“It won’t repro”

In a comment on an item last month about Photo Gallery, Mary Branscombe writes:

I’m having an issue at the moment where renaming a file in Windows Live Photo Gallery seems to reset the date on the file so WLPG sees a file from May 2006 as having been taken today. Has anyone else seen this? Changing the name also loses my tags and confuses WLPG so it can’t upload it to flickr… All JPEGs.

That’s a perfectly plausible problem report. But I couldn’t reproduce it, and neither could a couple of product managers I asked to take a look. If it “won’t repro” we’re stuck.

But there might be a way out of this bind. The description “renaming a file in Windows Live Gallery seems to reset the date” is reasonably precise, but there can be all kinds of nuances that would be difficult for Mary to convey, or that she might not even be aware of. That’s why it’s a great idea to capture a screencast that illustrates the problem you’re having. You can do that with Windows Media Encoder which remains, as I’ve been saying for years, sadly unknown and unappreciated. If you’ve never installed or used it, John Montgomery’s recent screencast shows you how.

I wish that this sort of diagnostic screencasting were more accessible to people. Even I don’t reach for the tool as often as I should, and when I don’t, I regret it. For example, last year I ran into an issue with an application that suddenly wouldn’t save a particular file type. Of course it “wouldn’t repro” and I got into a long back-and-forth with the developer in the course of which I wound up installing a specially instrumented version of the program to capture a detailed log file.

In the end we found that, as is so often the case, it was a silly little thing. The export feature broke when I switched, without realizing it, from an absolute path:

c:/jon/…

to a relative path:

/jon/…

It turns out that a third-party component used by the program for this export operation won’t accept relative paths. The program needed to know that (which it didn’t) and, if a user entered a relative path, needed to transform it into an absolute one.

We’ll never know how things might have otherwise turned out. But if I’d shown the developer a screencast of my problem scenario, there’s a decent chance he’d have said: “Hmm. Something unusual about that path in the file save box.”

So I’ve asked Mary Branscombe to make a diagnostic screencast, and if you find yourself in a similar situation I urge you to do the same. Pictorial descriptions of software behavior can enhance verbal descriptions with details that we ourselves aren’t aware of.

7 Comments

  1. I had grabs and I thought – ‘is it polite (or even possible) to paste those into comments on a blog?’ and didn’t. A screencast is going to give you much more but are grabs good as a start?

    And I’d assume that recording the full screen rather than a window would give you more chance to spot any interactions and that High quality to make the fonts legible is best – you guys have big enough screens and inboxes, right? ;-)

    and thanks again for showing that the blogs are a good place to get to the people who need to know about these things.
    M

  2. “A screencast is going to give you much more but are grabs good as a start?”

    They’re great, but I’ve just reviewed what you sent me privately — which, of course, I “can’t repro” — and there was a nice example of how nuances can creep in. You said your method of renaming is to “see a photo in the Sidebar gadget, click to open…” I presume you meant Photo Gallery’s sidebar, not Vista’s, but it could have been the latter. With a screencast there’d be no such possibility for a terminological mixup. Plus, the audio narration in synch with the screen action would be a really rich way to express the intentions and expectations associated with your actions.

    “you guys have big enough screens and inboxes, right?”

    Sure. Of course if you have a place on the Net to park the thing, conveying just the URL is a better approach. Not only because of mailbox size, but because it’s easier to collaborate around a shared reference than around a shared object.

  3. Funny you should mention this. Just a few weeks ago I had an interesting idea: what if you had a Tivo-like “live rewind” for your computer screen — a buffer of, say, the last 30 seconds of activity? Any time an application crashes, you could make available to a technician not just a stack trace, but a screencast of what you were doing at the time, even if you can’t reproduce the error. It could come in handy at other times too — you suddenly discover the files you were just about to copy have disappeared, so you rewind the screen and find you inadvertently dragged and dropped them into another folder.

    I’m not sure whether this would be technically feasible. I imagine it might consume an unacceptable amount of resources to be capturing all the time. Still, perhaps worth a try. Or has it already been done?

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