Blue Mango Learning Systems 07/15/12
This week’s Tools Spotlight interview is with Greg DeVore, CEO of Blue Mango Learning Systems. Their documentation software ScreenSteps and Clarify have helped companies large and small to easily and quickly document their procedures. In our short write-up on them a month ago, we talked about how much of a pain it can be for us as content creators to make documentation of our video post procedures. So many of us avoid it – at our own peril. Greg talked to us about his software and his mission to reinvent documentation.
As video creatives, we’re focused on software that directly manipulates our media content or helps us organize it. It could be anything from video editing to VFX or digital asset management apps. But for many of us, spending money on procedure management software is a low priority. Why should people consider using documentation software?
Well they shouldn’t consider using documentation software unless they have a problem that the documentation software would solve.
When we look at businesses, and this goes across businesses, there are three ways you can see if you have the symptoms of a business that needs documentation software:
- Everyone at your business is doing the same thing but doing it very differently. You are getting a lot of variance in the output that you are creating because everyone is doing things a little bit differently.
- You are constantly re-learning stuff so that thing that you do once a month, once every three months or once a year, is something that you’re always having to go back and figure out how to do again each time.
- You bring somebody else onto your team to work, but your productivity decreases because you are having to sit there and hold their hand to get them up to speed on everything. If you are finding that you are having to sit by a new team member and walk them through everything, then documentation software could probably help your business out.
If you don’t have any of those three problems, then you probably don’t need it and don’t need to worry about it.
Well, yeah, so that seems like you’re talking to pretty much everybody – especially in our field, where we’re constantly getting new software and updates to existing content software that totally changes what the program does, along with its scope and its features. So we’re always having to make adjustments on the fly in terms of how to use this stuff and, more often than not, it’s just one person who knows how to do it. If they are sick or on vacation, then it gets kind of squirrelly, so it’s such a relief to find ScreenSteps. So with that, what is ScreenSteps and what is the story of how it developed?
Well the idea for ScreenSteps came from when I used to live in LA and I actually did a lot of IT work in the film music industry. So I was there at a time when a lot of studios were going computer-based and they were switching over to Logic, which Apple later acquired as a recording software, and I just happened to know Logic pretty well.
It was very confusing for a lot of people, so they would hire me to come in and teach it to them. They had this giant user manual that 10% of was still in German and nobody could make any sense of it.
I basically had a job because I would take the time to read the manual and figure it out and I would sit next to the guys and walk them through things. Well I wasn’t always able to be there, and this was back before there was a lot of screen recording software so we were videotaping the screens and we were doing all this stuff and we got really into trying to create this training material and it took a loooong time.
And each time when there was an update that came out, you basically had to throw all your training material away and start from scratch. So later on we got into the business of doing that and started doing stuff beyond the music studios and doing stuff for 3D / 4D ultrasound manufacturers.
People had bought these $100,000 machines and they had sticky notes all over them and the sticky notes had the list of tasks on how they needed to do things: step 1, step 2 and step 3. We were creating this very complicated, very media-rich training material and we realized all they wanted was a sticky note – so let’s make the sticky note better, let’s add pictures to it.
There were already screen capture utilities that were out there, but instead of just taking one picture and pasting it in, we wanted to automate the process of creating how-to documents so you could just take a picture of each step of the process and have essentially what it is that a sticky note does but with a better version of it – with a clearer picture so that it’s crystal clear what you need to do.
ScreenSteps Pro is a fairly mature app that is almost at version 3. Talk a little about the development process and the type of feedback you get from users.
Well we’re hard at work on version 3 of ScreenSteps. We don’t have a release date for it yet but we’ve been in this 2.x series for several years now, and we’ve been really looking at the way people use it and also ways that they kind of use it incorrectly.
We believe that the worst thing you can have when you are creating documentation is a blank slate, which is why Word is so bad for documentation because you can do anything with it. That makes it really hard to document because you’re having to make all these decisions about how to organize the information and what to write and what not to write.
So the goal with ScreenSteps is to be kind of opinionated and to guide you down a path of writing documentation very quickly. What we are finding is that people are creating much more documentation than they ever have before, so we need better ways for them to manage large amounts of information.
