Cisco announced a new interface for Webex Meetings in July. Most customers started seeing the changes around early August. Several of my clients use Webex Meetings, including a very large international organization with a global roster of presenters and attendees.
I have given myself time to get used to the new user interface from the perspective of host, presenter, and attendee. I didn't want to fall prey to an instinctive knee-jerk aversion to changes in something that was familiar. But having figured out how everything works now and having run quite a few public web conferences under the new interface, I feel prepared to declare that the current operation of the software is a hot mess that may have the worst usability of any major web conferencing product on the market.
The biggest problems stem from the fact that hosts and participants are faced with a choice of interfaces that have different cosmetics and functionality. It is now literally impossible for me as an event moderator to know what my participants are seeing or to give them clear instructions on how to use the web conferencing software.
Let's take it step by step, with pictorial examples.
As a meeting administrator or host, I start by scheduling a meeting in my Webex host account. The new "Modern View" administrative interface is clean and obvious. I just click the big blue button to "Schedule a Meeting."
This brings up a simple scheduling page that lets me specify the meeting topic, password, and date/time. And that's it. There are no options available.
If I want to have any additional control over my meeting options, I need to find the small command in the left-hand navigation panel that takes me to "Classic View." That brings up the older administrative interface we have used for years. From there, I can go through the old multi-step process to bring up the meeting scheduler and then find yet another hyperlink buried in-line with instructions text to switch to the Advanced Scheduler. That interface finally lets me step through pages of meeting options. So now the process to get serious control over scheduling a meeting requires three levels of intermediate screens and an understanding of what Classic View and Advanced Scheduler mean.
Now we switch to the perspective of a meeting participant. They get their email with a join link. This takes them to a login page where they can enter their name and email. On the page is a big green button to "Join Meeting."
What the average, untrained meeting participant doesn't know and doesn't know to look for, is that there are two different meeting interfaces hidden under that button. If they happen to click on the unlabeled arrow at the right side of the button, they see options for joining by desktop app or by web app. By default, Webex chooses "the best option" (leaving us wondering what criteria it uses).
The method for joining turns out to be incredibly significant. It affects what the participant sees as well as determining what functionality they have in the meeting.
The next two pictures compare what is seen by a user joining through the desktop app (first picture) and by a user joining through the web app (second picture):
As a moderator or meeting host, I now have the task of explaining how I want my participants to interact with the interface:
- "Adjust your computer audio settings (such as selecting your devices for listening and speaking) using the Audio command at the top of your screen…" Except that web attendees have no command bar and no submenu for adjusting audio devices.
- "Use the little hand symbol by your name in the participant list to signal me." Except that web attendees have no hand symbol.
- "Expand or collapse your panels using the dropdown arrows to the left of the panel title." Except that web attendees don't have those options.
- "You can change the relative size of panels in the list by dragging the border between them up and down." On the web, attendees only see one panel at a time.
- "Use the dropdown TO: selector at the bottom of the chat panel to change whether you send messages to me privately or to everyone in the meeting." Web attendees have a different interface, clicking on a name in the panel or on a "Chat with All" option.
It gets worse if I want to pass control and make one of my participants a presenter. The host interface lets me do so, and I see the "presenter ball" next to their name. But if they happened to join using the web app, they can't do anything with uploaded content. They can't navigate uploaded slides or use annotation tools. (And while we're on the subject, even the desktop app presentation controls have been made worse in this release… The arrows to move forward and backward through a slide set are now so small that they require a magnifying glass and surgeon's touch to operate.)
Web attendees also have other annoying interface quirks to contend with. They see a floating content source bubble ("Viewing Ken Molay's shared content") that is persistent at the top center of the content… right where it covers up typical slide title placement. They also get an audio chime when chat messages are received, leading to constant audio interruptions if their mikes are open and they aren't using a headset.
Did you notice the small video placeholder windows in the interface? In the desktop app they appear in a strip across the top of the screen, above the shared content. In the web app, one video window appears in the right-hand panel. There is no way to turn these off if you elect not to use streaming video for your presenters. So it wastes vertical screen space and creates confusion as participants tell the host that they aren't seeing the presenters in those windows.
It is easy to see what Cisco was going for in this redesign. They put all their effort into making a Skype competitor. It's an interface that is simple to set up and use when a number of people just want to jump on a video chat and see each other while they talk. But in accomplishing that goal, they gave short shrift to customers who want to run real web conferences. Until they have a consistent interface for all participants, where a meeting host can control and explain functionality for everyone, Webex Meetings will be low on my preference list for running most types of web conferences.