The ability to capture cursor movements, mouse clicks, and the resulting effects could make training documentation more informative and speed up the troubleshooting process for some problems. TechSmith’s Camtasia offers this capability and more. It’s a utility that brings the simplicity of SnagIt to animated screen shots.

You can download a trial version of the software to see how it works. As I tried out the software, I came up with a few ideas on how this could work for your help desk.

If pictures tell stories, do animations tell stories better?
Most people would agree that users learn best by doing what they’re being trained to do. Unfortunately, support departments don’t always have time to walk each end user through a particular task.

Another point of frustration for help desk staff is when they are called upon to describe how to do something for a user over the phone. Often the task is simple and straightforward, but if the user rarely has a need to do the task, they forget the steps involved.

For example, a common help desk call might come from an end user who wants to change the home page that shows up when he or she starts Internet Explorer.

The process is fairly simple:

  1. 1.      Open an Internet Explorer window or session.
  2. 2.      Click on the Tools menu.
  3. 3.      Go to Internet Options.
  4. 4.      When the Internet Options window opens, change the information in the Home Page Address field.
  5. 5.      Click Apply and then OK.
  6. 6.      Click the Home Page button in Internet Explorer and the new home page should appear.

If you were writing documentation for this example, you would probably include screen shots of some of the pertinent windows. You might include a screen shot of the Tools menu open to show Internet Options at the bottom, and a shot of the Internet Options window. But some end users have difficulty connecting the screen shots into a continuous process.

Camtasia lets you show all the steps in this process in an animation; it even allows you to highlight some of these actions as they are presented. Once the process is saved as an AVI file, it can be cleaned up in the included Camtasia Producer video-editing program and then saved as an animated GIF file for viewing across the corporate intranet.

I’ve produced an animated GIF of the example mentioned above for your review. I set Camtasia to highlight both the cursor and its clicks.

Troubleshoot at your leisure
Although training documentation is probably the most apparent use for Camtasia, this handy software package also has the potential to be a troubleshooting tool. Imagine a recurring error that you’ve been called in to troubleshoot.

With Camtasia, you can make a record of exactly what happens to cause the error and the resulting error message. The resulting movie can then be saved to disk and taken back to the shop to help diagnose the problem. You could also show it to other support techs or to the vendor of the problematic program.

Recording made easy
If you have used TechSmith’s most popular program, SnagIt, recording desktop motion will be easy, because there are many similarities. For example, in Camtasia you can use a hot key to start and pause the recording session. You can also record the whole screen, a window, or a region, just like in SnagIt.

Once you define the area to record, minimize the program to the system tray. To start recording, press the hot key—which is [F9] by default—and your every mouse movement (or whatever is happening on the screen) will be recorded.

Camtasia’s ability to highlight cursor movements and mouse clicks makes it easy to focus the end user’s attention. You can select color and shapes for the cursor highlight, and color and size of the rings that appear when you click the mouse. By default, a left-click gets a red circle, while a right-click gets a blue circle.

You can pause recording and restart it by subsequently pressing the hot key. Just be sure to carefully plan what you are going to do before you set the mouse in motion. When you’ve finished recording, pause the recording session and then double-click the application icon in the system tray. The standard recorder buttons are on the toolbar. After hitting the stop button, a standard file naming and saving box will open, and the movie will be saved.

If you intend to use the video as part of a training session on the company intranet, open Camtasia Producer and drag and drop your movie into the program. From this program, you can produce a number of different file types, including a compressed animated GIF format that would be perfect for building an online library of end-user how-to files.

Overall, it’s worth the price
Camtasia is one of those programs that is so simple to learn and use that the price of $149.95 seems out of proportion to what you get. Then again, the argument could be made that this is why it costs as much as it does.

There are other programs out there that will record desktop motions, such as:

  • ·        CamStudio 1.6, a freeware application that saves only AVI files.
  • ·        HyperCam 1.70.03, which costs $30 and doesn’t offer animated GIF conversion.
  • ·        HiJaak 5.0, which costs $149 or $295 for the Pro version.

My biggest fault with Camtasia is that the resulting video of your screen movements tends to be a little jumpy. I tried recording at higher frame-capture rates, but the result was pretty much the same. The examples on the Camtasia site also exhibit this jumpy behavior, but it isn’t bad enough to prevent anyone from understanding what’s being shown.

I would like to have seen more features in the Camtasia Producer program that could help smooth replay. While Producer’s interface may be familiar to those who edit video, it could use a friendlier look for novices.

Overall, however, Camtasia is a very useful product. Image how many support calls you could deflect if your help desk offered end users an online library of clips that show fixes to common problems; each fully illustrated, leaving no room for misinterpretation.