I’ve been visiting Las Vegas this week – I’m supposed to be on holiday, or vacation as it’s known here, but I taking all the surveys that they’re putting in front of me out of curiousity. Las Vegas has got everything down to a fine art, everything is tuned just so to guide behaviour. With all that research into human psychology, you’d think they’d have the best surveys in the world. Yeah right.
First up is the MGM Grand’s survey. It’s accessed using the remote control from the hotel room in the same way as pay-per-view.
It’s got 16 likert style and true/false questions, and accepts remote control keys 1 thru 5 as answers. Very boring - I got to Question 3 or 4 before I gave up. In a city with so much entertainment, I can’t see anyone giving this much time when it gives so little back.
One positive thing about it is it knows you might get bored and isn’t afraid to admit it, so it offers an option to exit early without losing all the results or having to fake results until the end. That’s smart because the most general and important questions are at the start and the answers that do get submitted will be genuinea and not the result of a boredom induced click frenzy.
Difficult to say what the technology might be – looks like it is a browser in the background firing up a full page view so it could be Flash. The rest of the interface doesn’t like it has much power so maybe Flash 5 or it might even be HTML.
For those of you wondering 'How in the heck do you use this progam?', the manual is now ready and is online too
- it's a got a mirror here. It's got a good overview on how the whole content, style and functionality is handled, together with a short tutorial that allows users to start creating something right away.
I've just finished creating a quick example of the Drop Down Flash component question that comes with Question Writer. The content is supplied from the authoring interface, so an author can drop in a few pictures, text and pieces of Flash and have them automatically supplied as options (movie clips) to the component question. The component question can render them as it likes - in this case as a drop down select box.
This image shows the relationship between what appears in the authoring environment and the final Flash file.
SCORM - that's Shareable Content Object Reference Model, what a mouthful. It's for making sure that if content is bundled up in a particular way, it can be used on any conformant Virtual Learning Environment(VLE) or Learning Management System(LMS). Question Writer exports SCORM compliant packages so this evening I've made up SCORM packages for all the sample tests and made them available to download directly. These could be helpful for testing a new VLE installation or seeing how Question Writer passes scores to a VLE back end.
Have you ever hit that point in an on-line survey where, in Johnnie Moore's words "boredom kicks in and I stop trying to articulate my real views and start rushing to get to the end."
There's a really important point here for Flash designers articulated by The Fat Group - websites and forms of W3C mandated uber-accessible elements might be viewable by an additional 10% of users, but the effectiveness of an online experience can increase four-fold by making it fun and engaging for the user.
I recently cleared up a bug with Question Writer that was causing it to create Flash files that would crash Internet Explorer. This turned out to be a particularly difficult problem because there were two separate issues that were causing the same intermittent error. A real problem bug because it was difficult to reproduce, difficult to isolate and difficult to confirm fixes once in place.
I won't bore you with the details of how it all got fixed, but there were two pieces of actionscript code that increase the likelihood of an Internet Exporer crash that I want to make available so that you don't also have to spend 18 hours drinking expresso to get to the bottom of it.
Trying to create an XML object from an empty string. Not a very sensible or useful thing to do - only occurs when loading in XML from an external source that happens to be empty file or similar circumstances. Anyway, bad idea, check for an empty string before making an XML object.
Calling this method too many times in rapid succession seems to destabalize the Flash player in IE. Macromedia's advises not to call this method too often as it might confuse the screenreader. I'd go one further and say it risks crashing IE. My approach now is to only call this method if a screenreader is actually active. There's probably a slight performance gain to that too.
It's worth noting that these problems may just be contributing to a more complex issue as they only seem to cause a problem in the context of a larger movie - I tried creating a Flash file with just these commands alone, but that runs fine.
For searching, I'll also include the original error that I was searching for when the problem initially occurred - this is returned when Flash crashes .NET although others advised that this error also occurs sometimes when trying to send data between .NET and a hosted Flash object.
************** Exception Text **************
System.NullReferenceException: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.
at System.Windows.Forms.UnsafeNativeMethods.CallWindowProc(IntPtr wndProc, IntPtr hWnd, Int32 msg, IntPtr wParam, IntPtr lParam)
at System.Windows.Forms.NativeWindow.DefWndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.Control.DefWndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.Control.WndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.AxHost.WndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.ControlNativeWindow.OnMessage(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.ControlNativeWindow.WndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.NativeWindow.Callback(IntPtr hWnd, Int32 msg, IntPtr wparam, IntPtr lparam)
Update on this: The problem contined to occur after removing the calls to Accessibility.updateProperties() - I'm of the opinion now that the problem was entirely down to the XML object, but that the updateProperties() was exacerbating the problem, but not enough to cause it by itself.
Looking into some Flash 8 examples has revelead some new tags for the new file format. The change from Flash 6 to Flash 7 only added two new tags, SCRIPTLIMITS and SETTABINDEX, the last tag having a value of 66. Decompiling Tinic Uro's text example reveals tags 69, 75, 73, 74. Tags 75 and 73 carry the bulk of the data - it's reasonable to assume these contain the font outlines for the new FlashType font rendering. This isometric grid image by Guy Watson also has the same tags, with 69 present near the beginning of the file and 73,74 and 75 clustered around the text field.
What this boils down to is that older flash files won't be able to fully take advantage of the new font rendering capabilities - they'll need to be republished in Flash 8 to generate the new tags. Tag 69 is mysterious - maybe something to do with the security model or directive about how the movie should be played. In addition, there may be new tags in the gaps (67,68,70,71 and 72).
There's an informative thread today on Flashcoders on the alternatives to Macromedia's components. There's a few reasons to look for alternatives - in my case, for Question Writer, it was because of copyright restrictions. There's other reasons to look for different components too - more lightweight components or more complex components.
