During lunchtime, I often take a quick jaunt to the local sandwich shop. On most days, I can get in and out in relatively no time at all. But then there are those days when I encounter a long line. It is during these times that I ask myself, “is it worth the wait?”
Nobody likes to wait. This can apply to anything, including the viewing of online courseware. We would like to think that users hang on to (and wait for) our every word. But the reality is that if users have to wait too long for content to be delivered to them, they may not wait…they may simply drop out and move on to something else.
This article will provide you with some tips on how you can reduce — or eliminate — your customers’ wait time.
Don’t assume everyone has a lightning-fast network connection
I’m sure that this has happened to many of you at one time or another: You finish developing your content that downloads quickly and plays flawlessly in your work location…but later find out that it runs like molasses on the outside.
Many have fallen into the trap of performing tests of online content only in their office — and later find out that some of their customers experience delays in the download and playback.
The fact is that customers will have different experiences in how quickly they can access content over the internet. A number of factors affect this experience, including internet connection speed, internet traffic on the network (such as wi-fi hotspots) and the location/connection speed of the internet site itself. For example, customers who access courses from the airport or hotel, or use a lower-end DSL connection will likely encounter longer download (and wait) times.
With that in mind, it is a good idea to have a sense of your target audience’s internet connectivity before designing your content. If the intended audience is internal employees only, a good start would be to contact your IT department, as they should be able to fill you in on network capabilities, limitations and potential bottlenecks.
However, when dealing with external audiences, gathering this info can be more challenging. One approach would be through a Quizmaker evaluation/questionnaire included in existing online courses. For example, in my course content, I ask customers the following questions:
- What kind of internet connection did you use to access the course (i.e., corporate network, cable, DSL, wireless hotspot, dial-up)?
- Did the course run smoothly and without delays?
Although this survey is far from scientific, I have been able to obtain a reasonable gauge on connectivity speeds and determine the amount of robust content to use in the next course I design.
There is naturally a correlation between file size and its impact on download time. Keeping that thought in mind, you should aim to keep your files as small as possible. This approach will not only minimize wait times for your customers, but will also reduce the load on networks and servers (your IT department will thank you).
Videos and simulations — created from such products as Adobe Captivate and TechSmith’s Camtasia — can be the biggest culprits of bloated file sizes if not tended to carefully. Fortunately, each of these applications offers a number of compression options. You are encouraged to check out the companies’ websites, as most offer many useful tips that can help you reduce published content to a more reasonable size.
In the case of Articulate Presenter (AP) and Articulate Engage (AE), you have control over the size and quality of the published audio and images — resulting in slides that can be published out at relatively small file sizes.
There are no set rules on ideal file sizes for your content, as that will be dictated by your audience. But this Download Time Calculator can help you determine download times for a file using a variety of connection speeds:
Test for the lowest common denominator
As mentioned earlier, testing only with your office connection can lead to unpleasant surprises down the road. A good game plan — whenever possible — is to run your course in a test environment that you think is representative of the slowest connection and performance possible for your audience. This will help give you peace of mind that your content can run anywhere!
For internal use, the IT department should be able to provide some guidance on how to best handle the testing. If you don’t have the luxury of running your course through the desired test environment, an excellent alternative is to use a connection simulation tool called NetLimiter. Through this utility, you can test your product against slower connection speeds.
As always, it is best to “test early, test often.”
Preloading = less wait time
In addition to reducing file sizes, another step to minimizing wait times is through the preloading of files ahead of time. AP actually uses such an approach — downloading two slides ahead of the one currently being played. Although this is very helpful in reducing delays, sometimes it is not enough…
One shortcoming of AP is that it does not preload content inserted in a slide, such as Flash, Quizmaker and Engage files. What this means is that these files will not begin downloading until the specific slide is reached. As a result, your customers can encounter delays.
The solution to this is through the use of a custom preloader file. By creating such a preloader, you can specify — in a certain order — which files you want downloaded. In my tests, this solution has proven to be quite effective in reducing or eliminating wait times for Flash and Engage content
In a nutshell, the custom preloader is nothing more than a Flash file with ActionScript that resides in the logo panel. For your convenience, I have posted a demonstration of this preloader that includes an attachment of the source file in Flash MX 2004 format. Feel free to download and modify this file — which includes developer instructions — to meet your needs.
As we’ve covered throughout this article, customer wait times is an often-overlooked consideration. I hope that you find these tips and examples helpful in designing and creating content that does not test the patience of your audience.
Phil is a member of Fannie Mae’s Customer Education Group in Washington, DC. His 20 years of experience has involved technical writing, instructional design and standup training, as well as audio production, video production and interactive media development.