Morae: Usability testing for the masses

Even with all the application availability and performance enhancements you build into your Web infrastructure, you still need to build something that visitors actually like to use. Unfortunately, testing the usability of a Web-based application can be difficult and requires expertise or lab space not always afforded to everyone.

TechSmith's recently upgraded Morae software might provide the combination of features and affordability to bring collaborative user experience testing to a much wider audience.

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In our testing, we found that this Web page usability testing platform can help collect some valuable data concerning how easily users can - or can't - navigate your site. TechSmith's approach to usability testing heavily leverages its experience with the screen recording and capture methods found in its popular SnagIt and Camtasia products. On the downside, Morae could do more to help analyze the data once it is captured.

Morae comprises three components: Morae Recorder, which collects test data; Morae Remote Viewer, which observes and annotates test data real-time over a network; and, Morae Manager, which analyzes captured data and assembles relevant pieces into a presentation.

The recorder software is installed on each Windows testing station, which should be equipped with audio and video capture capabilities. The recorder software will automatically synchronize any screen activity captured with recorded video and audio input, allowing you to easily correlate any furled brows, sighs, or colorful language associated with a tedious portion of an application. (See related story on user anxiety .)

The Morae Recorder automatically annotates collected data indicating Web page changes, mouse clicks, keystrokes, text data appearing on screen, and window events such as opening and closing applications. However, fans of emerging browsers like Firefox or Opera should be aware that Morae is only able to automatically sense page change events when Internet Explorer is being used.

Be aware that when using Morae Recorder, captured data can get quite large (in the gigabyte range) if the test is more than a few minutes in duration. To address this, you can save the data stream directly to network-attached storage, add an inexpensive external USB drive to save data capture, or burn CDs from the resulting files. Morae Recorder will conveniently spilt recorded data into 600M byte chunks for easy transport and reassembly.

If you want to watch tests live over a network, the Morae Remote Viewer software can be installed on other networked systems to allow testers to observe user activity in real-time and add annotations. While we did add some notations during our tests, it was more natural to study the test data closer later on in the process. A notetaking facility with a time stamp function would be more useful for real-time tester observation.

The Morae Manager software is installed on the system where test data eventually will be collected, analyzed and refined into a presentation highlighting the test results. After some usage we opted to have the remote viewing and manager system to be one in the same.

When analyzing collected data with the Morae Manager software, you can search the test data looking for the occurrence of error text messages or text unique to a particular portion of an application stream. In our case, while testing a Web based trouble-ticket system we searched for page change events and found that associated video capture clearly showed users rolling their eyes and letting out the occasional sigh as they waited for a new page to finish painting. This was good information as we thought that the wait time was at acceptable levels, but the video showed it was not.

During the analysis of some test sessions, there were occasional problems with synchronization of events on screen. For example, in some instances the Morae package highlighted portions of the screen where no activity was taking place. Given the varying resolutions in play across our test stations, there was likely some accidental shifting going on, but this was not such a common occurrence as to cause great annoyance or ruin collected data.

We also found that test stations towards the lower limits of the very wide range of recommended configurations had some noticeable distortions in video and even user perceived delays because of the Morae software capturing the end user data. Minor glitches aside, the automatic annotation and searching features are quite useful.

Company: TechSmith Cost: $1,300 for basic configuration. Pros: Affordable usability testing platform that correlates multiple datastreams; automatic event tagging; integration with synthetic transactions and monitoring. Cons: Only supports Windows and prefers Internet Explorer; remote monitoring and management capabilities could be improved; lacks rich presentation and reporting features.
The breakdown  
Capture 40%4.5
Network and remote monitoring 20%3
Analysis 20%4
Interface 10%4
Documentation 10%4.5
Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Consistently subpar

Morae's automatic tagging will certainly not cite all events of interest. You will have to screen the playback and insert markers and descriptions at various points of interest where user frustration or mistakes have been made. Unfortunately, we did not particularly care for Morae's marker system and ironically found that flagging markers with letters and then associating meaning was just not that usable.

Once you have analyzed your captured data for user error and overall reactions, you'll need to present your findings in a meaningful way. This is was where this release of Morae could use some improvement. The assembling of video segments into a presentation was not terribly intuitive, but it was a bit tedious. While Morae does let you pull together a highlight video demonstrating the overall usability issues, more data driven reports are also useful. While you can save some data to Excel, some types of data could easily be reported on with the manager application. Furthermore, the Morae product doesn't really help correlate the types of results such as average time for task, number of mistakes and so on that would be found in such reports.

Accomplished usability assessment consultants will find that Morae lacks test and participant management features and sophisticated analysis and reporting capabilities. However, any other user will find that Morae provides everything they need to perform basic user experience testing and does so at a price far below renting a test lab or building their own. Once your network applications are delivered quickly and reliably it is time to take user satisfaction to the next level using Morae.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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