Review: Silverback, Usability and the Mac

A New Type of Gorilla is Born

Clearleft is comprised of skilled professionals who have a passion for the processes used to create usable websites. It was that passion that led to the birth of Silverback, a usability testing application for the Mac. Usability testing is something that is often overlooked for an array of different reasons:

  • The cost and time is perceived as too high, and therefore left out of the scope of projects.
  • Not enough staff to administer and process the tests.
  • Lack of the proper equipment or tools.

So, assuming you don’t have thousands of dollars, usability experts, and testing labs at your disposal, what are you to do? Enter Silverback.

What is Silverback?

Simply put, Silverback is beautifully simple usability testing software that utilizes your Mac’s built-in iSight webcam and microphone. With its simplicity and its affordable price point ($49.95), Silverback allows anyone to perform usability testing with little or no budget. The best part about Silverback is that it comes ready-to-use right out of the box. There are no large configuration files or settings, it just works. Jonathan Christopher of Monday by Noon says it best when he states:

My favorite applications do one thing and do it well. Silverback will be one of those applications.

Clearleft are known for their elegant interfaces, and it is immediately apparent that they paid close attention to the interface of the application itself. The interface eliminates the cruft and gets out of the way, allowing you to run the tests and parse the results without sifting through an intense interface. It is this attention to the little details that allow you to keep your usability tests simple and focus on the user interaction, versus setting up the application and learning the interface.

How Does it Work?

Setting up projects is a quick and painless process, and setting up the profiles is just as easy. Silverback utilizes the iSight camera of your Mac, which can turn your laptop into a portable usability lab. Once you create a project and a profile, you can start recording the session. While the test is in progress, Silverback is completely transparent to the user. It records the video and audio of the user, as well as highlighting the clicks of the user. You can control the recording process via the Apple remote, setting chapter markers while the test is in progress. The participants of the test only see what they need to see, and nothing more.

Siverback Project Creation Screen

Silverback Project Screen

Once the session is completed, you can make notes on the session and then export the test. Once you are ready to export the test, there are options that allow you to place the video in any corner of the screen. Along with the placement of the video you can change its transparency. I see this as one of the greatest features, as you can see the video and watch the user interacting with the interface or website, and make it semi-transparent so that you can still easily see all possible clickable areas. Depending on the time of the session and your exporting options, you may want to go make yourself a cup of coffee while you wait for the test to finish exporting as it can take some time. The final exported video can then be stored for later review, and you can use the interface to make notes about the test.

Silverback Export Preferences

Is it For Me?

In the beginning we looked at some of the different reasons that developers overlook usability testing. Silverback addresses those barriers with:

  • Cost. The cost of the application is $49.95, with 10% of the profits made on the software going to save the gorillas. This makes the application affordable no matter what the size of your organization.
  • Staff. The simplicity of the application makes it easy for anyone to use. While it may take a more skilled individual to process the results, it is very simple for anyone to setup and administer.
  • Equipment. The only hardware you need is an Apple computer equipped with an internal or external iSight camera and a microphone (if you choose to record the audio and video).

Many developers are familiar with the different analytics tools available to them. Analytics are a vital part to understanding a website. They allow you to see the quantitative data associated with your website. However, analytics fail to show you some of the qualitative data associated with your website. Performing usability tests give you a glimpse of that qualitative aspect, as you can setup and execute tests and see how a user responds. You are seeing first-hand how a user navigates and performs different tasks on your website.

It is important to note that, just as with anything else, it takes professionals to analyze the results and then plan for a proper course of action. This does not replace usability experts. Silverback is just another tool in a web developer’s toolbox. When used properly, it is a very powerful and lightweight application. Silverback comes with a free 30 day trial, but I will admit that it only took minutes for me to realize that this is a must-have tool. If you are looking for a tool to help you perform usability tests on a smaller budget and minimal staff, then look no further than Silverback.

Software Name: Silverback

Maker: Clearleft

URL: http://silverbackapp.com/

Price: $49.95

Rating out of 5: 4

Comments

23 comments on “Review: Silverback, Usability and the Mac

  1. I actually don’t see that Silverback will become popular in any time soon – everybody must install this programm to see it, and I am not sure many people will do it. Even Flash player is not installed on less advanced user computers as I saw working with clients, so I think it’s pretty convenient .

  2. Hi Dainis – this is a review of Silverback, the usablity app, not Silverlight, which is what I think you’re probably talking about?

  3. Finally! Something that explains what the heck Silverback is. What an awesome idea to donate a % of the profits to gorillas! Love it. When I get my MAC, I will def. give this a 30 day trial. If I like — I’ll buy!

  4. It would be nice if there was a Windows version too.

    (BTW: whenever I leave a comment on this site, it always tells me I’ve got the maths wrong the first time when I clearly haven’t.)

