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DemoMate: An e-Learning Alternative (Sometimes)

by Joe Fournier

June 1, 2010

Review

by Joe Fournier

June 1, 2010

With its short learning curve and low entry cost, DemoMate will find a place in many small and medium-sized organizations that need a quick, inexpensive way to produce short training segments, especially in support of technical sales professionals. If you’re looking for a way to get your SMEs to quickly produce step instructions, especially for software products on the Microsoft platform, DemoMate may be worth a test-run.

Many e-Learning professionals are busy creating professional quality e-Learning using tools that were designed specifically for e-Learning development. At the same time, there are plenty of people out on the fringes of our field producing content that will meet the needs of their learners with tools that don’t have all the options and features we sometimes take for granted.

Just as inexpensive, easy-to-use motion editing and hosting platforms have democratized video, a new crop of tools claims to make anyone an e-Learning content producer, and is bringing renewed attention to the phrase “rapid e-Learning.” In truth, these new tools sometimes treat e-Learning as a by-product and not so much as the main event.

One such tool is a product by Seattle-based Impresys, called DemoMate. As its name suggests, DemoMate’s main mission is to help create and share interactive software demonstrations. The product started as a tool for software sales professionals, but is finding use in production of training applications as well.

Bare bones development

For example, Lexi Schwartz of the American College of Emergency Physicians was able to produce her first DemoMate demo within a couple hours of installing the product. Lexi creates demos for training and help desk responses. Like many who produce e-Learning applications, Lexi has some background as a training professional, but not particularly as an e-Learning designer or developer. That may explain why Lexi wasn’t looking for more advanced features, such as conditional branching, variables, zoom and pan, automated quiz construction, or even color schemes and scene transitions. None of these features are available in DemoMate.

From an e-Learning professional’s perspective, the product is about as bare bones as it gets. In fact, almost any of the top e-Learning tools you currently use will probably do most of what DemoMate does, and provide you with more options. But there’s something intriguing about DemoMate. From my first introduction to the product, I was convinced it could fill a niche that other products don’t address.

DemoMate’s creators didn’t have e-Learning in mind as a use for their product. They developed DemoMate specifically to address the needs of Sales professionals, so its features center first on those needs. In selling technical software products, one of the challenges companies sometimes face is the complexity of the application itself. Sales professionals need a way to get themselves up-to-speed with the product, even if they’re not the most technically adept people. This is where DemoMate shines. The default DemoMate demo isn’t consumable as e-Learning. Instead, it is a step-by-step training and sales aid that provides hints and cues for a sales person—especially if they’re working with a technical product they’ve not yet mastered.

In the standard DemoMate demo construction process, a person familiar with the product the training is for walks through the steps to perform a particular task, capturing these as “click steps” along the way; DemoMate records each task sequence as a “section” to maintain the right level of granularity and editability. The click steps show up in the Recorded Sections pane and the author (I use this term loosely) then adds two kinds of detail: audio and presenter notes. Optionally, they can also provide specific details for a “click-by-click” script. The only other significant option authors have is the ability to add hot spots (called “jump boxes” in DemoMate), which create links to the start of a section in the demo or to an external URL. That’s it for authoring. All the other options are in output, which we’ll touch on a little later.

Natalie Hanke of PrecisionPoint Software had worked with Camtasia to produce demos of the company’s software, but she found the editing process time consuming. In contrast, Demo Mate made it “just very easy to write the scripts, record them, and refine them.” According to company founder and president, Nigel Geary, the challenge for Precision Point is getting customers to understand how their product derives value from existing data, and leverages products customers already have. Because their solution integrates across so many tools, the demos were huge — far too large to send to customers. With DemoMate, they fit on a thumb drive.

Limitations

Simple by design, DemoMate demos typically follow a very predictable pattern: play the sound; move the mouse; make the click. While DemoMate President Chris Peterson admits that there’s a certain amount of luck in their stumbling upon this approach, they’ve received good feedback regarding the learnability of DemoMate demos. By slowing down and simplifying the way content is presented, learners pick up on it – and because the pattern is so simple and predictable, the demo itself is secondary to the content. This simple, repeatable pattern aids focus, which is critical for technical learning topics.

