Screencasts ARE documentation

We came across a blog post, written by a technical writer, who describes her personal experiences with creating screencasts. Her manager asked each member of her writing team to create a video featuring a product that they document.

This line from the blog post strikes a chord for me:

Another great thing: this product has historically had a bit of an image problem about being hard to use, and Stacey’s video made the product look easy. I laughed, I oohed and aahed at the graphics. I was enjoying the music and the smooth mousework, and I swear to God, I pictured myself clicking around competently in the product experiencing the same feelings I had while watching the video.

And there was this gem, as well:

So I have hope for screencasts. Not to replace our hundreds of procedures, but to do something new that we are missing entirely right now. And, I hope we are going to think about what that is and do it right. Because so far, my impression is that screencasts may be like newsletters–if the first one I open is packed with good content, I’ll probably open the next one, too. If not, I probably won’t.

To my mind, the blogger has set some important criteria to evaluate the screencasts-as-documentation:

  1. Does the video take a complex concept/procedure and make it “look” easy-to-do?

  2. Is the video interesting enough that it could be serialized AND people would want to watch the next episode?

What criteria do you use to evaluate screencasts? Please add your comments to this post!

- Eric S.

Comments (5)
  1. John Yerhot says:

    I think the two criteria you mentioned are important for all screencasts, not just ones aimed at documentation.  If you can’t captivate your viewer, you’ve already lost.

    Thank for the post.

  2. mike says:

    There’s also a question to be asked in reverse: if you create a screencast, is the same procedural information available in a more traditional written form? I note this only because I am thinking that you don’t want a video/screencast to be the _only_ form of documentation for something. Thots?

  3. Kristi says:

    I agree with Mike–I wouldn’t want screencasts to be the only way we document procedures. I really think that might work for some products, but we’re documenting medical devices and clinical software. Personally, I like to have written steps to refer to, and I actually don’t like to get that step-by-step in a video. I like this post by Tom Johnson – he gets a good insight from studying his problem with making videos conversational:  

  4. HarryMiller says:

    @ John: Yes, I agree that the second criterion that I listed above is important for all screencasts. Probably true of all media. The first criterion, however, is specifically true for any media that attempts to teach something, whether concept or procedure. Doubly-true, for the procedural.

    @ Mike, Kristi: I also agree with you, that screencasts cannot be the only way to document procedures. In fact, I believe that any procedure worth teaching is also worth creating multiple forms of documentation for. I see the screencasts as a complement to the written documentation.

    In my career prior to Microsoft, I worked as an Instructional Designer. In that capacity, I strove to teach material by using as many different media as possible in order to appeal to multiple different learning styles.

    Eric S.

  5. HarryMiller says:

    @ Kristi: Thank you for the link! Both Harry and I read and enjoy Tom Johnson’s blog. And, I agree with his post that written procedures and video procedures need a different tone.

    However, I disagree with one point that Tom makes: that you would never have a procedural discussion with a friend, at a cafe or otherwise. I disagree because … well, I frequently have procedural discussions with my friends and family.

    Because I "work at Microsoft" and "know stuff about computers," I frequently have my best friend, college roommate, mother, father-in-law, real estate agent, etc. etc. calling me to ask "How do I do X in Y application?"

    And I tell them ‘cuz I’m helpful like that :).

    Thus, when I create procedural videos, I try to envision that I am sitting next to my father-in-law, who is already pretty irate, explaining how to do X. That affects my tone, my pacing, and the language used in my screencasts.

    In the same vein, I find that purely procedural screencasts work best when they are short, to the point, and clearly demonstrate interactions in the UI.

    Eric S.

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