So, the things we are focusing on with ScreenSteps:
- a more intuitive workflow, as far as getting that initial lesson created and bringing it into a larger collection of information like a manual
- better adaptation tools
- more control of how you’re laying out the text, but still with a step-by-step approach
- making it easier to take your longer processes and split them up into smaller ones
- re-ordering things and moving them in between lessons
- a big focus on collaboration so that you can have a bunch of team members contributing, reviewing what needs to be updated, pushing out changes and having a central place where it’s very easy to manage and know what you’re responsible for updating and what you’ve made other people responsible for updating
Ok so this is a good segway into question 4, where I ask you about the four different versions of ScreenSteps. How do they differ?
So, I’ll start from the bottom and move up.
The smallest one is ScreenSteps Standard, and that will let you create these ‘how-to’ lessons and you can export an individual document to a PDF, HTML or WordPress platform. There are different volume platforms, but you’re working with one document at a time and that was aimed at the person who needs to create a quick ‘how-to’ and wants a low cost solution for that.
ScreenSteps Pro is the exact same software, except it will give you more publishing options so you can then organize these individual documents into a manual. That means you get a table of contents and all the documents are linked together, and you can export that manual to PDF or Word onto our ScreenSteps Live service. It also adds some export options for the individual lessons if you are using help desk software like different wiki formats and stuff like that (MindTouch, Confluence).
So pro is the same thing, but both of those products are aimed at the individual user that’s creating something. You can share files back and forth with other users, but you have to export and import stuff. But it’s not designed for that; it’s for the individual user that needs to create a user manual.
ScreenSteps Workgroup gets into the collaboration side. It’s designed for companies that need to install ScreenSteps on their local network. It’s behind their firewall in a shared repository so multiple authors can collaborate. The software looks the same but the library of lessons is all being shared at a central location, so Bob can open it up and edit it, and when Karen goes into the library she sees that Bob has checked it out, so she’s not going to step on his toes or override something that he’s working on.
Finally, ScreenSteps Live is our hosted product that brings it all together. So it’s the same ScreenSteps software to create your documentation, but you’re publishing it to a Cloud-based system that does two things:
- It stores the source material so anybody on your team at any point can get access to those original screenshots that need to be updated.
- It gives you a display mechanism for this so it’s not content creation like other tools but it becomes your help site or your internal documentation site for your company, gives you a searchable knowledge base that you can either make public or private to only your company and gets you an online knowledge-based solution.
What is Clarify and why did you create it?
So as we were using ScreenSteps and creating documentation we started to find that we wanted to use ScreenSteps to do other things. Some were things like:
- doing a quick one off for a customer that is really specific to them, or
- a quick ‘how-to’ for a specific thing I need a virtual assistant to do, or
- I need help from a company whose software I am having problems with, and I want to show them the problem that I am having.
Screensteps was great for that except that it felt too heavy. You opened the software and you had to create a lesson and go to a manual.
We found that even for us – who knew the (ScreenSteps) use cases were great – that the software was too heavy to do that, and so we created Clarify for those really quick communications that you need to do.
And so people say, ‘Aren’t Clarify and ScreenSteps the very same?’ If you use the two, it’s very different because the workflows are very different.
Clarify is built around speed. So I use Clarify all day long if I need to show someone on Twitter how to do something or if I need to show something to one of my coworkers, like if we need to fix the website at a specific place on the screen or, ‘I’m following these steps and this is the output I’m getting.’
I don’t know if you’ve ever used Basecamp for projects, but I’m on there all day communicating with people. So if they’ve given me some work and I can say, ‘I do this, yet this is what I am seeing. This is not right and I need this changed.’ Clarify is a very fast way for me to communicate with pictures.
So I really look at Clarify as a communication tool. Some people will use it for documentation – and for individual users who don’t need a more robust solution, it works great for that. So think of Clarify as just smaller, simpler, faster.