Andy Hafer, CEO of Dynamic Communities, Inc., said that he was a little reluctant at first regarding DemoMate. He thought the demos would be almost like PowerPoint slide shows, but now he expects the bulk of dynamic content to be built with the tool. In the communities Andy’s company supports, “Citizen authorship happens all the time. Think of it in a user group setting where we’ve got a lot of people contributing content to each other — very much a peer-to-peer kind of a setting. So that’s why DemoMate is important to use … you can ramp up to speed pretty quickly, it’s very lightweight, and things can be deployed in the YouTube kind of setting … .” But while Andy likes DemoMate for some applications, he also recognizes that it only meets a certain part of the need.

Indeed, while DemoMate has appeal for those short demonstrations, it’s not a power tool, and it will only let you produce content, not full-featured courses. So why do I like it?

Benefits and use

DemoMate has an elegant simplicity and an interesting approach to reusing files. Following a very simple process, I can use it to create the scripted version of a procedure that I can show in a live or virtual classroom. It gives me “cheater notes” and lets me run in dual-screen mode, much like PowerPoint. Then, with the same file, I can produce a step-by-step demonstration my learners can take away with them for review, or check out on my Website. It also lets me produce guided practice lessons — again, from the same file.

For my demo version, I can include background music or ambient sounds, and I can suppress that track when I publish. While all this is technically possible in a dozen other e-Learning tools I’ve encountered, DemoMate does it simply, with few clicks, and without forcing the options onto the designer. Continuing on the ease-of-development paradigm, DemoMate lets me export my presenter notes for localization or editing, and then re-import them. It also gives me quick access to my captured image assets, in case I need to sanitize sensitive information or make subtle image edits in my favorite graphics editor.

The other reason I like DemoMate is that it puts most of the options in the hands of the learner. Learners can control basic features such as volume and navigation, but they also choose whether to see presenter notes, mouse clicks, cursor movement, and captions; they can adjust the pace of the playback among three settings, and choose whether to display the demo in full screen; they can even suppress background music if they don’t like that Salsa track I chose.

Output options: Silverlight

Impresys, the company that produces DemoMate, is admittedly a Microsoft shop. Microsoft is one of their clients, and other Microsoft shops are an important part of their customer base. So, it may come as no surprise that DemoMate produces content that plays in the Silverlight player. While Silverlight isn’t nearly as pervasive as Flash, it is gaining ground, and for some applications, Silverlight may be the better choice. Nevertheless, it created a real concern for me for two reasons: first, of course, is market penetration of Silverlight; but even more disconcerting to me is interoperability. With an annual license fee of $300 I can imagine putting DemoMate in the hands of SMEs to produce content segments like you might find on a corporate YouTube, but what I could not fathom was losing the ability to integrate those into a course. Since so many of the standard tools I use produce and consume Flash content, integration seems hampered by the lack of Flash support. The one acceptable work-around I found was through the Articulate Web object support. By hanging a DemoMate demo off a Web server and then embedding it inside an Articulate-built course, I was able to get the kind of integration and tracking I needed — although I still had to be sure the learner’s browser supported Silverlight.

In total, the output options for DemoMate are adequate, if not impressive. You can produce a single Silverlight-based file; a folder of files suitable for Web hosting; an executable that installs the file locally along with a DemoMate player (actually the full product with authoring disabled); or an executable that plays the file through Windows Media Player (version 10 or higher required). DemoMate offers other options, including limited hosting that works well for the needs of most of their clients.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, if you need integration with a LMS or a tool that will produce SCORM-compliant e-Learning, DemoMate may not be the tool you’re looking for. If you need to run in a Flash player, or if Silverlight is not an option, DemoMate may not be a good option.

DemoMate is relatively immature in terms of its capabilities when you compare it to tools like Captivate and Camtasia. It does, however, produce small-footprint files and supports rapid conversion among several forms supporting learning.

With its short learning curve and low entry cost, DemoMate will find a place in many small and medium-sized organizations that need a quick, inexpensive way to produce short training segments, especially in support of technical sales professionals. If you’re looking for a way to get your SMEs to quickly produce step instructions, especially for software products on the Microsoft platform, DemoMate may be worth a test-run.


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