Cheap and Free Alternatives to Morae: Usability Testing Software.

I’ve spoken to a few people recently who want a free / cheap PC app for recording usability tests, i.e. a screen recorder that does picture in picture. On a Mac, the solution is easy to find – it’s Silverback ($50). But on a PC, what have you got?

The most obvious contender is Morae – but it’s pretty damn expensive at $2000, and has has a whole raft of powerful research features that you might never need. It’s a bit extreme if all you want is to record footage of a user test for archiving and making highlight clips. Another downside is that Morae records to a proprietary format (.RDG) which you have to import into a sister app (Morae manager) and then batch export to get shareable video. This can take hours for big studies, and is best set up as a night-time batch job. In other words, a bit of a hassle.

One of the big questions you have to ask yourself when looking for a cheap alternative is whether you can live without picture in picture (i.e. the webcam footage of the user pulling faces as they do the tasks). It might be the industry standard nowadays, but a few years ago things were very different. Back in the 1990s it was normal to scale screen footage down to VHS resolution and record it onto tape, making the footage impossibly blurry (1024×768 down to 330×480 is never going to be legible). Later on, it became fashionable to record onto DVD-Video, which is higher resolution (720×480), but still fairly unreadable. If you wanted, you could add a hardware video mixer and a second camera to allow picture-in-picture of the user’s face. This was fairly common but not particularly useful since it didn’t escape from the fact that you could barely make out what was happening on screen.

The big breakthrough came when screen recording software appeared, allowing pixel perfect full-resolution recording along with audio via an attached microphone. Apps like Lotus Screencam and Camstudio were among the first entrants. Since then, masses of cheap screen recording apps have appeared, though not all are appropriate for user testing – some output strange video formats, others slow the test machine down or crash after 20 minutes. To save you the trouble of finding out the hard way, I’ve put together a list of personal recommendations:

No Budget whatsoever: Windows Media Encoder 9
– no picture in picture
Out of all the free screen recorders, Windows Media Encoder is the only one that includes editing facilities that allows you to create highlight clips from your sessions. The UI is pretty horrible, but it’s fit for purpose – just. (for example, the editing tool only gives you a thumbnail view of your footage, which is annoying). On the upside, footage is saved directly as WMV, so no need for time-consuming exports. Plus, the editor can trim the WMVs into highlight clips almost instantaneously.

Tiny Budget: Jing Pro with Quicktime Pro ($15+$30)
– no picture in picture
The new Jing Pro allows you to save your sessions as MPEG-4/H.264 video. This means you can then edit the video (unlike Jing basic, which though free, only outputs .SWF which isn’t editable). In addition to Jing Pro, you will need a stand alone video editing app. The cheapest option that’s capable of editing screen resolution video is Quicktime Pro ($30), which allows you to create highlight clips, and also chapter markers. The UI is limited, but unlike Windows Media Encoder, it’s easy to use. It’s also quick – it doesn’t require lengthy encoding or re-encoding of the video. Edit: Jing is no longer available, though apparently Snagit is a good alternative.

Small budget: Camtasia ($300)
– with picture in picture
We are now getting into the realms of non-cheap, but Camtasia is worth considering since it does picture in picture, unlike any of the other contenders. This is a big benefit – and it’s also still a lot cheaper than Morae ($2000). Camtasia is a mature product and it comes with a decent editing tool, along with various funky screencasting features that you probably wont need for user testing.

If you go for one of these options, you will notice that you have no functionality that allows you to add markers or flags to the timeline as it records. Don’t worry, there’s no need to get Morae or Silverback envy. In your session notes, simply record the current time when something interesting happens (You can bind a macro to a keypress if you’re feeling clever). Then, when looking at the session video afterwards, all you need to do is fast forward to the place where the system clock on the video matches the time in your notes. It aint rocket science.

Finally, I should mention I’ve omitted to talk about any of the really important aspects of user research: recruitment, study design, interview techniques, analysis methods, and so on. Your software package is only really an enabler for this “big stuff”. Luckily, these bigger issues have been written about extensively elsewhere. Mike Kuniavsky’s Observing the User Experience is good; so is Jeff Rubin and Dana Chisnell’s Handbook of Usability Testing (2nd ed). Remember, you can skimp on everything apart from hard graft and critical thinking.

Do you know of any other decent screen recording apps that do picture-in-picture with audio? I’d love to know!