I asked because I wanted to refresh familiarity with these apps. Though I had previously used Captivate and Articulate, it had been a while (just so happened they weren’t applicable to projects) and of course lots had changed.
My preference was to crank up only one free trial and I thought opinions from peers in instructional design would narrow things down. I posted the question and sat back in anticipation of the kind of fierce debate not seen since WordPerfect aficionados squared off against Word connoisseurs.
End of day one: crickets. End of day three: zero responses. End of week three: still zip. Well, drat, I thought, I’ll just have to free-trial both.
As I penciled time into my calendar to do that, I wondered how less experienced training designers would choose an authoring tool. The answer is they may not choose at all. They’d likely make do with other tools or buy based on a consultant’s recommendation. The realization inspired a slightly different approach to using the free trials, and this review.
A Review with Lack of Experience in Mind
This review is not about how these tools work for experienced instructional designers. The focus is not on why clients should buy a certain authoring tool for a consultant’s use on their project. This review is about things that can be important after the contract is over and the highly experienced designer walks out the door.
The Short Version of This Review
For those who just want a recommendation, here it is: Articulate 360.
Articulate has a much cleaner interface; the more sophisticated functions are relatively easy to pick up; its help resources are genuinely helpful; and the gallery of characters (photos and illustrations) is broad enough to convey true human diversity. The addition of Rise in 2020 only makes Articulate 360 an even stronger choice.
I’ll go into more detail in a bit but first need to share a couple caveats.
- It’s possible the Adobe Captivate free trial does not compare to a full subscription. (It was easy to tell what more was available from Articulate, which is another point in its favor.)
- This review focuses on Articulate Storyline and the equivalent Adobe Captivate component. Please also note I’ll reference just “Articulate” or “Captivate” from here.
Looking for Value Beyond the Baseline
As instructional designers and consultants, clients depend on us to use their money wisely. Many do not need eLearning created by software such as Captivate and Articulate. Other software (Word/pdf and PowerPoint/webinar) is often preferable for a number of reasons.
That said, authoring tools like Articulate and Captivate provide features and functions that cannot be matched by the typical Office suite. In these cases, it’s important to consider whether those features and functions provide ongoing value after the contract is complete.
The baseline value is that clients can easily update courses on their own. I looked at whether each tool goes beyond that baseline to help less experienced designers create new courses on their own.
I also assessed with my sales hat on, and considered possible challenges an employee may have in re-selling her boss on maintaining the subscription.
Articulate is the winner on all of the above. Before detailing why and how, it’s important to acknowledge Captivate is a fine choice, as well.
Two Terrific Options
Captivate and Articulate both provide ways to incorporate voiceover, video, graphics and artwork, interactions, and knowledge checks—to name just a handful of options. Both also make it easy to design once for use on various devices (desktop, tablet, and phone). It’s wonderful to have two leading providers from which to choose.
Now for the reasons why I recommend Articulate even for less-experienced or occasional instructional designers.
How easy/hard is it to know what buttons/commands will do?
Use-it-or-lose-it, combined with lots of changes, put me in a good position to assess this. Articulate’s buttons made more immediate sense, and as I hovered over them the explanations popped up more quickly. Most people will find it easy to get started.
Why this is important:
Easily understanding what commands do is different from discovering what they do. People who rarely use these tools are often a bit impatient or stressed about diving in. If they have to experiment to make it work…they probably won’t. Existing courses won’t get needed updates (unless there’s budget to hire someone), and new courses won’t be created (making the subscription a waste).
Is the authoring tool clearly different from PowerPoint?
Articulate does not look like some sort of add-on. In contrast; someone who happened to look over my shoulder as I opened Captivate thought the only way to use it was to first import a PowerPoint deck (it’s not, in case you’re wondering).
Why this matters:
Let’s face it, the basic functions of these tools are no different from PowerPoint (PPT). Though a tool that operates a lot like PPT may seem desirable due to a shorter learning curve, this familiarity often leads less experienced designers down the wrong path.
We do not want to leave clients with a tool that encourages design based on a low bar—we want them to achieve a higher standard. A tool like Articulate 360, that looks and operates differently from PowerPoint, is more likely to inspire using its more sophisticated features.
Besides, the boss may not be happy to learn she’s paying for something that appears to be a duplicate of PowerPoint. This brings the review to a seemingly shallow point of comparison.
Does the authoring tool project an image of value?
Articulate simply looks better than Captivate. Its color scheme, layout, and native graphics project sophistication and value.
This matters for two reasons:
It’s harder to persuade those holding the purse strings that a clunky-looking tool is worth it. Consultants may wield enough cachet to succeed with that, but employees may have trouble getting subscription renewals approved.
In addition, the immediate coolness factor may help inspire new users to get through the learning curve. (On the other hand, the sophisticated look may be intimidating.)
Do the templates do more than jump-start a PPT-like course?
Captivate and Articulate provide templates for a wide range of layouts and interactions (e.g., learners mouse over something and text appears). Since I was familiar with creating interactions using both tools, I asked two friends to test going beyond sticking content into templates. I even stepped away so I wouldn’t be tempted to help them.
Both friends found it easy to change an interaction template’s color scheme and text. The person working with Articulate was also able to apply the interaction itself in a new way, on a new slide. Though this test doesn’t account for one person’s potentially greater patience, Articulate still gets the win on this point.
Why this matters:
Templates certainly have their advantages. However, we don’t want templates to drive design—design should come first. This means it’s not enough that users can lay content into existing templates, they need to be able to easily adjust templates and functions to meet their training design goals.
Article update: The option to use Rise
Articulate added Rise in 2020, just in time to help with greater need for distance/eLearning.
Rise is a template-heavy tool. Though there are many templates to chose from, the potential downside is users may skip or slight basic design. But there are many upsides to Rise, including higher probability the eLearning will look very good on mobile devices.
How effectively will provided images and characters help reach design goals?
If this review was about nifty ways to procrastinate by looking through images, Articulate and Captivate would each get very high marks. However, it’s Articulate’s gallery of characters (photos and illustrations of humans) that deserves the highest praise.
The characters gallery offers diversity in terms of age, gender, and so on. Even more importantly, it is easy to find a wide range of facial expressions and gestures—including subtly different expressions—for a single character. In addition, many images look as if the character is speaking to the learner.
Why this is important:
Using images of a person talking “to” learners is a best practice because it emulates what happens in instructor-led training. Using a single character as the instructor is a best practice, as well, because that makes it easier for learners to follow the flow.
Experienced designers can work around a character with a limited range of expression; picking and choosing when to use the images. With Articulate, there’s far less need for such work-arounds. Even beginner designers can easily apply the above best practices.
How easily can users get help?
The importance of good help is obvious. The automated help offered by both tools is acceptable, but Articulate’s E-Learning Heroes community is outstanding: appropriate search results, responsive and helpful humans—sorry, heroes—and an inviting layout. The community is also easy to find and access, and is open to users whether they have an active subscription or not.
Closing with Gratitude
Though Articulate 360 is likely to be what I recommend for many of my clients, that doesn’t mean you should take my word for it. Adobe and Articulate provide free trials with generous access to their eLearning authoring tools, which allows anyone to determine fit and value. I’m grateful for that access and hope the points in this review help inform your own assessment.
Articulate 360 is a suite of products that can be used to author eLearning courses.
Adobe’s Captivate offers a similar suite. If you’re a power user of Adobe’s other programs, you may find you can make Captivate sing.