Tech & Work

Install usability practices in your shop with Silverback

Getting started with usability testing doesn't require an expensive lab full of equipment and science nerds in white coats to poke and prod your users. Cheap and accessible software is readily available to help your team create better software for end-users.

Getting started with usability testing doesn't require an expensive lab full of equipment and science nerds in white coats to poke and prod your users. Cheap and accessible software is readily available to help your team create better software for end-users.

Real usability testing is a myth in many software development shops. Instead of actually running usability tests during the course of the development cycle, many just plod along and follow standard usability guidelines mixed with whatever design trend is popular at the time. In many cases usability is a little more than a hunch of who they think their audience is and how they think software should work for them.

Let's face it, usability testing is time consuming, expensive, and confronting. Whether a team uses internal tests or external providers, it's all too familiar that the results aren't what the developers want to hear — that the application your team built sucks. Nobody likes sucky software. Developers with pride in their work don't like creating it, and users don't like using it. And did we mention that bad software costs money? Either in rewriting applications, losing contracts, or the potential for any future work as your reputation sinks with your badly tested software.

The big disconnect between end users and developers is a huge problem for the industry and the bad eggs, the cowboys, give the rest of us a bad name.

Before throwing your next bowl of spaghetti code out of your code kitchen you may want to at least try employing a nifty, and relatively cheap usability program I found recently called Silverback.

Created by Clearleft, a software development shop in the UK, Silverback is an application that you can install on your Mac in minutes, and uses the Apple hardware, such as built-in camera and microphone to monitor your users. This might not be as sophisticated as some testing companies which offer a 360-degree view of your users so you know exactly which butt cheek they prefer to use while browsing your website, but it's more than adequate to get you started.

Silverback essentially captures two things; what the user is doing on the screen and the user's reactions. While capturing what the user is doing on the screen the application shows markers for clicks and can record the users' voice. The user doesn't see it, but their facial and audio reactions are being recorded by the camera.

Once the testing is over, you can output the results to a .mov file. This file shows a main screen of what the user was doing while using the application and a smaller screen that recorded the tester's facial and audio reactions to using the application.

As a testament to good software usability the application itself is simple to the end user and a breeze to operate. Silverback allows the person conducting the tests to add notes on each subject for future reference and can control the test using the Apple remote.

Probably the biggest drawback of this application is that it's for Mac only. While many software professionals use Macs these days, it'd be nice to see the app ported for the Windows and possibly Linux crowd, the latter needing it most.

At US$49.95 a pop, this software is pretty cheap and currently comes with a free trial for 30 days if you need to be convinced.

Of course, seeing what your users are doing with your application is only half the battle. Analysing the data captured is where you need to identify problems, roll up your sleeves, and tweak your apps.


Silverback screencast from Jeremy Keith on Vimeo.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox