Interview with Nitobi Inc., the RobotReplay creator

RobotReplayA few weeks ago, RobotReplay was created, one of the most useful analytics tool in the web today.

In a few words, RobotReplay is what I reckon, the most convenient accessibility and usability workshop in the world, for free, anytime, anywhere. Basically, RobotReplay records all the sessions of your visitors, and shows you what every visitor did on your websites, from scrolling, clicks, completing of forms and selecting text.

The most important thing is that the end result / report is NOT a video but the page itself, and a little bit of javascript, so the bandwidth you save is from 1000% to 5000% perhaps. All you have to do to start monitoring your users, is to put a simple one line of javascript in every page of your website.

The guys from Nitobi Inc, the creators of RobotReplay, were happy enough to answer a few questions for me, clearing up a lot of aspects about RobotReplay but not only.

The interview:

Tell us a bit about Nitobi, the company that developed RobotReplay.

Nitobi is a boutique web user interface development company. Our focus is on helping developers build more usable web interfaces. Complete UI, our suite of Ajax based user interface components, are use by some of the worlds largest enterprises such as Bank of America, Motorola, Siemens, NASA and more.

We have 10 employees (mostly hybrid coders/designers) and have been operating in Vancouver, Canada since 1998. We’re really excited to be working at the forefront rich internet applications and helping developers and designers kick ass! We’re also publishing a book called “Enterprise Ajax” this summer with Prentice Hall.

Ok, so what is RobotReplay about ?

On the face of it, RR is about helping web designers and developers improve user experience. By enabling them to record and watch user sessions, they can make life better for their users. That might be as simple as improving site search, or making the ‘Products’ button easier to click. One big differentiator compared with other remote usability tools is that there’s nothing for the end user to install, which a big barrier to usage.

There’s one site I use regularly (I’m kind of reluctant to name them), and the ‘customer login’ button is directly below a navigation bar which
features dropdown menus. So, if you approach the button from above with your mouse cursor, the menu hides the login. Presumably if you watched 5 or 10 users do that on RR, you might move the login.

Why did you build RobotReplay ?

Well RobotReplay came out of a Nitobi “skunkworks” type project while we are actually trying to build an entirely different product, which we’re still going to do;-) But when we saw how powerful of tool it could be for remote usability testing we knew we had to get this out in the hands of web developers ASAP. We also wanted a tool for using on sites and projects and that could quickly and easily give us a sense for what our users were doing, and where they were running into problems.

What were the challenges that Nitobi faced, building RobotReplay ?

There were many. We spent several months just getting the JavaScript to record user interactions and events properly. Then figuring out how make the playback appear smooth and natural was another major hurdle, which we’re still working on improving. It’s not feasible to capture every data point and mouse position so we had to balance playback fidelity against data transmission and server load constraints. However, some other significant challenges cropped after we got it working and launched…

How were the servers holding out in the first week ? I guess you guys underestimated the user base.

Yeah, I guess we’re guilty of humility…we figured signing up even a few dozen users would be awesome. After we demo’d at the Web 2.0 Expo in April in San Francisco we signed up over 4000 users and tracked over 2 million user sessions in the first couple of weeks. We could barely keep the servers up the first couple days.

We’ve been faced with the same Ruby scaling problems most high traffic sites face. But we’ve managed to move a bunch of the server side stuff into a Java Servlet and the actual JavaScript is now hosted on Amazon’s S3 service which has been _huge_ help! We’re learning fast and trying also sorts of new things about how to scale a service like this very quickly.

Is there any other tool on the web, now, that does exactly what RobotReplay does ?

The two competitors that we’re aware of are TapeFailure and ClickTale. They both render the user sessions as movies, while RobotReplay uses
Ajax and javascript to enable users to watch visitor sessions on their live site. It’s a huge savings in bandwidth and processor time for us, and it means there’s almost no delay involved in rendering each visit. They also store sessions in video format which will get expensive on disk space.

Does RobotReplay replace any other web analytics tools ?

We definitely see RR as complimentary to existing tools like Google Analytics or ClickTracks. We’re really hoping one of them open up an API soon so we can integrate with the typical web analytics data. One way we think about the comparison is that Google Analytics provides the empirical data, but RobotReplay provides anecdotal information about your users.

Who is RobotReplay for ?

RobotReplay is really for any site publisher, developer or designer. It’s just 10 KB of javascript, so it’s pretty easy for any site owner to implement, just like Google Analytics or Adwords. I mentioned improving user experience earlier, and that means different things to different sites. For a blogger, they might want to verify that users were reading to the end of their posts, or that users were able to sign up to their RSS feed easily, or that users are actually checking out their precious text ads:)

For eCommerce sites, on the other hand, they can use the tool to determine whether their shopping cart is positioned in the right spot, or whether their users are finding the products they’re searching for.

What are the functionalities that you guys will add in the future ?

We have a list a mile-long of features we want to add. Right now we’re working with our users and prioritizing based on what they need:

  • SSL and authentication support
  • Better reporting and filtering
  • API that allows developers to wire up custom events
  • Visualization tools (you can get idea here)

What are the prices for RobotReplay ?

During the beta it’s entirely free. We haven’t finalized the exact pricing yet. One thing I can say is that we will ALWAYS have a free version that isn’t needlessly crippled and will be valuable to our users. Pricing will be based on the number of sessions in a given time frame. Likely the packages will start at around $20 per month and scale up from there.

Thanks for the interview Andre, and the rest of the team. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for updates of the software in your blog.

Published by

Cristian Mezei

I am myself.

10 thoughts on “Interview with Nitobi Inc., the RobotReplay creator”

  1. clarification:

    So is that a hard limit of 10 sessions? Meaning, if there are 1000 sessions going on, then you select 1-10 to capture, or are all sessions captured and then the analyst picks up to 10 sessions?

    How are the sessions selected at the client side?

  2. Meaning, if there are 1000 sessions going on, then you select 1-10 to capture, or are all sessions captured and then the analyst picks up to 10 sessions?

    All sessions are captured and then the analyst choses what sessions to analyze.

    How are the sessions selected at the client side?

    You are presented with a paginated list of sessions, and you browse trough them, by time.

  3. Cristian, thanks for posting the link at Directory Owners Forum, for without I would not have had this opportunity to learn of the excellent usability features offered in “RobotReplay”.

    Also, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to read the Interview you had with Team Nitobi Inc.


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