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Review: Adobe Captivate 3

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Back in the 1990s when Lotus ScreenCam was state-of-the-art and Windows 3.1 was on the desktop, creating an online demo involved carefully capturing each mouse movement, then painstakingly adding captions and background music or voiceover. Trainers had to generate a script to hand off to programmers in order to produce complex training that branched in one direction or another, depending on the student’s answers or learning path. Quizzes also needed to be programmed manually. Adobe Captivate 3 continues in its quest to remove all of that pain and complexity involved in creating online demonstrations and training materials. What’s more, the output is in Flash, making it easy to incorporate your finished product into web-based help or an education portal or webpage.

Make no mistake—you still need to do a fair bit of tweaking, even for a short software demo, but Captivate does a great job of laying the groundwork for you, and the latest version adds interesting new features, such as slide-within-a-slide, and random testing to keep students on their toes when they come back to a lesson. Adobe has also made it easy to embed published Captivate content into other Adobe programs, such as Acrobat and RoboHelp.

Getting Going
Adobe Captivate uses the standard small-footprint packaging introduced earlier this year with Creative Suite 3, which includes a sleeve with a box containing a CD and not much else. I would like to see big companies like Adobe take a long look at reducing packaging and selling software like music CDs, without the excess box and outer sleeve. Installation is fairly simple, and as with all Adobe products, you can try the product for 30 days before you are forced to register online.

During installation, Adobe installs Captivate 3 along with Flash components, which will help generate and play the final output. After you open the program, you are presented with a start-up screen where you can open a recent project, access online resources such as tutorials and templates, or take a number of offline tutorials (themselves created with Captivate) to get familiar with the program, which is great for beginners. Unfortunately, this screen is the starting point for all new projects, and therefore you can’t get rid of it.

Unlike most programs, there is no File > New command. Instead, you have to close the current project to reveal the start-up screen again, an approach I find awkward and counter to everything we’ve learned in 20 years of GUI use. In addition, this screen is bound to annoy experienced users who don’t need access to Getting Started resources but have no way of getting rid of them.

You can create two basic kinds of output: a demonstration and a scenario. The former is a show-and-tell style software demonstration, while the latter is more interactive and better suited for training purposes.

Creating an Online Demo
Captivate 3 simplifies the creation of an online demo by capturing your mouse movements and creating text boxes with commands automatically. You simply define your recording parameters and start recording. Captivate 3 captures your mouse movements and clicks and creates a complete demo for you based on this information. So if you click File > Open, the program automatically creates a text box with a pointer to the menu command to click File and one to the menu command to click Open. This is a huge timesaver because it lays all of the groundwork for you, but being automatic does not mean it’s ready to deploy immediately.

After you complete the recording, the real work begins in the Project Editor. You are presented with all of your slides in a storyboard where you can see the overall layout of your demonstration. You can also view the slides in editing mode or add branching (which is more suited for training than demos). Although Captivate provides a starting point, you still have to go back over each slide and review the wording choice—do you say click, select, or choose, for example—and check the font choice, color, and placement and style of the text box. You have to decide if every slide in the recording is necessary. For instance, if you scrolled twice to get to the bottom of the screen, Captivate captures each scroll as a slide, and you may want to remove one of the extras to speed up the demonstration.

If you wish, you can add additional slides, import PowerPoint slides or images, or add background music on a slide level or project level. As you would expect, you can place transitions between each slide, and you are given a fairly sophisticated level of control if you want it, but you can create a project without implementing any of the advanced functionality. Overall this greatly simplifies the demo-creation process, but it’s worth noting that it takes some work to massage the original project into a polished final output.

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