GoToWebinar Rolls Out New Beta Features
I have been remiss in covering a press release issued by LogMeIn earlier this month. GoToWebinar has been upgraded with new functionality and new cosmetics. I was looking over the release notes on the GoToWebinar Community Forum and saw that there have been some additional enhancements just recently. It's high time I did a little digging to see what the product team has been up to since the acquisition by LogMeIn!
First we have the cosmetic changes. To be brutally honest, it's no big deal to my eyes. GoToWebinar now joins the trend in "modern, flat design" aesthetics. But there are no substantive changes… Just squaring off some corners and simplifying icons. Here's a side-by-side showing the old version of the GoToWebinar control panel on the left and the new version on the right:
The desktop app now has a reduced file size, leading to faster download and installation for desktop participants. If you elect to offer toll-free telephone dial in for participants, the toll-free number is now more prominent and easier to spot when you connect to a session.
The press release concentrated on two major functional capabilities: Video clip sharing and Simulate Live webinars. I checked right before writing this article, and both features are available but listed as "Beta" features. Take that word seriously… Capabilities are being tested in operation and are being updated faster than the online documentation can keep up with!
The ability to play prerecorded video clips has been requested for many years. GoToWebinar finally made it happen, but with important caveats. As I mentioned, the feature is still being finalized and anything I write about it is subject to further changes that could make my observations obsolete. But here are my findings as of June 20:
- The webinar administrator must identify any video clips to be used in the session during webinar setup. Once the webinar has started, you may not elect to show an unplanned video "on the fly." A webinar can have a maximum of five clips queued up for use.
- You can upload a video file from your computer or enter the URL of a publicly available YouTube video. Disk-based files must be in MP4 format. YouTube is the only online hosting location that can be played.
- Video clip audio plays ONLY through participant computer speakers. So if participants are listening by telephone, you'll have to tell them to turn on their speakers while the clip is playing.
- Presenter microphones are still active while video clips play, so presenters can talk over a video. That is useful, but it means that presenters on telephone must remember to mute their speakers or their telephone so the system doesn't pick up a feedback loop, playing back the video's audio track over the presenter telephones.
- The presenter in control of screen sharing chooses to "share" a video clip in place of his or her screen. So there is a noticeable transition in going from one type of content to the other. Once the presenter shares the clip, nothing happens until the presenter clicks the "play video" triangle icon in the video window. The presenter may arbitrarily choose to pause the video and continue playback. When the video ends, the presenter must manually share the screen again. I found the interface sequences a bit frustrating, as I had to do a lot of mouse movements and clicks, requiring serious concentration on the process. It could be difficult to maintain a smooth conversational narrative during the transition actions.
- When the presenter switches from screen sharing to video sharing, the display area can change significantly for attendees. I tried it while sharing my webcam and found that my attendee display went from having the webcam at a small size next to a large screen share to showing the webcam window much larger and overlaying the new video window. The change in view and window positions was jarring and will create havoc for people trying to record screen areas with a screen capture product such as Camtasia. I have noted this same problem in the past when a poll is displayed. GoToWebinar could really use some design consideration given to keeping display areas consistent across different content shares.
- I have saved the biggest problem for last… Video playback is not captured in GoToWebinar recordings! I consider this a critical functionality gap and is the main reason I would probably not yet use the new feature in a real public event. The development team is obviously working on the issue, as this is an area where their own online help files are lagging the current operation. The support page for video sharing says that the recording will contain a blank screen during video playback, but this has been changed. Now the recorder automatically pauses during video playback and resumes once the video stops. That could potentially trip up an unsuspecting presenter who narrates some important information while showing a silent video. Watch out!
I did not test the beta Simulated Live functionality. For this feature I am relying on the product notes. The current GoToWebinar implementation is easiest for me to think of as a slightly more functional recording playback.
- As a host, you record a live webinar (either with live attendees or with presenters only). Then you can schedule the playback as a new upcoming webinar. You can have people register for a particular date and time, as they would for any other webinar. At the given time, the playback starts up and the audience sees the webinar running as a normal GoToWebinar session. If the recording included a poll, the new attendees see the poll and can participate - but if the recorded session showed the poll results, only the original recorded results are shown… The new audience responses are logged for reporting after the session, but they are not included in the results displayed in the session. Similarly, attendees can type questions, but they will simply be captured for later reporting after the webinar.
- There is no provision for having live panelists/presenters in the new session. So you can't set things up live, play the old content part, and then come back to a live Q&A section for instance. It's all or nothing. You also can't have someone monitoring and typing responses to the new, live questions coming in from the new live attendees. This is a capability I have seen and used in other product implementations of Simulated Live webinars.
- Interestingly, you can also choose to let people register for a webinar and have it play back for them instantly. Of course this isn't really simulating a live scheduled webinar - they know it is a playback being delivered for them. The main advantage for the host over using a standard recording playback is that attendees don't have a time slider control… They have to watch from beginning to end in realtime, just as they would on a live webinar. In some applications, that can be a useful restriction.
