AM

I’d be interested to learn what something like this costs to develop.

I’m sure there are lots of other developers and agencies thinking about this kind of passive revenue stream — while most of us can put a price on developing a web app, a desktop app is an entirely new arena; here’s hoping for some 37signals-style expense/income disclosure in the future!

James Christie said on June 2, 2008 1:27 PM

Very much looking forward to this - I’ve run the gamut between Camtasia, Captivate, Morae, that other techsmith thing that I couldn’t get to work, etc. Silverback looks like just the ticket!
Hoping it’s not Leopard only, although for this, I’d upgrade.

Andy Budd said on June 2, 2008 9:30 PM

Sorry Piotr,

I gave the Carsonified crew a demo copy on the day of the workshop and have emailed them several times about it since without any luck :-(

Andy Budd said on June 2, 2008 9:45 PM

Hey James, Silverback will work on Tiger and Leopard, so no need to upgrade just yet :-)

Regarding a Windows version, it has been discussed and may happen in the future. However we’re focussing our attention on the Mac version for the moment. This is primarily because we’re all Mac heads here, but also because all recent Apple laptops come with a built in webcam, perfect for use as a mobile usability testing suite.

We’ve not discussed the idea of releasing the development costs, but I’m sure it would put people off developing their own app if we did :-) In all honestly we’ve built Silverback largely because it’s something we’d use ourselves and as a benefit for the wider UX community. At the moment we’re mostly concerned with covering our dev costs rather than generating a ‘passive revenue stream’, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

Leisa Reichelt said on June 4, 2008 4:17 PM

ha! I hadn’t heard this story before… no wonder my immediate thoughts were that Silverback is the application I wished I had 12 months ago when I started trying to hack my MacBook into a usability lab!

many thanks Andy & ClearLeft, and Simon… my research victims are indeed much less distracted now that they don’t have to see a little video of themselves in the corner of the screen :)

trif3cta said on June 13, 2008 5:39 AM

Can’t wait to see what this brings. If you manage to pull this off, you’ll make a lot of folks very happy (not to mention some good money).

Gareth Rodger said on August 10, 2008 5:25 PM

Hi Andy,

I’d love to hear an update about how it all went and what you learnt from your first desktop app.

Kind regards,

Gareth Rodger