I've put up a short example of some psychometric style questions today. There's a lot of companies with these kind of tests and Flash is the ideal technology for putting them online. Once-upon-a-time this required an experienced Flash/Actionscript programmer but now a designer or a subject matter expert can use Question Writer to convert these kind of tests in a single afternoon.
This technology is condemned as heresy in some circles. A friend of mine even declared it an abomination. When words like heresy and abomination start cropping up, I know the objections are more religious than technical.
The impious, godless blasphemy? J#. Pronounced 'J Sharp' - It's a .NET technology that looks a lot like Java 1.1, so much so, that it runs most Java 1.1 code. We had a large codebase in Java and wanted it to run under .NET. There was some work to be done with getting it running under J# - for various reasons, I had to factor out all the code dealing with JPEG files and Zip streams. Some methods of Java objects just didn't seem to be there, and there are more bugs in the J# libraries than you'd see with the much more widely used Java. But after working though those problems, now we've got a single codebase that compiles both in Java and in .NET - and that's a big win.
For our .NET install - we could have just asked the user to install the Java runtime and then called out to an external process to do the compilation. But there's two big problems with that - a) the installation becomes a lot more complex b) the application feels like a patchwork. It's so much nicer if an application lives and breathes the OS that it's running on. That's what J# gave us without having to rewrite everything.
Alcohol Counselling Services is based in Dublin, Ireland and offers counselling for alcohol addiction. They've just used Question Writer to make the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test, MAST, available on-line. It has 25 questions and it uses the answers to indicate whether or not a person may be abusing alcohol. As with all screeners, I think it will err more on the side of false positives rather than false negatives, but it's a widely used and respected test.
The last in this short series of component questions is the slider component. This component uses the contents of the first option as the background for the slider and uses the second option as the actual slider button. This is a bit of a hack as these are interface elements and not real options. However this small conceit allows for a greater range of question components. I can see a similar method working well for a drag n' drop style question component for example.
Documentation for all the components is on-line now as part of the manual. Also, let me know if there are any question components that you'd like to see - I'll take any requests into consideration when deciding on the next component to make.
This is another sample of a question component - this time it's a ranking component. It works on the same framework as the drop down component - the code is encapsulated inside the flash component file - then the author can use Question Writer to create different pieces of content, which the test taker can then rank in order to respond to the question.
On a recent thread at FlashInsider, Mike Schleifstein made the suggestion that Macromedia could donate some copies of Breeze to the University of New Orleans. JD responded saying that it sounded reasonable but that it was beyond his ability to judge and provided a link to Macromedia's Software Donation Program.
Central Question is too small to have a formal Software Donation Program - that would be a lot of administrative overhead, but what is a lot easier is to point to Macromedia's guidelines and say that if your non-profit falls within those guidelines, I'm more than happy to donate our software too. More than happy because I like to see people using software that I've written and knowing it is for a good cause.
The second survey I'm writing about was also in the MGM Grand. In this case there were recruiters in the shopping area of the Hotel. The proposition was straightforward - watch a TV show in the screening room and complete a survey at the end. "It's free entertainment, takes less than an hour and you'll get some free vouchers at the end". The recruitment is professional, with uniformed representatives and a very stylish screening room visible nearby.
I report back at the start of the next hour and after a short wait take a seat in front of one of the terminals. There's a lady there to explain the process. She mock chastises a couple at the front says she may have to separate them if they keep talking. It's good natured and she explains that she used to be a school teacher.
First we've got to complete a registration form on the console - there's a touch screen here and a keyboard, but they've made a major mistake here by not providing a mouse. The form is a simple HTML form and it meets all the W3C guidelines on accessibility, but it's not very accessible because there's no mouse. The elements have to be highlighted using the touch screen, but it's difficult to hit a small radio button or text field with my big fat cartoon-sized fingers. Of course I know how to TAB and Shift-TAB my way around - but this audience isn't full of geeks who know those kind of things - they'd be much more comfortable with a mouse.
I can see the thinking that has gone into this - it's kind of a melange of 'Touch Screen for Accessibility' and 'W3C guidelines for accessiblity' combined to make something that's just not accessible. They either should be using a touch screen with great big bright buttons in a Flash survey - or use an HTML based survey with a keyboard and mouse.
Next we're all given audience feedback devices, these have a dial that can go from 0 to 100 and we're asked to change that dial during the showing accoriding to how much we like or dislike what we're seeing. It's not explained well exactly how these should be used - I'm not sure to turn it up for the jokes that I like and then turn it back down again or to leave it, or only turn it down when I see something I don't like. I do my best with it and try to respond to what I'm seeing. I notice on the back of these devices that they're provided by a UK company - IML Ltd. (Aside - there is an episode of the West Wing where they are used extensively to judge a State of Union address).
After the showing, it's back to the console to complete a survey - again this is with the HTML mouse-less interface. It's a let down in an otherwise very well organized event. The girl on my left accidentally exits the survey early - I think she was having difficultly moving the scrollbar with the touch screen. I struggle through - there are pages and pages of radio buttons at the end of the survey asking me to rate all the TV shows I've heard of. Usually this is the point in surveys where I click the next button to get to the end, but the invigilation/school-room effect kicks in and I dutifully complete all the answers accurately.
At the end we're all given some vouchers - those are pretty disappointing - 2 for one hotdogs and pretzels - that sort of thing.
I guess the conclusion here is that you've got to see the actual user experience rather than just blindly follow guidelines of how things should be. Also the invigilation/school-room effect is useful for keeping survey participants focused.
A while ago I decided to use Plimus to process credit card transactions for Question Writer sales. As a small software company, the added hassle of credit card processing doesn't justify the savings so it is something that we've been happy to outsource.
An added benefit is that they also run and process an affiliate sales program - so if you're finding yourself recommending Question Writer to clients and you'd like a little love for that, make sure to sign up with Plimus and have clients click through your link when purchasing for a 10% commission on the sale.