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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fog Creek Copilot

I had the chance to use Copilot this evening. According to the website, Copilot is remote assistance software that is easy to install and use and works through most firewalls. Of course, I put this to the test this evening.

My uncle was having some computer problems. He's fairly new to computers and has a hard time understanding the basic concepts of the Windows (every software engineer needs to talk to somebody like my uncle in order to understand how bad software usability truly is). He's been trying to install a Hewlett Packard printer and it refused to install. He didn't get anywhere with Hewitt Packard phone support, which they offshored to India (see my earlier post today, and yes, the article mentioned is written by the co-founder of Fog Creek software who makes the Copilot software I'm reviewing), so he called me.

I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to help him over the phone and he lives a few states away from me so I couldn't exactly drive to his house. I needed a remote solution. There are several to choose from and some of them are free, but the one I picked was Fog Creek Copilot. I picked it because I enjoy reading Joel on Software and they seem like a good company to do business with. They also claim that their Copilot software is really easy to use which was very important in this case.

I was happy to find they had a test drive that would allow me to control his computer for a couple minutes in order to make sure it would really work before I had to give up any credit card information (that really helped put my mind at ease about the software). I also found it ridiculously easy to install the software and get it running on my machine. Now comes the difficult part, getting the software to run on my uncle's machine.

He was having some trouble with his email and so I didn't want to send him an email about the service so I had him open up his browser and type in the URL. He had some difficulty spelling it, but he finally was able to get to the webpage. Once there he had a very difficult time finding the textbox to enter the code in. I explained to him about the green box and the white box to enter text in it, but that didn't seem to help. After several minutes, he finally figured out where to put the code I gave him. He was able to figure out how to hit Go after a couple of minutes and then he had trouble figuring out how to download the software. Several dialog boxes popped up warning him of the software (I know Fog Creek doesn't control this, this is Microsoft's bad) and I had to walk him through each one. He was finally able to connect and it worked great, for 2 minutes, the length of the test drive.

I was happy that I could use the test drive to make sure the software was going to work, but I was disappointed that I was disconnected after the 2 minutes was up. I had to close the software, go back to the website, enter my credit card information, and then get another code. This caused my uncle to have to enter a new code in and download the software again, which I had to walk him through again :(. What's worse, the other version of Copilot was still running and without being able to see the screen, I couldn't help him close it (as I mentioned, he doesn't really understand the concept of Windows). I ended up just having him restart his computer (I knew the steps to do that) and then had to walk him through all the steps to install Copilot again.

During this process he had indicated that he was having trouble viewing the fonts on the screen (they were a bit small for him) so I installed IE7 for him (the magnification feature is great for this). This required a reboot. The reboot disconnected us from the remote session. This caused me to have to walk him through the process again (by this time he was able to do some of it on his own, but not everything). Through the process of helping him, we had to restart the machine several times, each time got easier, but I still had to walk him through a lot of it.

I didn't look at other remote software out there, but my guess is that Copilot compares favorably to most other programs out there for ease of use. This test was particularly challenging and I did find some deficiencies, but overall, I was very happy with the product. I was able to talk him through the installation process, it performed well with my DSL and his cable, and it worked without any special configuration. I will definitely be using this software again.

If Fog Creek happens to read this post, here are my suggestions for improving the software...

  1. Avoid disconnects at all costs. Allow payments to be made during a session (I should be able to enter payment information directly from the software) and automatically reestablish a connection after restarting the computer (even a shortcut on the desktop would be better than having to go through the website each time).
  2. If trying to connect and Copilot is already running, either close the previous instance or use the new code. Don't fail. It may seem obvious to anybody with some computer experience to know how to shut it down, but it wasn't to my uncle and I had no way of helping him because I didn't know what the screen looked like.
  3. Make the Receive Help page easier to use. If it only had the box for entering the code, that would be useful. A large blinking arrow pointing to the textbox would have been very useful (horribly tacky, but easy to explain over the phone). Don't change the screen. I know it seems like a nice feature to allow them to reconnect to the previous session, but as the person giving help, I didn't know what the screen looked like and couldn't help him find the correct link.
  4. Provide screenshots to the person giving help of all the different screens possible that the person receiving help will see that the person giving help won't (both on the website and in the product). This could be done in a few minutes and might help out on a few of the previous issues (like the disconnect button in #2 and the connect to previous session link in #3). Put these screenshots directly on the Help Someone page to make them very easy to find. It would be nice if the page included a script as well. Being a software engineer, I may not realize that some of the terms I use are considered advanced and probably confused my uncle. If a script was provided for me, perhaps it would use more appropriate terminology.

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