The new Clarify beta has Evernote integration. Are there any other apps that Clarify or ScreenSteps plays well with ? …I also want to just mention, just hearing you talk about what Clarify is, it makes me think that Clarify could be helpful in conjunction with Quora or even Twitter. When I read your blog post on how the new Clarify beta is integrating with Evernote, it really opens up a lot of possibilities. What other apps are Clarify or ScreenSteps playing well with?
We are actually in a beta with an update with Evernote that’s really cool. Right now, with Clarify you can share to an Evernote note. With the new update, you can share but also choose what notebook it’s going into – but it does two things that are neat:
First, obviously it puts all the content into Evernote, so if you have a step-by-step guide with a lot of pictures in it, it creates a note and puts all the pictures in there, but it also attaches the original Clarify file. And why this is really cool is, say you have your Mac at work and you share it to your Evernote and you have your ‘how-to’ in there, now you’re at home and you realize you have to update that. You can click on that Clarify file that’s in the Evernote ‘note,’ it will open up in Clarify and you can adjust any of the screenshots.
Once you save it, it automatically updates the note content in Evernote and the attachment. So before, you would have to track down the original Clarify file and put the content back into Evernote. Now, wherever you’re at, you’ve got Evernote because it’s syncing. You open up that file, you click on the attachment of the Clarify file that’s been attached to that Evernote note, it opens up in Clarify, and you can replace any of the screen captures, move your annotations around, save it, and it will automatically update the content in that Evernote note and also reattach the original Clarify file to it.
Wow, so it sounds like it gives the user a little bit of the functionality of ScreenSteps Live, right?
Exactly. So if are you working with a shared Evernote notebook, anybody on your team can update that as well using Clarify – so it’s a very low-cost, fast solution for creating process docs in Evernote.
Oh wow, that’s great, I’m a huge Evernote fan so that’s definitely good to hear. So what are the biggest challenges and opportunities you have moving forward?
We’ve found that one of the biggest challenges is helping people understand best practices around creating documentation. Our best practices are a little different than what you might expect if you’re ever tried to create documentation before or read about how to do it.
We take a much more pragmatic view and the biggest mistake we see people making is trying to write too much documentation, trying to document too many things. We’re big believers in only documenting what matters.
The purpose of documentation is to be helpful, not to be complete and sometimes being overly complete can be not helpful at all. So we’re making investments in the resource section of our website. It has a bunch of videos and general practices on how to structure documentation so it will be easy to use, easy to update and easy to create.
Once we get people’s heads around those ideas, then they really fly with our software. Sometimes we see people come in and they want to create that sort of stuff that they’ve done in Word where they’re describing every button on the screen and how it works. That just costs you a lot of time and it doesn’t add up to being very useful in the long run.
Yeah, you’re right; it’s something I struggle with as I make documentation. Other than the Clarify beta, is there anything new on the horizon for ScreenSteps that you can mention?
Down the road we’re getting closer to having some sort of public beta of ScreenSteps 3. It’s probably still a few months away; we’re entering private alpha stage with some customers now. We’ve already started to use it internally and we’re really excited about it. We went through and had to update one of our documentation sites that had several hundred lessons in it, that probably had about a thousand screenshots. It took us about half a day to do it. We were really able to fly through the material, so we’re excited about the possibilities there and how it’s going to work with people.
So be looking for that on the horizon and, like I said, Clarify is in beta with this Evernote integration that should be released soon. I think people are really going to love that.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to mention?
The main thing is that documentation doesn’t have to hard; it doesn’t have to be a project. It’s really just a process of communicating with people using something like Clarify or ScreenSteps to add those ‘how-to’ pictures to every step.
With most documentation, you think of a bulleted list of steps you need to take. Turn every bullet into a picture; when you do that, people understand it instantly.
There are all these concerns about, ‘how am I going to update?’ Don’t worry about that because ScreenSteps and Clarify make this so easy to do. Really, you will see a transformed business if you start doing that.
I use my own documentation – I just used it today. I got a file, the sales tax things for our business, which we get once a quarter. I never remember how to do it, but with my ScreenSteps doc I don’t even have to think. I’m on autopilot; I just walk right through it.