- Simulated Live is available to customers on anything besides a "Starter Plan." One very nice feature is that it gives customers a way to exceed their plan limits for webinar attendance! For instance, a typical 100-attendee account allows up to 1000 registrations. In a live webinar, only the first 100 registrants could attend. But all 1000 could watch the Simulated Live playback in a new scheduled session. Very sneaky!
Even though the features need a chance to stabilize and work out the last issues, it is great to see the product enjoying significant development attention. It speaks well for LogMeIn's continued dedication to promoting and advancing GoToWebinar as a viable online collaboration tool. Kudos!
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The Benefits Of A Foot Pedal
It suddenly occurred to me that I have never blogged about one of my favorite pieces of computer equipment. I love it so much that I forget it's not well-known.
The Omnipedual Dual PC Input Foot Pedal is manufactured and sold by Good Work Systems in Berkeley, California. The easiest way to think of the hardware is as a pair of supplementary mouse buttons you click with your feet. It plugs into a USB port and takes its power through the USB cable, so there are no extra power cords to worry about.
I use my Omnipedal in three main ways:
1) To move PowerPoint slides forward or backward in presenter mode so that I can "talk with my hands" while on camera.
2) To activate my most common, repetitive tasks when editing audio files (I have one pedal set to "mute selection" and the other to "center display on selection end").
3) To scroll my Script-Q teleprompter software faster and slower, forward and backward so I can read scripts on camera at my own variable pace.
The brilliance of the Omnipedal is that it is software-driven and configurable to allow different keyboard or mouse commands based on the application you are in. I have three different configuration profiles to handle the tasks I listed. I just load the one I need while doing that job.
The programming language is not intuitive. I had to work from some examples they provide. But the web page says that the company will program the pedal codes to your specifications and will send you a file. I have called their support line a few times over the years and have always talked to really pleasant and knowledgeable representatives who seem eager to help.
The button switches under the pedals are very quiet… They do not produce any annoying clicks while you are webcasting. The pedal travel is quite short and the pedals are narrow, so I sometimes have trouble knowing that my foot is in the right place. I find that I get the most tactile feedback by taking off my shoes when using the pedals (which is a wonderful excuse for kicking off your uncomfortable footwear at your desk!).
The company doesn't seem to know what a great business tool it has. They have always focused on the gaming market, offering better ways for shooters to frag alien enemies. The Omnipedal is offered on their website as a four-pedal system, which is overkill for business use. But they will be happy to sell you a dual pedal version. It will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 USD.
The website is so out of date that I actually called them to see if they were still in business! They assured me that they are very much in business, and are eager to sell and support Omnipedal Dual configurations. So I am happy to offer my unreserved enthusiasm and recommendation. I have been using my pedal for five years now, and it shows no signs of wear or reduction in button sensitivity. This thing is a great productivity booster.
Oh, one last tip… Their website is so messed up that you can't even find the contact page in order to ask for the Dual instead of the Quad version. Here's the direct link so you don't have to go searching: http://www.gamingmouse.com/contact/
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Certifying Attendance in Web Conferences
Certification of Attendance is a feature that not many webinar/webcast products have added yet. That is a bit surprising, given how common it is for online training software. The idea is to provide validated proof of attendance in a web meeting.
I had one client who used to host very large webcasts with thousands of attendees. They would provide proof of attendance that participants could submit to their state professional society for educational credit. But to satisfy the certification requirements, presenters would be forced to display four interactive polls during the online session. Then the administrator would check poll response records afterwards and manually verify that each attendee had submitted responses to at least three of the four polls to prove that the person was not just logged in, but was actively paying attention and interacting. It was a lot of work, and it also resulted in some really stupid polls that weren't actively providing value, but were just there as an administrative requirement. The list of verified emails would get passed to a second system to send out a proof of attendance email.
Webinato is one web conferencing product that has attempted to automate this process for clients that need it. An optional (extra cost) "Certification Module" works in conjunction with their "Presence Manager" feature.
The Presence Manager displays a simple message to attendees in a pop up box. It requires them to click a quick response. The administrator can configure the message text, the randomized frequency for time between displays, and how long the box remains on the screen.
The response scores for each participant are available in reports, but more interestingly, they can be used as part of the criteria for automatically sending your own customized certificate PDF. Certification can be based on things such as total time in session and presence response scores.
Once you have defined your certificate image and criteria, you can select the appropriate certificate for your session and the system will email it to all attendees who pass the criteria. You get a report on who was validated and whether they have downloaded their certificate.
Not everybody needs this functionality, but it's a fantastic convenience for those who provide certification. It's something that more vendors should be considering as a value-add for their web conferencing customers.
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The Positive Side Of WebEx
Last week I wrote a nastygram to WebEx, concentrating on registration and reporting as areas that were due for significant improvements. It is only fair that I examine the other side of the story… Untold number of companies and individual users continue to employ WebEx as their primary web conferencing/web seminar solution. It still has the largest market share in the industry. If I'm so hard on the product, why do so many people use it?