There's a lot of value in good components - I regularly hear people lauding the Flex components for instance, although usually grumbling because they can't use them ;)
Anyway, without further ado, here's the direct links to the different components - there's more details and comments at the archived thread itself.
Update 6th October, 2005:
Battle of the component sets
The upgrade options to Flash 8 Studio look a lot more liberal than previous upgrade requirements and seems designed to get everyone signed up for the whole studio. The UK site has this to say about upgrade requirements -
Customers of any past versions of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks or Studio are eligible to upgrade to Studio 8 for a single, simplified price of £299 (UK, commercial pricing) regardless of version number.
The US version is more specific, listing products from MX onwards and saying other products are excluded. That seems like a disparity - I guess it'll be MX products upwards all round when the wrinkles are ironed out.
It's just been 5 days since I announced the preview edition of Question Writer - but already it's the number one site for a search on the product title on MSN and also on Yahoo but only registers as search result 8 on Google. It's not a hotly contested term and while there might be some debate as to what is the most relevant result for the search term, I think most would agree that product of that name is the most relevant. I'd expect it to rank more highly in Google over the coming weeks but Google definitely seems to be slower to either crawl or index the new site.
I've owned a domain name for a for a while that draws a small but regular flow of vistors searching for information about Irish surnames. It's not been doing much so I've decided to try to create some discussion around the topic using a forum design suggested by Joel Spolsky. It got the problem of not having any 'magnet' content, but I'm hopeful it will see some posts and responses solely based on the way the forum is designed. We'll see.
I'm delighted to see that Question Writer's been picked up by Jane Knight on her 'What's New at the e-learning Center' blog. Jane maintains probably the most complete e-learning resource at the e-Learning Center - great for tools, services, events in the e-learning world.
Hard disks always go wrong eventually - they come with MTBF ratings, that's Mean Time
Before Failure Between Failures. The manufacturer just knows that one day all that data is going away and not coming back. They're like lightbulbs, but less predicatable. That's why it's such a good idea to make backups, and preferably offsite. Then when your hard disk goes tits up, you'll feel smug, rather than homicidal.
If you've worked with computers for any length of time, you'll probably have had the task of recovering data from a 'dead' hard disk. Maybe your own, maybe a friends, maybe the business next door. I've had a few to deal with over the years and in all the situations, all the important data was recoverable without calling in professional services. Usually it's just a question of loading up some file recovery software, scanning the disk for files that are intact and copying them to a new drive. But here's something more involved - the electronics in this guy's drive were totally fried but rather than give up on it, he got a drive of exactly the same model and used it for parts to get the old drive working again. That's great geek heroics. The attitude with most electronics is that it's easier and cheaper to replace rather than to repair and that's pretty wasteful. But that attitude doesn't work well with hard disks when there's all that data resting on it.
I'm announcing the availability of a preview version of a new Flash development tool, Question Writer. It's a 1.0 release, but it's for preview purposes because the manual isn't ready yet. I wanted to get in a quick word about it before the Flash 8 release consumes all the oxygen in the Flash world for the next few months. If you're the kind of person who doesn't read the manual anyway, you might be interested in what we've got to show right now.
So what is it? It's a rapid e-learning development tool for creating surveys, assessments, tests, quizzes etc. While its primary focus is on questions, it can be used to create any kind of content that could benefit from a bit of additional interactivity.
If you're an Actionscript programmer, hopefully you'll be excited because it allows you to create any new question type as a Flash MX component which can then be parameterized with movie clips that are made by Question Writer. We're hoping to create a market for these kind of extended question types.
If you're a Flash designer, I'm hoping you'll be excited because you can create rich learning content, filled with interactivity and feedback without having to become a programmer. You can import virtually any existing Flash 6 content for use as backgrounds, buttons, video, audio and animations within Question Writer content. Then you can export it all as a new theme that anyone can use. We're hoping to create a market for these themes too.
If you're a project manager, I'm sure that you'll like that you can have your designer creating the theme, at the same time that your programmer creates the code for new question types, at the same time that your content matter expert is writing the questions. Then you can plug it all together. When you're finished, you can re-use all the different elements again for the next project.
If you're creating tests for the government or schools, I think you'll like that we've paid a lot of attention to accessibility and Question Writer creates content that is fully compatible with screen readers and includes accessibility features.
If you like to use all those strange characters that most of the world just insists upon using, you'll be interested to know that you can just type, cut and paste all those Unicode characters just like they were real actual letters ;)
If you develop for mobile devices, you might want to know that all the content is combined into a single lightweight file that runs on Flash MX and uses the timeline much more than actionscript so can run on fairly low-end processors without a lot of memory.
If you're a business manager, I know you'll be delighted with the productivity improvements gained by using Question Writer. It'll take less time to create new content, less time to maintain it, less time on bug-fixing, less time on accessibility issues, less time on your next project because you'll really be re-using code, questions and themes.
If you use an LMS or a VLE, you'll be glad to know that QW publishes SCORM compliant packages that you can import into any SCORM compliant system. Then it returns every score you define through the cmi data model meaning you can keep track of the results within your existing system. You can also publish tests for use on CDROM or to the web and get the results back in lovely industry standard XML.
The Publisher Edition is $6795 and the Author Edition is available for $1795. The difference is that output from the Author Edition is branded as content that has been created with Question Writer. Both come with 12 month upgrade protection. This is a preview release but if you're eager to start using it - it's also available for sale. You won't lose out because the 12 month protection is extended to begin from when the full release is available.
It's been two years coming, I really do hope you like it. Have a look at some samples, try the evaluation version to get started. There's no manual, so you'll probably have some questions, you can ask them on the forum - no registration needed.