by Chauncey Wilson and Len Conte
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 1, July 2000
Electronic superstores are filled with new technologies that can benefit the usability specialist or user interface designer. There are miniature scan converters that let you record sessions in the field, digital whiteboards, wireless TV transmitters for viewing testing sessions, digital microphones that you can for including .WAV files in usability reports, and electronic notepads for capturing design notes. In this brief article, we will highlight some new technologies that can support usability evaluations and user interface design sessions. We will give some model numbers for reference, Web sites where you can find more information, approximate costs, and major caveats about their use (do they routinely explode or emit high levels of dangerous radiation).
Miniature Scan Converters
A scan converter transforms the signal from a computer monitor into an NTSC or PAL video signal that you can view on a TV monitor or record using analog or digital VCRs. The scan converters used in most labs are bulky and cost several thousand dollars. There are miniature scan converters on the market that can fit easily in a briefcase and carried in the field. You can hook this miniature scan converter into a user’s computer and hook that to a portable videocamera. With the help of a portable mixer you can record the screen and the user’s voice. An example of a miniature scan converter is the Tview Gold Plus by FOCUS enhancements ($299, www.focusinfo.com/) which works with PCs and Macs up to a resolution of 1024×768). There are a lot of factors that can affect the quality of video from a scan converter so check the specifications carefully.
Hooking up the miniature scan converter may require you to shut down the computer, so if you are going to be interviewing someone on a mission critical machine, you need to make the need for a shutdown part of the planning process.
Digital Tape Recorders
Digital tape recorders like the Olympus DS-150 are extremely compact, have good sound quality, and allow you to create WAV files that you can use in presentations or electronic reports. I got my Olympus DS-150 as part of the L&H Voice Xpress Mobile Professional speech recognition product (about $200, www.lhsl.com/voicexpress/mobile/). The Olympus digital recorder weighs 2 ounces and holds up to 160 minutes of speech. The size and ability to produce sound files are an advantage. The disadvantage is that you can’t just switch tapes in your interview goes long, you would need to download the digitized speech to a PC or laptop. An alternative technology for recording sessions outside the lab is digital minidisc recorders like the Sharp MDMT821 player/recorder but unlike the Olympus, they don’t (yet) have software for transferring the sound to your PC.
Wireless TV Transmitters
Want to avoid putting new holes in your usability lab? Wish that you had a larger room for design teams to view sessions? A wireless TV broadcast system may be the solution. A wireless broadcast system allows you to send signals from a VCR, cable, or a camcorder to other TVs in a building. A system that we are testing out now is the Recoton® V905SX Wireless Broadcast System ($120, www.recoton.com/doc/wirehome2.html). You hook up a transmitter to the video system in your lab and then hook up a receiver to one or more TVs elsewhere in your building. The maximum range is about 150 feet.
The new Seiko Smartpad that allows you to take notes and sketch on a 5×8 paper pad and at the same time transfer your notes and sketches to a Palm Pilot through a digitizer pad. The SmartPad and Palm are linked through a small infrared transmitter built into a leather carrying case. The software requires an IBM PC running Windows 95 or later (including Windows 2000 and NT4) and a Palm III series or later (I’m not sure if it works with the new M100).
To get started, you choose one of the four SmartPad applications, then just write on the pad with the special radio-frequency (RF) pen. The text or graphics that you write is beamed directly to the Palm Pilot. The RF pen is also a stylus, so you just flip it over and use it like the regular Palm Pilot Stylus. The problem with the dual pen is that you tend to use the ink end rather than the stylus, which could damage the Palm screen. After a few days, you may make this mistake any longer, but you have to get into the habit of flipping the pen when you switch between the pad and the screen.
Setup isn’t too difficult, though the instructions (which come on an 8-page foldout card) assume you know how to load Palm Pilot applications. The battery cover on the SmartPad is a bit hard to remove and the small plastic locking mechanism is one of those components that could easily break off if you don’t have it lined up exactly.
When you bring up the SmartPad applications (eMemo in my case), there is a checkbox that indicates if you are linked to the Palm and a SmartPad battery notice. SmartPad has a sleep mode that integrates with the Palm’s auto-off mode. The infrared link is active and will activate the Palm Pilot so you just start writing/sketching and the Palm’s screen will “awaken”. If nothing happens in 30 minutes the SmartPad will turn itself and the Palm Pilot off completely.
