Online meetings for the visually impaired

We talk about usability a lot, but what if you have trouble seeing what’s on the screen or can’t see it at all? Some vendors state that their solutions offer optimized usability for the visually impaired. That is all good and nice, but before verifying those claims, we took a step back to have a look at the big picture.

First of all we checked for how many potential users this issue poses a difficulty. According to USA today and the AFB (American Foundation for the Blind) there are 10 million visually impaired people living in the US, 1.3 million of whom are legally blind. Within that group you can further discern those who are most likely to ever use a web conferencing solution, i.e. the 2-3 million people who are working age. That makes 0,7% of the total US population.

Naturally, no matter how small that group is, they may not be disregarded. Accessibility policies vary from country to country, but most countries – including EU-countries – have adopted standards in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to establish a minimum level of accessibility.

Our testing team sees two options of making an online meeting accessible to the visually impaired. One option are screen readers or magnification devices. Regarding the screen readers we are not too sure how vendors would implement them, considering that during an online meeting screens are shared, and the reader would thus have to be able to recognize the content on another attendee’s desktop. The user interface could also be optimized as far as font and button size is concerned, or the arrangement of items together with colors.

So there really are many questions attached to this topic. It would be interesting for us to hear about experiences and usage scenarios. So if you have any info for us please let us know, since we are anxious to learn more on this topic.

Web conferencing vs. virtual classroom solutions

This morning, a Canadian visitor of our test portal made us aware of a gap in our evaluation of online meeting solutions:

I noticed online training in your Applications sidebar, but you evaluated the WebEx Meeting Centre. WebEx Training Centre provides enhanced functionality specifically designed for training. Have you evaluated this product against competitors in that field?

Since is a non-profit initiative we only have limited time to spend on reviewing different solutions. Unfortunately this means that we are not able to add a new branch to our website by testing special-purpose online meeting solutions for classroom-like online trainings. We’ve got our hands full with keeping our ranking up-to-date and comprehensive as is.

But of course we do have something to say on the topic:

The biggest challenge to evaluating web conferencing solutions tailored to classroom, training, and online exam requirements is the intransparency of this niche market. This market includes vendors like WebEx (Training Centre) and Citrix Online with GoToTraining, who extended their underlying web conferencing technology to serve online training purposes. Others like Saba and Elluminate provide a blended web conferencing / eLearning solution – and there are dozens of vendors delivering solutions dedicated solely to virtual classroom scenarios, like Learning Management Systems (LMS), Skytap, eLecta and GC Learning Services.

Why use web conferencing #4: What to look out for when selecting an online collaboration tool

When you go on the hunt for a web conferencing solution for your company you naturally take a look at the functionalities of the potential candidates first. And rightfully so. But there are other factors that need to be considered as well – such as cost.

Fees and licensing models differ from vendor to vendor. In general, web conferences create two types of costs: expenses for actual usage, in the form of license fees or rental charges, and costs of audio functionality – because visual collaboration within virtual teams is usually supplemented by conference calls.

Software as a service (SaaS) is highly suitable for small organizations and freelancers – because it is generally more cost-effective to pay monthly or annual fees rather than install and operate the tool on in-house servers.

Rental model rates depend on how much the tool is used, as well as on user behavior and the corresponding pricing models. Named-user licenses are an excellent option if there is a clearly defined group of multiple users, while concurrent-user licenses provide access to virtual meeting rooms, which is a good idea for a large number of people who rarely use the tool.

As an aside: We are observing that the general trend is drifting away from complex terms and rates towards transparent, clearly structured flat rates.

Another important factor to consider is the cost of phone calls for online meetings. Many tools come with integrated conference-call solutions. Whether these can be used or not depends on an organization’s existing telephony infrastructure. In terms of audio, VoIP solutions lead the field. But to benefit from this technology, participants must have a reliable broadband connection and a headset. Alternatively, conference-call solutions from a different vendor can be used parallel to the web conference. Because the various payment models used by participants in different countries can lead to considerable cost differences, it is worth taking a close look at what providers have to offer. A three-way conference using a regular phone system is often sufficient for meetings between two or three participants.

So, this concludes our series of looking at web conferencing as a whole. We are very certain that we have not mentioned everything there is to say on the topic. If you feel that we have ignored a key issue just let us know.

