POSTED BY: KEN CIRCEO, MSS Lead Tech Writer

 

Last fall, a co-writer mentioned that we ought to do some video demos for the next version of Speech Server.

 

"It could really help users learn how to use our tools. You know, like the Speech Log Analyzer. It took me awhile just to figure out what I was doing with that thing, and I even had a head start. With a video, we could just show it."

 

"Not bad, John," I said. "But we've got no time. There's just too much on our plates right now."

 

That wasn't true, of course. But any writer whose worth his weight in white out knows that you have to keep a healthy buffer in your schedule to absorb unexpected time-consumers such as feature creep, extra beta releases, and ungrateful self-absorbed tech writers who decide to leave the company in the middle of the production cycle even though they promised they'd be around — and I'm quoting now — "at least until RTM." (Sorry, do I sound bitter?)

 

Still, I told John it was an interesting idea and that we should think about it, which is Microsoft-talk for "this is never going to happen."

 

I'm glad to report that I was dead wrong.

 

Soon afterward, my manager Bob asked me if we'd done anything with the video idea. I went immediately into Costanza mode: "Well, I don't have anything to show you at the moment, but we're kicking around some ideas and I think we'll be storyboarding it very soon."

 

"Good," he said. "Keep me posted."

 

So just like that, I was on the video project. I pulled in a few people and we brainstormed for a week or so about the usual video stuff. There was no shortage of questions.

  • What should we shoot and how long should it be?
  • Should we use an actor or a real person?
  • Should we produce them ourselves or pay Microsoft Studios to do it?
  • Talking head or screen shots? Or both?
  • Is the customer going to download it or stream it?
  • Hasn't Office done something like this already? What's their story?
  • Who's going to bring the donuts?

This was a new world to most of us, certainly to me. The most videotaping I'd ever done was on a soccer field, and those didn't come out too good. No. That's charitable. They were really, really bad.

 

But I took ownership of the project and slowly started to believe that it had real value. I found a good screen-movement-capture program, bought a new video camera (w/built in hard disk...SWEET!), and — just about a month ago — John and I shot a prototype of him demonstrating the ins and outs of the Speech Log Analyzer. All in all, it went pretty well, except that we had over 30 minutes of footage — way too much.

 

So I spent a few days editing out screw-ups and unnecessary pauses. This brought it down to 15 minutes which I thought was still too long, but ok for a prototype. I showed it to Bob and the rest of the team. Nothing but positive comments, so it looks like a Go.

 

For starters, John and I will have to re-do the Speech Log Analyzer video. The name has been changed to Analytics & Tuning Studio, and we should really use better examples than we used in the prototype. Also, I'd like to try to get it down to 10 minutes, which is about as long as anyone should have to sit through an on-screen technical demo.

 

But danged if I didn't get the biggest kick out of putting it all together! On the strength of the proof-of-concept, our team compiled a list of more than 20 demo topics. Not sure how many we'll be able to knock out before RTM — probably just a few — but we'll give it our best shot.