Initial Impressions of Silverback

There are number of things in life we know we should do more often, but tend to avoid because they’re kind of a pain. In my job, that tends to be user testing (aka usability testing). Testing can provide invaluable insights for designers and developers at any stage in our process, but it can be a major hassle. There’s the planning, the recruiting, the scheduling, logistics, analysis, and then the all-important reporting. Silverback is a new app from Clearleft that promises to take a lot of the pain out of the process. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and requires no hardware other than that built-in to your laptop (assuming you have an Apple laptop of recent vintage).

In the past, I’ve used a number of different setups for user testing. My favorite was an app called VisualMark. Sadly, VisualMark is no longer available, so more recently I’ve stuck to screen recording software combined with an external video camera. This setup is a pain, especially since I’ve never been able to get my hands on a tool like Morae to combine the different video sources.

Now we have Silverback. I downloaded the app to give it a try, and these are my initial impressions.

What's Good

  • Very easy to install and get going

    The installation process is painless, and getting the app setup and running requires no effort at all. As I said before, Silverback uses the built-in iSight camera to record the user, so there’s no need for an external camera.

  • Great Price

    At $49.95 it’s significantly cheaper than Morae, or even most comparable screencasting/screen recording tools.

  • Apple Remote

    You can use your Apple Remote to control the recording session, and even add chapter markers to the video. This makes it a cinch to sit behind a user and guide the test without having to reach over and teal the mouse when you need to pause things.

  • Cross-Platform Export

    Even if Quicktime isn’t your favorite video file format, it works on both Mac and Windows computers. Ideally, export would be to a more standards-friendly format, but Quicktime beats Windows Media (cough Morae cough) by a mile.

What's Not So Good

I believe that apps should do one thing, and do it well. With that in mind, I’ve tried to keep this list focused on features that are directly related to user testing. Everything else got demoted to the nitpicks list below.

  • Apple Only

    My biggest concern is that recording can only be done on Macs. I’m OK with doing command-and-control on the Mac, but I would love the option to record from a Windows or Linux computer. Let me run an app off of a CD or USB key that records via the local network back to my Mac.

  • Bookmark Options

    The current bookmarking feature is basic. Very basic. It sets chapter markers in the exported video, but doesn’t let me do annotate or do anything particularly useful with them.

Nitpicks

The reality is that none of these things actually get in the way of the app being really useful.

  • Remote Observation and Control

    While using one laptop to both test and record is fine, there have been a lot of times where I would have preferred to control the session from once computer and record on another. This lets me take notes and control the recoding at the same time.

    In addition, I’m usually doing tests in a small conference room either in the office or at the client site. There’s just enough room for me and the subject, no room for observers. Give me the ability to watch an in-progress session over the network so I can have the dev team watching as I do the test.

  • Export Options

    Export options should be per-session, or per-video. Currently, size and resolution are per-video, but everything else is global. To export a half-size video with no iSight audio or video, I have to change the global iSight options, then remember to change them back when I’m done exporting.

  • Export Speed

    Export speed is slow, particularly when the iSight video is enabled. It isn’t terrible, but it is noticeable.

  • Video Editing

    I know I said that I believed in apps that do one thing, and do them well, but I would love to see integrated video editing much like Screenflow provides for screencasts.

  • Video Playback

    The only way to quickly preview your video is to export it at a reduced size and quality, view the video, and decide whether to export it at full size and better quality. The ability to playback the videos in Silverback could speed this up.

  • iSight Placement

    Screenflow lets me put the iSight video anywhere. This can pretty handy, especially when the iSight video covers up part of the sceen you want to see.

Verdict

I haven’t had the chance to use Silverback in any real tests, so I’ll reserve final judgement till then. In the meantime, I’m happy to have Silverback around. My list of nitpicks is long, but they don’t really detract from that fact that Silverback is very useful in its current form. Of course, I’ll be even happier when I can figure out how to edit the exported movie files.

Jackson is Viget's user experience director. He works from our Boulder, CO, office, where he helps startups and organizations turn ideas into usable, effective products.

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