Friday, 11 December 2009

Why Screencasts Can Suck

A screencast is an instructional video where you see someone's computer screen as they do something, together with a voice-over of them telling you what they are doing. Google trends shows them starting in 2006 and increasing in search volume ever since. Everyone wants to do a screencast.

But are they being used for the right thing? They have their place, just as a screwdriver is the right tool for putting in screws, but there seems to me to be a lot of people using them in the wrong place.

Here's a few reasons why they suck, together with fixes for ameliorating the suckage:
  • Speech and graphics aren't searchable in a browser or indexable in a search engine
    • Fix: include a transcript or at least a number of keywords and keyphrases on the page.
  • Video is hard to jump to a precise point. If I didn't follow a point, or I want to see how you set something up near the start, I'd like to be able to jump back and forth to key points. This also makes it hard to go through a screencast at your own pace.
    • Fix: I think YouTube videos can have chapter points. It may also be possible that screencasting software can give you some links for this. Include them.
    • Fix: Alternatively, overlay your screencast with big chunky step numbers or text in the corner. Then as I scroll the fiddly little control back I can see it change from (3) to (2).
  • Speech and text can't be cut and pasted. This is a pain with command-line videos, less so with gui clickage.
    • Fix: supply a text transcript of commands and speech where appropriate.
  • I'm listening to music.  The voiceover doesn't go with my tunes.
    • Fix: include subtitles. Also helps people with hearing difficulties, which will include me if I carry on listening to Muse at these volumes.
Those problems apply to all screencasts. Here are some things that make bad screencasts:
  • Loss of resolution. If you are squeezing your entire monitor onto a little YouTube video something is going to get lost. Zoom in if you need to show detail.
  • Two Many Misteaks. I don't want to see you mistyping things. Or going "oops". Or stuttering. Or forgetting something. Shout "cut" to yourself and do another take. Or do several takes and edit. Remember you only have to get this right once, thousands of people may have to watch it.
  • Nothing happening. Perhaps Andy Warhol would enjoy an unchanging screen with some rambling banter over the top. But I'm not sure everyone else does. This is supposed to be instructable, not minimalist.
Most of these problems can be worked round by creating a series of screenshots and annotating them. I've used Wink for this in the past. It creates a Flash file which you can either play or step through one stage at a time. You can add callout annotations and make the mouse cursor sparkle when it clicks something. The user can step back and forth.

It's extra work to do this, but then it's extra work to do a screencast properly with transcript, subtitles, or key point markers. Terse and precise text is much better than a rambling voice-over. Screencasts may be great for demonstrating anything that has lots of animation in it, but to demonstrate the operation of a piece of point-and-click software it has it's limitations.

Just sayin'.

No comments:

Post a Comment