The potential risk of screen sharing

Imagine you’re in a web conference, sharing your screen, when all of a sudden a chat window pops open because you forgot to close the app. Or worse, you forget that your screen is being shared and start typing your own chat message. Well, it happens to the best of us. It actually did just the other day, to a colleague. And it made us think.

Sharing your screen during an online conference can be very risky actually. Not only could you tick a business partner off with a chat message. At the end of a meeting, when a participant’s screen has been shared and the phone conference ends, the participant will often open his mail client before the host can end the meeting. So anybody still in the meeting could read the messages. And if undisclosed files are opened – well, you get the picture.

Users need to be aware what exactly is being shared, at all times. A Mac user sharing his screen with Citrix GoToMeeting can only show his entire screen. Sharing a single app is only possible with Windows. And it is easy to forget. Skype on the other hand – which we do not consider a web conferencing solution, but which serves for demonstration purposes – will not let you forget that someone is seeing your screen or parts of it, by marking the area in question with a red frame.

Now we don’t think web conferencing tools must necessarily go that far. But it should be easily distinguishable to anyone sharing his screen that he is doing so. So we are debating if this should weigh in as a security criteria rather than a mere usability feature.

What do you think? Is this only a minor inconvenience, or do you also regard it as a security risk?

Why use web conferencing #2: Usage scenarios for online meetings

In the search for a suitable web conferencing solution, the first question is: What will the tool be used for? In principle, tools are distinguished by two key factors: the number of participants they support, and the functions available for online meetings.

A traditional model is the one-to-one scenario, which is commonly employed to provide user support on software issues. At the other end of the spectrum, there are virtual conferences or trainings with large audiences, such as customer conventions, road shows, or webinars. For these scenarios, functions such as effective invitation management, integrated mute functions, and superimposed surveys and results are key. Between these two extremes, there are online meetings where smaller project teams work together from different locations spontaneously yet effectively – e.g. to discuss project plans or edit documents.

Small teams of two to ten, or even twenty people have different requirements when it comes to web-conference solutions: Setting up an online meeting should be quick and easy so it can be initiated ad hoc to accompany a phone call. In this case, it must be determined whether a tool enables users to start web conferences without prior invitation. Or whether a solution automatically generates email invitations that can be sent and read using common email clients. It is also crucial that new participants can be invited to a conference that is already under way – whether per email, URL, or by providing an access code for a conference call.

During meetings, any features that enable flexible, media-rich communications between all participants are important as e.g. the ability to switch between views of various users’ desktops, or to highlight or mark up content on the desktop currently being shown. Depending on the purpose of the conference, it may also be necessary to determine whether and how documents can be edited by multiple users at once. Chat functions facilitate communications between individual guests and the recording of web conferences is also useful if the interaction needs to be documented.

There are many good web conferencing solutions on the market which give you the opportunity to find the perfect fit for your company’s specific requirements. You will find details to the best tools in our ranking.

Why use web conferencing #1: The additional value of online collaboration

How can you best substitute face-to-face meetings if you need to save on travel cost? And is there a way to enable day-to-day, spontaneous and straightforward collaboration on projects or documents over the Internet? When faced with these questions a lot of companies immediately think of video conferences, which is a bit short sighted. True, you can see whom you are talking to. But how do you hold a presentation or work on a document with the other participants?

Sending documents back and forth via email also is not really a solution. And even instant messaging services such as Jabber, IRC, or AIM cannot truly compete with web conferencing. Those services simply impose too many restrictions, with demanding every participant have an account with the respective service as the top hindrance of easy meeting setup.

A good web conferencing solution only requires the host to download a small piece of software. He can then invite participants by sending them a link to the virtual meeting place, which means that all you need as a participant is a functioning Internet connection. What’s more, nearly all web conferencing solutions include a messaging functionality that allow two or more participants to communicate via text chat, without interrupting or stalling the meeting. Participants can share and work on documents, hold presentations, and much more.

So really the question shouldn’t be IF you should use a web conferencing solution for virtual meetings but rather what other functionalities online collaboration services offer you for your specific usage scenario.

You can check out our test approach here to learn more about the functionalities offered by web conferencing solutions and how they weigh into our evaluation.

Why should companies consider web conferencing?

