Screencasts: Watch Them, Love Them and What's Wrong With Videos

Wed, January 30, 2008, 02:52 PM under Random
Why is it that 50% of the people watch the screencasts and are asking for more and the other half don't (see links from Q8 and the comments)? In my view, everybody should watch screencasts (to be clear, I mean as a complementary activity to reading articles). If you haven't ever watched one, there are some links here (plus check out the UK MSDN page).

"What is so great about screencasts anyway?"
Many things:
a) Following a document step-by-step to achieve a goal is fine, but what about when you don't have the right stuff installed? It is many times that I have received emails from people saying words to the effect: "Having watched your video I am now downloading XYZ to give it a try!". Those people would not have gotten the same enthusiastic experience from reading a document. E.g. when Vista wasn't so widely available, this Sidebar Gadgets video could not have had the same effect in written form.

b) Even if you have the right stuff installed, what is it that would motivate you to invest time in following some steps to achieve a goal, i.e. how do you know it is going to be worth it? Instead you watch a short video and it is easy to decide if you want to go ahead and explore this technology further or not, e.g. how many desktop developers own a Windows Mobile phone and are aware of the dedicated managed API (not talking about the Compact Framework here)?

c) Let's face it, a picture is worth 1000 words which makes a video worth numberOfFrames*1000 words. I explained the LINQ-to-objects relationship with the language features on this blog and received good feedback. I described it in a video and I received outstanding feedback. How would you capture the effect of my LINQ video in written form?

d) It is not just about the topic being demonstrated, there are side learnings. Whenever I watch someone else do a screencast I pick up productivity/usability tips (e.g. some new ones in VS2008) about the way the presenter uses the tools or talks about certain concepts that is different to my mileage. You just don't get that in a written piece of text. Screencasts bring a demo at your desk, which usually you pay money for to see at a conference!

e) I was going to add a few more reasons here but they are weaker and I don't want to dilute the main points above. Feel free to add your own reasons why you like or hate screencasts in the comments below.

Now, let me tell you why I find videos sometimes lacking: Non-scanability. In the age of information overload, I usually scan pieces of text for the interesting points and probably abandon 80% of the web pages that I randomly visit within seconds. You cannot do that with videos today – once you've started watching it is hard to scan through without missing huge chunks of content. This is the reason that I seldom even attempt to watch videos over 30' unless I know for sure that I am interested in the topic in a big way! Table of contents with timings help slightly but everything I have seen that tried to address the problem is inadequate. My attempt to make it less painful is to keep screencasts at 15' long because then you are investing a reasonable amount of time and you can probably tell if it is worth to continue to watch after 3'. To that extent, I try to have a quick intro telling you what's coming. I also offer the additional download option which means that clicking forward/backwards to scan will be very fast as opposed to the streaming media (craze that is taking over the world) that largely relies on sequential viewing...

The larger question of how do we make long videos scanable remains. I think there is an opportunity here for some clever software: I point this piece of software to a wmv file and it instantly produces a complete transcript from the audio and it highlights every word as the video continues to play. No matter what word I click on in the transcript, the video follows suit by synchronising itself. Now I can watch and listen to the video and concurrently quickly scan for words/phrases of interest so that I can jump directly to that piece with a single click. Anyone building such software or does it even exist already? I can be a beta tester ;-)