1) Longevity and stability. Cisco bought WebEx a decade ago and the product line goes back to the late 90s. That is a long tenure in this industry. If I complain about interfaces and functionality that don't change much, there are plenty of people who find that comforting and easy to work with. Corporate administrators don't have to constantly update training materials for their user community. Hosts don't need to remake introductory slides for their webinars. Past users can jump back in, secure in the knowledge that their previous experience is still applicable.
2) International presence and support. Cisco's WebEx support is available by telephone seven days a week, around the clock. Support numbers are available for countries around the world, and often with support personnel who speak languages other than English. They even have a first-line phone option for attendees having trouble joining a meeting. That is a huge competitive advantage and should not be discounted.
3) Excellent audio integration. Presenters and attendees can join meetings by telephone or with computer audio. The bridging between the two audio channels is superb, with no lag times or delays between them. Local dial-in phone numbers are available in a huge number of countries, and participants can also type their phone number and have the system dial them directly.
4) IT department familiarity. Every software application carries a potential security risk. This is especially true for products that enable real-time communications and computer access over the internet. Large, secure organizations such as financial companies, government agencies, medical institutions, and so on have IT teams who constantly worry about security threats. They don't particularly like employees to run web applications that rely on Flash, they are concerned about the potential for unforeseen problems with the evolving HTML5/WebRTC standards, and they try to control what software employees can download and install on their work computers. WebEx at least has the advantage of being a known entity that has been tested and used across large enterprise organizations, and Cisco has a pretty good track record of issuing fast patches when they do discover new potential threat vectors. For companies trying to attract attendees from such companies, using WebEx is likely to create fewer webinar access problems for attendees than using other technologies.
So I can stamp my virtual feet and call out design features that annoy me, but that doesn't blind me to the fact that WebEx remains the "Big Man On Campus" and that many of my clients are quite happy using it.
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WebEx, Stop Wasting My Time!
Another day, another case of wasted hours dedicated to hand-editing WebEx Event Center reports after a webinar to try to get them to the point where they had value for analysis.
This isn't because of bugs. It's because of lousy software design that has been well-known for years. The refusal of the WebEx product development team to improve functionality for their users by now is simply insulting. Because I am feeling particularly angry, I'll try publicly shaming them once again in a futile attempt to prompt action.
Let's start with the fact that registration pages for events (webinars) are terrible by design. Some specifics:
1) The generated link for attendees is the WebEx join-event page. They have to click a second button or text link to register.
2) I have no control over page title, instruction text, or submit button size, position, color, or text.
3) I can't change labels of required "First Name" and "Last Name" fields to make it unambiguous for Asian cultures.
4) The standard registration field "Title" is ambiguous. My report is filled with people who enter "Mrs." or "Doctor." Make it "Job Title."
5) Label/Field positioning is haphazard. On a narrow browser window, right-column labels are closer to the left-column entry fields than the left-column labels.
On a wide browser window, the fields and labels are separated so far as to lose relationship with each other.
6) Tab order breaks up Email and Confirm Email.
7) City and State fields are narrower than other standard fields so they do not align.
8) There is no drop-down selector for US/Canadian states and provinces. I have to manually correct misspelled entries and make them consistent in my report. If the USA or Canada is selected, add the appropriate selector. Otherwise leave this out.
9) The default value for Country is sometimes improperly assigned to United States. The software is supposed to figure out from the user's IP address where they are and pre-populate the country selector. But if it can't figure it out, it selects the USA. So my report is peppered with registrants from London, USA and Toronto, USA. Just leave the default value blank and force a selection. If you want to be really fancy, re-order the drop-down list to put the country you think is correct as the first choice.
After the webinar completes, I have to deal with the WebEx event reports:
A) Reports contain columns for all standard WebEx registration fields, even if you did not include them on your registration form.
B) Number of employees is not quoted as text data in the report, so the standard selection value of "1-99" gets interpreted in Excel as January 1999.
C) Registration report and Attendance report each contain unique information. Creating a single master report of registration and attendance information requires copying information between reports and trying to match records.
D) Attendance report shows multiple records for individuals who reconnect during the session. There is no way to get a "unique attendees" summary that shows one record for each attendee with earliest entry, latest exit, and total time in session. This must be done manually and extra records deleted.
E) It is common to see numerous attendees reported as logged in twice during the entire session, with overlapping entry/exit times. I still don't understand why this is!
F) There is no summary report for surveys showing cumulative vote counts and text entries. I have to manually create pivot tables and collect comment fields.
Any one or two of these items on their own would be happenstance and a minor inconvenience. But when I have to deal with all of them over and over in every single webinar, hand-sorting and collating hundreds of registration and attendance records, it goes beyond minor inconvenience and becomes a significant addition to my workload and an impediment to recognizing value from my investment in the product. And when they have been called out and reported over the past 15 years without any attempt from the vendor to modernize or improve them, it becomes a case of willful negligence.
Hey Cisco. I noted that you just made a minor cosmetic change to the "View all attendees" window inside a session. Zero impact, zero benefit. That's what you thought was a more important application of development resources than being able to properly analyze my registrants and attendees? You're wrong.
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