In this Blog we talk a lot about the pros and cons of specific tools. True, we enjoy giving a thumbs up or down, but we think it is time to take a step back and have a look at the whole of web conferencing. The thing is: web conferencing tools are constantly improving and making life easier for small to medium businesses, but awareness is still growing slowly – even though researchers indicate the market for web conferencing solutions will grow significantly over the next 5 years.

We published an article in the renowned German IT magazine iX in which we looked at web conferencing as a whole. We will try to present you this article in condensed form, by splitting it into a four-part series.

Part one will point out the differences between web conferencing and IM services or video conferences. In part two we will delve into the usage scenarios of online collaboration services. Part three will feature one of our favorite topics: how can you best share documents when conferencing? The final part four will look at what you need to be aware of when making your choice of which solution you want to use.

So stay tuned and feel free to contact us any time with feedback and questions.

Online conferences with Meeting Efficiency™

We took another look at Meeting Efficiency, even though it is not in our testing focus in that it is no web conferencing solution. This time we sat through an entire day of training to really learn every aspect of the tool. Now, why do we even bother?

Well, we value software that actually helps users accomplish something, be it organizing a conference spread over continents or “simply” organizing a meeting as such. Anybody who has ever faced this task will know that it is hard work. What do we need to discuss? Where should we start? How do we prioritize the single issues? Who will take care of the protocol? How do the meeting attendees get access to the protocol? That is enough to make an overworked secretary jump out the window...

Meetings are hard work and require a lot of thought from those who plan them. And this is where Meeting Efficiency comes in because all that thought has already been included in the software. Meeting Efficiency is not a tool to organize documents and create timetables, but rather helps you define goals, shift priorities during the meeting, and create a protocol while you are discussing.

Meeting Efficiency divides a meeting into four phases:

1)    Preparation
2)    The meeting itself
3)    Documentation
4)    Communication

For every phase the software offers tools that actually lead the user towards reaching a concrete goal. And since Meeting Efficiency allows users to enter information while the meeting is in progress, the protocol pretty much takes care of itself. As a bonus the software will create diagrams and presentations so that the attendees will get the results in a visually appealing form.

But the software is not only of benefit to meeting host. Every participant will get more out of a meeting. When it comes to web conferencing, Meeting Efficiency will help create more concrete results for all participants since the information is structured very clearly and the diagrams and status screens are intuitive. So whenever the host shows his screen the participants can easily see at what stage of the meeting they are, what will be discussed next, and what priority the upcoming topic has.

Meeting Efficiency is no web-application but rather has to be installed on the meeting host’s own computer. But with a good web conferencing solution that at least offers screen sharing the information will be available to everyone.

Why do our results differ from Gartner’s?

With it’s Magic Quadrant for web conferencing Gartner offers a comprehensive study of the web conferencing market which includes a detailed evaluation of online collaboration tools. Now we have been approached with a justifiable question: Why do their results differ from ours?

The answer lies within another question: What are you looking for in a web conferencing solution? Which brings us to the criteria of evaluation. Gartner takes a very close look not only at the software itself but also includes the vendor in its evaluation. Overall viability of the vendor e.g. has high priority. Here Gartner assesses the financial health of the provider and the placement of the web conferencing tool in question within the organization’s product portfolio. The marketing strategy of the vendor is also ranked high priority.
This prioritization naturally favors the big players who have the high marketing budgets and are financially better situated than a small vendor who just introduced his 1.0 version to the market.

We have a different focus when analyzing and evaluating web conferencing solutions. The web conferencing solutions we evaluate should e.g. offer an approach different or complementary to what Gartner calls the on-premises-model. Users should not be required to install additional hardware or software to their IT-infrastructure to run an online collaboration solution. We give vendors a higher ranking if they enable you to run the software without great preparatory effort (SaaS – Software as a Service). This is important to us since we test with small to medium businesses in mind, who often cannot afford the costly and time consuming installation. You can find a detailed description of our testing approach and evaluation criteria here.

Gartner also features tools that are not included in our ranking. Most of these tools have been rejected by us previously because they did not comply with our basic requirements, e.g. offering a free test version and pricing information. We will definitely take another look at AT&T Connect, Intercall Unified Meeting, and PGi Netspoke to see if they can be included in our ranking now.

If you know of other tools that we have not tested so far and you feel fit all our criteria for evaluation please let us know. We will definitely have a look at the suggestions.