September 2, 2005

Creating a software demo with Impress

Author: Dmitri Popov

If you've ever tried to explain how a particular feature or application works without actually showing it, you know how difficult that can be. A good software demo can really save the day for anyone from developers wanting to demonstrate their software to home users trying to explain to their family members how to create a simple document. If you want to create a software demo, you don't have to buy an expensive closed source application such as Demo Builder, Viewlet Builder, or Turbo Demo. Instead, you can use free software tools that may already be installed on your machine, namely the GIMP and Impress. Here is how to create a software demo that includes some essential elements: cursor movements, button clicks, animated menus, and callouts.

Before you can start building the software demo in Impress, you have to do some preparatory work. First of all, you need a picture of a cursor with a transparent background. If you don't have it, you can easily create one using the GIMP. The easiest way is to start with an existing cursor image with a solid colour background. Open it in the GIMP and press the Select Regions by Color button. Click somewhere on the background, invert the selection using the Select > Invert command (Ctrl-I), copy the selection (Ctrl-C), and paste it into a new image (Edit > Paste as New). Save the resulting image in PNG format, and your cursor is ready.

The next step is to take screenshots that you will use to simulate the sequence of user actions. How many screenshots you take depends on how detailed you want your software demo to be. Generally, take as many screenshots as possible; you can always throw out the ones you don't need. Keep in mind that you will need not only screenshots of the application's active windows, but also menus, drop-down lists, tooltips, and other such items. For example, if you have a window with a drop-down list in it, you should take two screenshots: one before the drop-down list is clicked and expanded, and one after.

For taking screenshots you can either use tools available on your machine (for example, KSnapshot on Linux and the PrintScreen button on Windows) or the screenshot feature in the GIMP (File > Acquire > Screen Shot). The latter allows you to take screenshots of the whole screen or an active window, as well as specify a delay, which can come in handy for taking screenshots of menus and lists.

Once you have all the pieces, you are ready to assemble them into a software demo. Launch Impress, create an empty presentation, choose Format > Page, and make sure that the page format is set to Screen.

The first thing you might want to do is to change the overall appearance of the software demo by modifying the slide master. For example, you might want to change the background colour (a darker background is perfect for bright screenshots) and add navigation buttons. To edit the slide master, choose View > Master > Slide Master. To set the background colour, choose Format > Page, click on the Background tab, and select the colour you want. To add a navigation button that will allow you to jump to the first slide, insert the button image (Insert > Picture > From File), right-click on it, and choose the Interaction menu item. From the 'Action at mouse click' drop-down list, select the 'Go to first slide' option. In a similar manner you can add a button that exits the demo. Once you are done with the slide master, press the Close Master View button.

Now you can start working on the software demo. Let's say you want the opening slide to contain a screenshot of some application's main window with explanatory callouts. Insert the screenshot using the Insert > Picture > From File command. To add a callout, click on the Callouts button on the Drawing toolbar (if the toolbar is not shown, activate it via View > Toolbars > Drawing). Select the callout type you like and draw it in the slide. To change the callout's characteristics, such as colour, drop shadow, and transparency, right-click on it and choose the Area menu item. To add text to the callout, double-click inside of it and start typing (or instead of double-clicking, you can press Enter). To add another callout that appears after the first one, duplicate the slide, remove the original callout, and add a new one.

Tip -- By default the text inside the callout will be kept on one line. To wrap a longer text inside the callout, right-click on the text, select the Text menu item, and tick the 'Word wrap text in shape' check box.

To define how long each callout is displayed, use the Slide Transition pane. For example, if you want the first callout to be displayed for 11 seconds, select the 'Automatically after' option and set it to 11 seconds in the Advance slide section.

To simulate the user activity, you also need to add some cursor movements and button clicks to your software demo. First off, insert the picture of the cursor that you created earlier. To make the cursor move, you have to apply a custom animation to it. You can do this in the Custom Animation pane. To make the cursor move from left to right, select it, press the Add button, click on the Motion Paths tab in the Custom Animation dialogue window, and select Right from the list. If the Automatic Preview check box is ticked, you will see the cursor movement in the slide. Unfortunately, you can't specify the distance of the cursor movement, so if you want it to stop at a certain position (for example, over a button), then you have to try different cursors' initial positions on the slide. When you are done with the custom animation, close the dialogue window, highlight the created animation in the Custom Animation pane, and specify the Start and Speed options (With previous and Medium respectively). In a similar manner you can add other movements. For example, if you add the Down custom animation and set its start option to After Previous, then the cursor will move from left to right and then down. In this way you can construct elaborated cursor movements.

When the cursor stops over a button, you might want to simulate a click on it. To do this, press the Add button to add a new custom animation, click on the Emphasis tab in the dialogue window, and select the Blink item. Close the dialogue window, highlight the created Blink animation, right-click on it, and select the Effect Options menu item. Click on the Sound drop-down list and select Other sound. Import a click sound file (assuming you have one), and press OK. Don't forget to set the start option to After previous.

Note -- Sound support in the current build of Impress is somewhat unreliable, and the click sound you've inserted may or may not work properly.

Finally, if the software demo contains menus and drop-down lists, you might want to add animation effects to them as well. This is actually easy. If you want to add a drop-down effect to a list, then create two slides: one containing the screenshot where the list isn't clicked and expanded, and one with the screenshot where the list is expanded. All you have to do now is to set the transition effect of the second slide to Wipe Down (in the Slide Transition pane, select Wipe Down from the Apply to selected slides list).

That's all there is to it. Admittedly, creating a software demo in Impress is a time-consuming process, but the pay-off can be huge: you save time for your audience, avoid frustrations, and impress other users with your skills.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, and Danish computer magazines.

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