Debugging Slow Playback in Captivate Courses

So you spend weeks slaving over a hot CPU creating a new masterpiece e-learning course in Captivate. You've taken all reasonable steps to make your project as web-friendly as possible. You even used images that were resized for the Captivate screen in your graphics program BEFORE you imported them, so that they're optimised for web playback.  Your voiceover audio output is set to a quality level that is acceptable without showing MP3 compression "whooshiness".  Etc, etc. 

You thought of everything, and it works perfectly...on your PC.  Then you upload it to your webserver or LMS and everybody loves it...except for a small percentage of users that start complaining like this:

  • "The playback stops and starts sometimes."
  • Text animations don't play completely."
  • "Slides take too long to transition."
  • "As I'm completing the quiz, it takes longer and longer for the next quiz slide to appear."

What is really frustrating about these issues is that you cannot replicate them on your own PC and most users don't seem to have them.  Just a few.  If this ever happens to you, I've provided some suggestions below to help track down the cause/s of the issue. 

But please note that the rule of thumb in these cases is as follows:

If the vast majority of users are NOT experiencing problems, the fault is most likely NOT with your course content.  So before you waste time making alterations to your course, check out the other possible reasons first.  On the other hand, if the majority of the users ARE complaining about the same thing, then the issue IS most likely at your end and you will need to change something about either the content or the way it's being delivered.

Steps to Debugging Playback Issues

  • Old or corrupted Flash Player plugins are the most common cause of playback issues (in my person experience). Check that users who are complaining are on the correct version of Flash Player. Flash Player 10 can play significantly better than Flash 9.  It's also not uncommon for users in corporate environments to have been missed out in upgrades so that their version of Flash player is quite old.  Don't accept the word of an IT dude that tells you: "All of our users are on the latest version of Flash Player."  I've found plenty that slipped through the cracks.
  • Find out more details from the users that are complaining about their actual PC setup. For example, check that they actually are not using some old clunker PC that should have been a boat anchor years ago. Remember that a lot of what goes on to play back Flash content involves the CPU decoding compressed files.  So the CPU speed is actually more important than the amount of RAM. 
  • Don't believe everything you hear.  If at all possible, actually go and sit with the users that are complaining to watch the behaviour they're talking about. It might not turn out to be the way they said, or as bad as they claimed. If you cannot sit with them, can you arrange a screensharing session?  Your IT support people will likely have this facility because they use it all the time to take control of users workstations remotely.
  • Ask the user to check defragmentation on their PC hard drive.  Most users DON'T know how to do this and as a result never defragment.  I have seen PCs in corporate IT environments that had not been defragmented in several years, perhaps since new.  Their hard drive showed up mostly red when the fragmentation analysis was done.  This lack of PC housekeeping can contribute to many issues, especially with Flash or multimedia playback.  Ask the user to defragment 2 or 3 times to be on the safe side.
  • Watch the CPU on Task Manager while the PC is playing the Captivate presentation.  The performance monitor should tell you if the CPU is struggling and unable to decode the content fast enough.
  • Try to have another user log onto the same machine using a different profile and see if they experience the same issues.  This can tell you whether the issue is due to a corrupted user profile.  Conversely, have the same user log onto a different machine, creating a new profile for themselves on that PC to see if they experience the same issue.  If it seems to be their profile at fault, they may need to get some IT dude to blow away their profile and set it up afresh.
  • Check whether or not the issue could be due to server latency.  This is especially the case where LMSs are involved.  Users will often experience latency issues such as slow transitions from one quiz slide to the next because the course module has to wait for the LMS to respond to each interaction before it can move forward.  If this is occurring for a significant number of users, you can try using the optional SCORM template that only sends tracking data at the end of the module instead of all the way through.  This template comes standard with Captivate 5.5 but was also shipped out with recent updates to Captivate 5.  If you're on an earlier version of Captivate, you can download the template from here.

Bottom line from my experience is this: If 95% of your user-base is playing the Captivate content without issue, you don't need to change anything.  Chances are that whatever is going wrong for the few that are complaining about poor playback wouldn't necessarily improve no matter what you did to your project.  You need to isolate what exactly is causing the issue for these users and correct it ON THEIR END.