  5. There are some issues with Silverback.

    1. Testing web apps on a Mac inherently is a problem, since most people aren’t familiar with the Mac interface. We were doing a test here in Taiwan using Parallels to run IE7 and it worked ok, save two things: they didn’t know how to switch input modes between English and Chinese and Expose kept screwing them up (big tip there: turn off Expose before your tests).

    2. You have to export the videos before you can watch them which is quite time-consuming (especially on my 18-month-old Macbook). I would like to be able to watch them in Silverback first before deciding to render or delete.

    3. I can’t save / export an entire Silverback project, videos and all. I really don’t like this because I can’t archive the tests and then delete them off my storage-needy Macbook.

    Otherwise, it’s a great product with the (as heavily-stressed above) low price point and generally has made usability testing a reality, not a dream, for small organizations.

  6. @Mike
    The issues you mentioned were the main reason I gave it a 4 instead of a 5. Having to export the videos is somewhat cumbersome, but unless they have a video editor built in, I imagine the process is pretty tough, as you would have to render the preview to show the screen + video/audio + clicks. I, too, wish I could just export specific projects for later review – but for now I don’t mind keeping it all in Silverback.

    The biggest thing to remember with this is that it is a version 1 release. I look forward to see how they address some of these issues with future releases. As they mention on their website, you can track status of some of the items in their Get Satisfaction account.

  7. @ John – Thanks for pointing that out – I’m normally logged in so I don’t have to pass the arithmetic question. I’m just testing it out with this comment (not logged in) and it seems to work OK for me. Anyone else having problems?

  8. I always find it amazing how much press in the web design community Silverback gets! It’s like no one’s done this before…

    For all those PC users out there, that if you want an alternative to Silverback you should try Camtasia studio. It does the same thing. I am in no way affiliated with them. You can run a 30 day trial, it records webcam video and mic audio alongside the screengrab. It retails at $299 which is a lot more expensive, but still won’t break the bank….

    Camtasia is not as simple, sexy or fashionable as Silverback.

    But I’ve used both and personally think Camtasia is better. Video export is (much much much) quicker, many more options for output (Flash video!), more options for recording too (record only part of the window for example) and you can use it to stream your session to others.

    I reiterate….Silverback is great! But this is for all my UK-public-sector-working-on-PCs-with-no-hope-of-lovely-Macs brothers and sisters out there!

    (and shame on the original article for not including a “PC” alternative!)

  9. It’s a great suite, but I have only successfully exported a single video, and that was at the lowest quality. Five other sessions all fail during export. Not because of size either. For this reason alone I’d at least like to be able to WATCH the videos from within Silverback before exporting.

    It’d also be nice to edit session names and so forth, along with other usability features… considering the nature of the app IS indeed usability. :)

  10. @Will
    This was a review of Silverback, not a comparison of all options out there. If this were a comparison, then I would have listed PC alternatives. It isn’t about other alternatives, it’s about giving more information and insight into Silverback.

    I appreciate the feedback, but comparing wasn’t really the point or purpose of this article.

    Thank you for the information on Camtasia. I don’t have experience with it, but can now look into it further.

  11. I wish to wish all pregnant women of good mood, easy pregnancy and natural sorts! Good luck also are happy! Give birth easily and independently! Let not doctors give birth for you, and you! Also adjust itself on chest feeding of the kid! Read the necessary information! Be, lovely pregnant mums and expecting posterities of the daddy, are healthy and wise!

  12. I wish to wish all pregnant women of good mood, easy pregnancy and natural sorts!
    Good luck also are happy! Give birth easily and independently! Let not doctors give birth for you, and you! Also adjust itself on chest feeding of the kid! Read the necessary information! Be, lovely pregnant mums and expecting posterities of the daddy, are healthy and wise!

  13. Apparently folks are finding it cumbersome to export video from Silverback. Solution: Perhaps the Silverback team can look into integrating the Seesmic API and offload the video part to the Seesmic platform and give your users access to the video this way. Just a thought!@AAinslie

  14. Apparently folks are finding it cumbersome to export video from Silverback.

    Solution: Perhaps the Silverback team can look into integrating the Seesmic API and offload the video part to the Seesmic platform and give your users access to the video this way. Just a thought!
    @AAinslie

  15. We started using Silverback recently and it's hard to argue the value-to-price ratio. I agree with other commenters that a Windows version would help. There are usability differences and ergonomics of working with a Mac vs. a PC, even if the user is just interacting with a web browser.

  16. We started using Silverback recently and it's hard to argue the value-to-price ratio. I agree with other commenters that a Windows version would help. There are usability differences and ergonomics of working with a Mac vs. a PC, even if the user is just interacting with a web browser.

  17. Talk about poor usability. We need a Windows version, for crying out loud. The masses don’t use Macs. The irony is too much.

    • LOL! So true! 9% of users on a Mac and no mention of similar PC versions available. That’s Mac users for you ;-)