User experience (UX) comparison: Captivate and Storyline

by Jim Hicks

I recently had an opportunity to compare the latest e-Learning authoring offerings from Adobe and Articulate: Captivate 7 and Storyline. Because I’ve been building e-Learning tools or using open source technologies for the last 15 years, I feel like I am a relatively unbiased and fresh prospect to give an assessment of the user experience of these proprietary authoring tools. In the interest of full disclosure, I have followed these tools for years. I tried out Articulate’s offerings long ago. I have built a handful of Captivate presentations using versions before 7.0.

A Brief History

Captivate began under the names of Flashcam and RoboDemo. These tools were screen recording utilities that little by little started incorporating the features that would turn Captivate into an e-Learning authoring tool. Captivate’s history is very tied to Flash.

Articulate’s products began as PowerPoint conversion tools. Seizing upon trainers' use of PPT to deliver live classroom presentations, Articulate provided tools for converting PPT slides to e-Learning as well as adding quiz interactivity.

Over the years, these tools have evolved similar features to each other, those demanded by learning professionals.

User Experience Comparison

User experience is at once both universal and contextual. By that, I mean that what seems simple to one person will most likely be simple for another. However, each of us bring our own background and preferences to the tasks we try to complete in software applications. Captivate and Storyline are certainly extensive software applications. I’m going to compare my experience as a fresh user with the “out-of-box” configurations these applications set up for me. As with most applications, I can fiddle with the standard user interface (UI) to suit my tastes and common tasks. However, I think good user experience assessment begins with trying the standard UI that comes after initial installation.

Both applications are tied to the idea of individual screens as slides. Captivate uses a filmstrip metaphor to layout the slides. Storyline groups slides as scenes within a story.

Both Storyline and Captivate provide user experiences that fit their individual histories. Captivate looks and behaves like an Adobe product. The product’s UI is dominated by a tool palette, various settings palettes organized by tabs, and the flash-like timeline. All exactly what I would expect.

Storyline has a PowerPoint-like ribbon, buttons and a menu. When I edit a slide in Storyline, I get a list of slides in that scene to the left. To the right I get just two palettes, not-tabbed. The first is an area that lists triggers. The second lists slide layers.

The Experience Differences

The first thing I do when I test user experience is I just start clicking around and completing tasks. Storyline easily won this test. I have used Captivate several times, but I don’t use it everyday or even every month. Whenever I come back to it, I must relearn tasks. Many common tasks we do in e-Learning are just less intuitive and time-consuming in Captivate.

First example: advancing to the next slide with a button. In Captivate, I created a text button from the tool palette and placed it on the slide. I double-clicked the button to edit the text. That did not work. I combed through the right-side palettes and tried to get the text to change by editing the object name. That did not work. I looked up help, which was moving slow, so I decided to fire up tutorials. I finally found a demo of David Rivers editing button text in a Captivate 7 tutorial. The “caption” (not "button text") label was in the palette for the object all along. I had simply overlooked that option among the dozens of other options placed in Captivate’s multi-tabbed palettes.

Here is what I did to create a button to advance to the next slide in Storyline: nothing. That’s right, I did absolutely nothing. Storyline places its slides within a player. I can edit the features of that player as I wish, including adding links to outside websites and internal learning sections of my Storyline project. By default, the player adds previous and next buttons. So I did nothing, which, by the way, is my favorite user experience: anticipate my needs and make it a default.

More about the player later.

So someone not familiar with user experience testing might say to themselves: I feel really dumb for overlooking that caption option in the Captivate palette. Not me. I know it’s the symptom of a bigger UI/UX problem: feature overload. Do the important tasks by default and feature prominently the most used tasks. Then, place the rest of tasks in something like tabbed palettes or a preferences user interface.


My personal preference is to use tools like Captivate and Storyline when I want to add audio synced to animation. For simple tutorials that don’t require those features, development goes faster for me in other products that are less feature-heavy. So working with audio is critical. I want to record it and work with it on the timeline interface.

I have used Captivate enough prior to 7.0 that I went into the experience comparison task hoping for much improvement from previous versions. I did not find it. I can only have one recorded audio on the timeline per slide. If I want to start layering audio, I have to assign the audio to a different object other than the slide. I can have background audio or audio associated with other objects. I cannot have layers of audio on the slide’s timeline.

Storyline allows me to have multiple layers of audio stacked on the timeline and to move it such that they overlap properly if needed.