In an initial test of the SmartPad, the files transferred over easily from the Palm Pilot to a PC. However, the SmartPad printing software was buggy. Error messages came up often and there were a few crashes of the PC applications during printing. Error messages and a few crashes also occurred when saving to GIF and BMP format. The release notes and the user guide had nothing about printing problems.
If you print in the “Fine” ink display width, the text and sketches are pretty faint. The printout is more legible if you use the Medium width.
SmartPad was usable, but somewhat buggy (this was Version 1.0 software). Setup and use is pretty simple and the tool is excellent for sketching. You can save files as BMP or GIF files for distribution to others. It is a bit pricey at $199 and does require a Palm Pilot so the entire setup would cost from $400 (Palm III) to $600 (Palm V). Durability and battery life is still a question.
Apple Macintosh iMac DV
The iMac DV is designed to simplify the video editing process (www.apple.com/imac/dv.html). If you want to make film clips for electronic reports or complete videotapes, the iMac DV and iMovie software are quite usable. You can learn how to assemble video clips in less than a day. You do need a compatible digital camcorder with an IEEE 1394 port (Apple calls this FireWire and Sony calls this the i.LINK port). If you have the 1394 port, you can control the camcorder using the iMovie software. A workable system cost from $2000-3000 (iMac plus digital camcorder). The iMovie interface is pretty simple, although there are some glitches that my colleague Len Conte will write up in more detail in a subsequent article. The most serious problem with doing digital video is that the files are enormous – 30 minutes of video is about 5 gigabytes of space so you can do about one highlights tape before you run out of space on the original drive.
Virtual Ink Mimio
How many times have you been in a meeting where someone wrote a lot on the whiteboard and then someone had to type all these notes into a computer and distribute them, sometimes days later? The Mimio system lets you record whiteboard sessions through the use of a capture bar that sticks on the whiteboard. Special electronic markers and an electronic eraser track the user’s movements as well as the ink color and thickness of the markers. The capture bar plugs into a laptop, which displays the whiteboard. You can save multiple whiteboard images to a variety of formats including BMP and there is even a new handwriting recognition plug-in available (I haven’t tested that, but I have used the Mimio system and it works reasonably well). You have to learn a few writing/drawing techniques to get good results, but overall the Mimio system is probably worth $499. The capture bar folds in half and the entire system can fit in a large briefcase. For more information see www.virtual-ink.com.
Lotus ScreenCam and Read/Write CDs
Lotus ScreenCam (www.lotus.com) is a screen movie program that records everything on the screen as well as user comments if your PC has a microphone. You can use ScreenCam and audio input to collect usability data, especially if you have a chance to run several participants at once. The major problem with ScreenCam is that the screen recordings take up a great deal of space. You can cut back the size of the recording by reducing the number of colors, turning backgrounds off, and reducing screen resolution. With the advent of inexpensive hardware for creating CDs, the large ScreenCam files can be saved directly to the read/write (R/W) CD. You can get a R/W portable CD maker called the Iomega® zipCD™ that uses USB and is hot-swappable. You can save the files directly to the zipCD just as you save files to a hard drive.
Printable Post-it® Notes
3M makes software that you can use to enter and print data on Post-it notes. The software prints Post-it notes on peel-away pages that fit in laser or ink jet printers. The product numbers for the software kit (which includes a package of paper) and the refills without the software are:
- Starter Kit Y2010 Post-it Notes for Ink Jet and Laser Printers Starter Kit
- Y2020 Post-it Notes for Ink Jet and Laser Printers Refill – 150 3×4 1/4 inch yellow notes.
You can also purchase printable index cards from Avery. There are 150 index cards per box and the ordering number is 5388 (Laser Index Cards).
For anyone doing card sorts or affinity diagramming or brainstorming, these printable Post-it and index card forms may be worth the relatively high price ($15-20 dollars a box), but they can save significant re-typing.
Chauncey Wilson and Len Conte work for BMC Software, Inc. Chauncey is a development manager and Len is a lead user centered designer.