Just about every web conferencing product includes some form of annotation functionality. I am referring to the ability to "mark up" visual content in a live webinar or webcast by drawing on the screen. The idea seems so simple. And yet, I have never come across an implementation that completely satisfies me. Let's take a look at specifics, with some humble suggestions for ways to improve usability.
The first thing to understand is the difference between "screen share" and "slide share" approaches to content display. Some conferencing products (ex: ReadyTalk, Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx, Webinato) give the presenter the ability to upload slides and access each slide as an individual content item. In these products, annotations may be associated with the slide they are drawn on. So when you move to a new slide, the previous slide's annotations automatically disappear. That's very convenient. And even better, if you revisit a previously shown slide, the product may "remember" and redisplay the annotations you had placed on that slide.
When using screen share to display content, the conferencing product doesn't "know" what content is being shown. Whether it is slides, browser content, or pages in a PDF, the meeting software is just displaying a continuous stream of pixels from your screen. This means that annotations don't "belong" to a piece of content. You are responsible for continually erasing and redrawing on top of the latest visuals.
We also need to differentiate between use cases. I work primarily in the "presentation" world, where one presenter at a time delivers information to an audience. There are other applications that are more geared towards group participation… For instance, allowing students to complete an exercise on screen, or holding brainstorming sessions with team members. In these cases, the leader or facilitator might wish to give annotation control to other attendees. But even in these situations, giving multiple people simultaneous control of annotation markers is likely to result in chaos. It usually makes more sense to grant one person at a time control of annotations, effectively making them a temporary "presenter" or "explicator" who needs to point something out.
Understanding these differences in web conferencing lets us examine the first two areas of annotation functionality:
1) Clearing all slide-based annotations. If the web conferencing product associates annotations with individual slides and redisplays them when the slide is revisited, the software needs a way to remove all annotations throughout the entire slide deck with a single command. If I give a webinar or hold a rehearsal and mark up my slides, then need to give the same webinar the next day, I don't want to have to go through the entire presentation deck, slide by slide, finding and erasing my previous annotations.
2) Clearing all displayed annotations. Presenters should have a quick and obvious way to remove all currently displayed markups. This is particularly important for screen sharing situations, where you have to update your annotations to match the new underlying content being shown. Some products (I'm looking at you, WebEx), hide the clear option under a sub-menu, which takes too much selection time and fine mouse control. WebEx always assumes you are working in a shared annotation world, so it has separate subcommands for clearing your own annotations or all annotations on the screen:
FIG 1: In WebEx, clicking the big, obvious eraser icon doesn't do anything. It puts you into "erase mode" that allows you to select and remove annotations one at a time. To erase all annotations, you must place your cursor on the tiny arrow to the side of the eraser, display a submenu, and choose whether you mean to delete your annotations or all annotations (the same result in most meetings).
While I'm talking about WebEx, I'll mention another unique frustration they implemented. Rather than drawing an annotation line or box, you can place a quick pointer arrow on the screen to highlight something. It moves to a new position every time you click on a new location. Very convenient, and a good idea. BUT… The pointer always displays the presenter's name (once again thinking in terms of multiple simultaneous annotators). This can be a distraction from the content you are highlighting and is unnecessary in most cases. WebEx also assigns you a color for your pointer, which cannot be overridden. In the example below, the light yellow color it arbitrarily chose for me is not prominent against the white slide background and is impossible to see on my yellow content boxes.
FIG 2: When I place a pointer on the screen in WebEx, I cannot suppress display of my name in the pointer or override the color (you can't even see the arrow head in this picture because it is on top of yellow slide content).
Adding to the frustration, pointers are treated as a different form of annotation. You cannot remove them by clearing your annotations… You have to clear your pointer as a separate step. Turning off pointer drawing mode does not make the pointer go away either. Every guest presenter I have ever worked with has been confused and annoyed by this.
But let us leave WebEx and move on to annotation features that are more common across multiple products. Although other, special forms of annotation exist, the most frequent choices are:
- Show a laser pointer
- Draw a line (straight or freehand)
- Draw a box
- Draw a circle
- Draw an arrow
- Draw a semi-transparent highlight
- Type text
The first item in that list is often the default mode, and is overwhelmingly the most popular choice for new online presenters. It is a direct analog to something we are familiar with in stage presentations… You point with your laser pointer and the audience follows the little red dot on the screen. In the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar:
The problem with using a laser pointer in a web conference is that it inspires bad habits. Presenters inevitably start "talking with their mouse." They circle or underline a phrase by waving the pointer back and forth. Or they flick the mouse randomly, without realizing it. It is very hard for web conferencing products to keep up with that kind of quick, continuous movement. Users may see the red dot appearing and disappearing in staccato jumps around the screen.
The other problem is that presenters may move between concepts very quickly, trusting the pointer to guide the audience: "This number is important, while this number is less important, leading to this result." If there is a disconnect between the audio stream and the video stream (for instance, with some people listening via computer and others listening via telephone), the audience can't be sure what the presenter was pointing at when she said "this number." If the pointer is a little out of sync, you could be talking about one thing while the audience sees you pointing at something else.