In part one of this topic, I looked at some special cases and described why I don't like laser pointers. Today I will cover considerations when dealing with the more common annotation tools.
Revisiting my previous list, the capabilities you are most likely to encounter in a web conferencing product include:
- Draw a line (straight or freehand)
- Draw a box
- Draw a circle
- Draw an arrow
- Draw a semi-transparent highlight
- Type text
I think it is most natural for first-time users to start out in freehand drawing mode. The cursor acts as a pencil and you can draw anything you like on the screen. Straight lines, arrows, boxes, and circles are just ways to accomplish the same things you could do with freehand drawing, but with cleaner and smoother lines.
Vendors immediately run into a conflict between making tools that are intuitive and easy to use without training, and offering added power and flexibility for more experienced users. As a power-user myself, I like the ability to change my pen color and line thickness. It is just too easy to lose visibility on top of colored content. Here is one example of a fairly simple and compact annotation tools menu. This one comes from Webinato:
Fig 1: Webinato annotation tools menu. The first row indicates the drawing mode, while the second row lets you adjust line width and color.
One unnecessary complexity that vendors often add is the ability to draw filled boxes and circles. I have never used a filled object as an annotation, and I can't even think of a circumstance where it would answer a need.
Highlighters that place a translucent color on top of content are sometimes convenient, and I know presenters who really like them when working with text-oriented documents. But in the final analysis, they don't do a lot that you couldn't do by outlining the item of interest.
Being able to type text on top of the content serves a very infrequent need. I am never disappointed when I find the capability missing, although I have used it from time to time. I find it most useful when the rest of the conferencing product suffers from a design flaw and the only way to make a general announcement or direct attention to a chat window is to type a note on the displayed content.
The shared feature of these tools as opposed to pointers is that they remain on the screen after you draw them. Which gives rise to a convenience tool I have never seen in any product implementation. Allow power users to toggle between "add annotation mode" and "replace annotation mode." In the first case, new annotations are added to the screen. In the second case, starting to draw a new line or box automatically clears any previous annotation. This could really cut down on clutter, while reducing the number of interim steps needed to manually delete the previously drawn highlighting annotation.
I will close out with one more infrequently seen implementation option. I seem to recall that in Placeware (later Microsoft Live Meeting), you could select an annotation and drag it to a new location on the screen. This was occasionally useful as a way to focus the audience's attention in a consistent manner. You draw a big, thick rectangle around something and then instead of deleting it and redrawing another rectangle somewhere else, you drag the existing rectangle to encompass the next item of interest. The movement of the "look here" box on the screen helps shepherd the audience's eyes from one item to the next. I don't think this is crucial functionality, but it's rather nice to have (especially if you are just a little off with your initial drawing and can nudge it into place instead of having to erase and redraw).
I hope vendors will continue to refine the annotation functionality in their products with an eye towards making them more convenient and practical for presentation use. Properly applied, highlighting tools can have far greater utility than the simple laser pointer we are stuck with in room-based slideshows.