The quality of internally recorded audio is another point of comparison. I have always had trouble with Captivate. Version 7.0 was no exception. After setting up the microphone with the audio settings of Captivate 7.0, I recorded several slides and then published. The audio was too loud. Captivate has an “adjust volume” feature that allowed me to decrease the volume after recording. 

On the other hand, Storyline audio sounded consistent and played at the correct volume without any manual manipulation.

Quiz Interactions

A key reason to use Captivate and Storyline is to take advantage of the quizzing features. Both come with ample quiz templates and styles. Once again, I found Storyline’s user experience to be superior. Storyline pops up forms with areas to input the question, choices and feedback. Options for setting tries and review branching are also given. Correct and incorrect feedback are provided in the familiar layers interface that Storyline uses on each of its slides. I did not need training on how to complete these quiz interactions.

Captivate quiz interactions are placed directly on the slide. It was not clear to me where to provide feedback to answers so I skipped that task. Actually, editing the question and its choices, while quite doable, were more difficult than Storyline due to clutter on the slide.

Player and Mobile

As previously mentioned, Storyline places its presentation within a nice player. The player contains a page listing in a tree format, as well as previous and next slide navigation buttons. Storyline contains a nice UI for customizing the player. The basic defaults require no user intervention and cover most situations.

By default, Captivate has a common audio/video style of player. If I want a page listing or page navigation options, I need to build those myself.

Finally, publishing to multiple devices is included with both authoring products. Getting your course to play on mobile devices is certainly a consideration. While I believe that the type of output commonly created by these tools is not a good candidate for smartphones, tablets are good targets.

Storyline wins this UX comparison as well. For publishing to the web within Storyline, I have three checkboxes to consider. In Captivate, after considering a significant list of publishing settings, I have the Publish page to consider. Captivate has many sizing settings and you can resize your entire project once finished with it. Many of these sizing options have pre-built settings for various devices. It’s a complex array of decisions to consider.

After publishing projects with both tools that included settings for mobile output, I uploaded to my server and tested the tutorials I created. Both tools performed well on laptops/desktops. Storyline has a mobile app that you can play your presentation within an iPad. This player looked very nice and sized my course well. Neither performed expertly on smartphones. Storyline tried hard to size properly but came up a bit short. Also, trying to tap the tiny previous and next buttons was difficult. Captivate did not try. So the presentation was too big to be usable. I’m sure if I had chosen to output to a preset smartphone size, things would have worked better. I wanted to see Captivate's standard publishing behavior, however.


In my opinion, Storyline has a much better user experience for a beginning e-Learning author. Simple is better, and Storyline seems to follow this principal most often. Does that mean someone with Captivate experience should switch to Storyline? Not necessarily. If Captivate is your tool, then you have no doubt applied the time to learn the UI. Captivate is feature rich and I’m not aware of any feature among the two applications that creates a significant advantage.

However, these e-Learning authoring applications are all about promising rapid development. When the user experience is right, that promise can be kept. For me, Storyline has done a better job of implementing that promise.

Post publishing update: March 6, 2014

I took a final look through my UX testing notes as I was closing down the file on this task. I forgot to pull forward some data about importing from PowerPoint. Let me amend my original article to include this topic, as beginning e-Learning authors may find it beneficial.

One of my key reasons for using tools like Captivate and Storyline is the ability to take PPT slides and start a project from them when creating an e-Learning tutorial. As I tested these two tools, I started by importing slide decks. I found a substantial difference in editing the slides after import. Both tools import the slides fine. Captivate provides a nice interface for selecting only a portion of the deck. Storyline does a great job of importing the slides' objects that allow them to be edited within Storyline. Captivate allows you to open the original PPT file and edit within PowerPoint. Upon completing those edits, Captivate then asks you if you would like to import the edits. Another nice Storyline feature is that it brings in the slides' themes. If you want to add a new slide with one of those visual themes, you can choose from within Storyline rather than needing to fire up PPT again. 

While both tools can accomplish the same goals, I found editing my slides within Storyline was both faster and gave me more flexibility to add upon my original presentation. My Mac was a liitle cranky about having Captivate control application tasks, both from a secuirty perspective as well as processing speed.



Jim provides a very good blend of the technical and practical to his work.  An instructional designer who also talks geek-speak is invaluable. I would recommend Jim's services without hesitation to anyone looking for help in the e-Learning field.

- Steve Eadie
Partner, Robertson, Eadie & Associates


Jim Hicks

Bloomington, IN
Chicago, IL
Milwaukee, WI