The other day, I blogged about my experiences using BigBlueButton for video-conferencing. It occurs to me though, that getting the technology right is only half the battle, or even less: the rest is about people’s familiarity with the concept.

Several times over the last few months I’ve been using Skype a bit more to communicate with friends and family. With people who are used to using Skype or similar technologies, it’s a pretty seamless extension of the phonecall. For inexperienced users, however, there’s a lot of awkward silence and waving and repeating “Hello? Can you hear me?”, especially when there’s a bit of a delay on the line.

Then there’s The Feedback Issue. Unlike analogue audio systems there’s no squeaking or whining. Instead, everything that comes out of the speakers is retransmitted through the microphone on a slight delay, which is offputting for the person speaking and downright confusing for everyone else listening. And when more than one participant is causing feedback it just gets worse.

Feedback can be mitigated by turning down the volume on speakers and gain on microphones, but it can only really be eliminated by the use of headphones or echo cancellation hardware/software. Yes, the solution to this is so simple it bears repeating: use headphones.

How to fix this

Getting the user interface right can help. This is where Elluminate falls down: the window is covered in buttons, none of which are labelled and many of which have icons which only vaguely represent their purpose.1 BigBlueButton is better: it has very few buttons. There was a minor issue that one of the buttons didn’t do exactly what was expected (you had to click the microphone button to be able to hear the sound). This stuff is important and worth spending time to get right.

Training can help too, and I think the best form of training in this case is just to give people a safe place to try things out and get used to them. We’ve lived with phones for so long now that we know exactly how they work, but there are a lot of people who just aren’t familiar with video-conferencing.

Anyway, that’ll do for now, though it feels like I’ll probably be visiting this again in the future. Let me know what you think.

  1. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the developers to make it too easy to use, as Elluminate makes part of its money from training.