UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 310 May 23, 2008

Group Video Chat: A Usability Evaluation

Back in January when I started this whole “getting to know the community” thing, I met a couple guys named @matto and @snook, a.k.a. Matthew Oliphant and Jonathan Snook respectively. Matthew had been following me based on David Armano’s recommendation, and I had followed him back because, well, I basically didn’t know anybody on Twitter. One night when I was staying at my folks’ place taking care of their dog, I saw Matto’s tweet about a chat on Y! Live. I had no idea what Y! Live was, but I clicked the link anyway. It was late, I was bored, and I was stranded at my parents’ apartment with nothing to do.

That first chat totally blew my mind. Here I was talking to two perfect strangers simultaneously — not just typing to them, but they could actually see and hear me. It was a feeling similar to the first time I signed on to AOL at the mere age of 11. You mean to tell me there are people on the other side of the computer who are conversing with me?!?! I had just gotten my MacBook Air, and had barely used a webcam before. It was magical.

More people that I didn’t know came in and out of the room. Matthew, being the host, introduced everyone, gave a short bio, explained how he knew them — and by the end of the conversation I had five new connections on Twitter.

For the next couple months I signed on to Y! Live quite a bit. Matthew was usually the host and Jonathan and I were frequent guests. Topics ranged from careers to technology to networking to conferences to family to whatever else happened to be on our minds at any given moment. But once I became a “regular,” I began to notice a familiar pattern of conversation among new users: everyone pointed out the usability problems. Newbies wouldn’t be using headphones and would cause a terrible echo. They wouldn’t be able to hear new people who entered the room and needed instruction on how to turn up the volume. How do I add someone to the video tray? Why can’t I click on a link in the chat window? Why is it so hard to copy and paste? More than half of the hours-long conversation would be troubleshooting technical or usability problems. It became a running joke. Oh, it’s his first time…

After a couple months, things tapered off. I think we all got tired of the choppy video, poor sound quality and lack of intention on Yahoo!’s part to improve the system. We had submitted several requests for usability enhancements — after all, there’s a “Share Your Ideas” link at the bottom of the page — but many of them were shot down, ignored, even deleted.

Tonight I found myself at home, longing for video chat. I suppose I felt like socializing (without leaving my apartment, of course). Still, the last few times we’d used Y! Live it was so screwy that it made the whole experience very un-fun. I wanted to find something new. Matthew has been sick, but he was willing to help, and we picked up a couple other testers along the way — Adam Kirschner and Joe D’Andrea.

Below are the pros and cons of the group video chat webapps that we used.

Y! Live

Link: http://live.yahoo.com

We didn’t sign on tonight (above is an old chat), but I just wanted to show you the benchmark against which the other contenders are judged. It offers a lot of functionality, but like I said before, there are usability problems galore:

  • You can only see five people at a time. If you’re the host, then only four. And since everyone gets to decide who’s displayed in their video tray, people that you’re watching might be having a conversation with someone you can’t see or hear. It gets confusing pretty quickly.
  • Sometimes you can’t hear the sound on someone, and in order to fix it you need to roll over the person’s face, drag the sound control all the way down, and then back up to the level you want it.
  • Links aren’t clickable in the chat window.
  • You have to be very deliberate when selecting text to copy in the chat window and sometimes it takes two or three tries to actually copy it.
  • It’s impossible to scroll up in the chat window when new messages are coming in. It jumps right back down.
  • The echo is atrocious.
  • The latency is worse. Audio and video are often out of synch. Video is badly pixelated. Sound drops at random. “Can you hear me?” is probably the most commonly asked question. People resort to typing instead of talking at all. Kind of defeats the purpose of video chat.
  • And lastly, one of my biggest pet peeves, the videos are tiled at the bottom of the screen, but meanwhile almost everyone’s webcam is situated at the top of the screen. Therefore, it is impossible to “look someone in the eye” while talking to them — not even close. I find my eyes darting back and forth constantly. I can’t see people’s reactions when I’m talking because I’m trying to look in the camera, or else my eyes look like they’re closed. It’s ridiculous.

Vawkr

Link: http://www.vawkr.com

Top of the page

Bottom of the page

Pros
  • No login required
  • Private URL
  • Clear video and sound (though Matto was a bit pixelated at times)
  • Much easier to copy from the chat window
Cons
  • Videos are at an odd angle, and make you wanna cock your head to the side
  • The first two chatters to enter the room are positioned at the top of the page with larger videos, while everyone else is horizontally stacked at the bottom of the page. It requires a page scroll so you can’t see everyone at once
  • More than five chatters and they start to fall off the bottom left side of the page [wasn't able to capture it]
  • No nickname identifiers in the chat, even after signing in
  • Oddly positioned chat window only shows last six lines
  • Still no ability to click on links
  • Very limited functionality

MeBeam

Link: http://www.mebeam.com

Four people

Six people

Pros
  • No login required (just enter a room name)
  • Very clear audio and video
  • Auto-scales and re-tiles video when new chatters enter the room
Cons
  • Very limited functionality. You can turn your your mic off and on, or you can “Mute” or “Fade” someone else. There’s no volume control.
  • The “Private” functionality doesn’t seem to work, as Matto tried clicking on it but everyone could still hear him (instead of just me, as we suspected it would work).
  • Chat is generally awful: only three-and-a-half lines are displayed at a time; there’s no scroll bar; and the text input field is clipped at the bottom of the page. If it weren’t for the guys telling me to “click the purple box — trust us, it’s there, just click on it,” I never would have found it.

Stickam

Link: http://www.stickam.com

Popout

In-page

Pros
  • It gives prominence to the host (even though I prefer not to be the host specifically for this reason)
  • You can view up to six other chatters at a time
  • The host can make another chatter the main video feed
  • High quality video and audio, but volumes were a bit low at first
  • Because there’s a login, usernames are displayed
  • You can invite people to the room via integrated AIM functionality
  • You can hide the text chat, all the videos, an individual’s video, change volume on yourself or others, flag someone as inappropriate, etc
  • Chat is a lot cleaner and the scroll bar works (though we didn’t test clickable links)
Cons
  • The sign up process is pretty lengthy
  • A couple times people got kicked out of the room when switching between in-page view and popout view
  • The host sees popout view by default while the guests see in-page view by default; it was a bit confusing for us at first while we were comparing notes on the interface and it isn’t clear why there needs to be a difference
  • Not quite sure what the “Caption” button does

The bottom line

Despite it requiring a login, Stickcam was our favorite option. It’s the most stable, most complete offering with a nice layout to boot. I preferred the Popout view because it’s more compact and you’re able to chat while looking at other websites or apps on your computer (pretty much impossible with other web-based video chat platforms, particularly Y! Live).

We purposefully left out desktop-based applications because of the need to, well, download something. A login is enough of a pain in the butt, especially when these chats are rather impromptu and we’re often soliciting friends on Twitter who want to be able to jump on quickly.

The search is far from over. While Stickcam stuck out (haha, no pun intended), I feel like there must be something better out there. If you know of a web-based multi-way video chat system not listed here, please post it in the comments and we’ll give it a whirl. And join us for a chat sometime! You just have to follow me on Twitter to find out when.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Whitney Hess is an independent user experience design consultant based in New York City, a strategic partner with Happy Cog, and user experience consultant for Boxee, among other startups and major corporations. She helps make stuff easy and pleasurable to use. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and a Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University. She writes about improving the human experience on her blog, Pleasure and Pain and can be reached via Twitter @whitneyhess.

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missing some of the images.