Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
I’ve been interested in screencasting for a while now, mostly because they’re often an informal blend of marketing and instruction. The best ones make you feel as if you’re watching over the shoulder of a trusted friend, learning all the good stuff about a product. They’re far more personable than staid documentation, and they require a certain degree of commitment from both the reader and author, which I think can lead to a more effective learning experience.
What I mean by commitment is that because a screencast is a video, it is nearly impossible to skim; if you’re going to get anything out of watching it, you’ve got to pay attention and sit through it in its entirety. Authors of screencasts are therefore afforded a level of user engagement and interest that book authors can only wistfully dream about.
But all is not rosy for the screencast author. There isn’t a really good all-in-one authoring tool, and writing—let alone recording—a good screencast tasks exercises new and nascent skills. For example, many writers, when given the opportunity, will endlessly refine their work; searching for the just the right words, structure, and length. When it comes to video production, however, compulsive twiddling is simply out of the question. In some cases, as we’ll discuss in a moment, you’ve got to capture the good stuff in a single take. Imagine if your keyboard had a broken delete key, and you start to get the idea.
As a result, a lot of screencasts I’ve seen are painful to watch. Aside from poor production values, which are quite common, they’re often rambling, inconsistent, and convusing. You know, just like you’d get if you asked a friend to show you how to do something. But not all what you expect, or deserve, from a real company.
Which leads me to the Stikkit screencasts. They stand out because of the things they get right. First of all, they’re short and focused on real-world tasks. The subject of each screencast reflects what an actual user might want to do the with product. They also, mercifully, don’t use voiceover. There’s no too-loud, or otherwise grating, voice droning on about the onscreen action. Now I think spoken words can be quite useful, but they’re anathema in a shared office environment, and a screencast that relies solely on voiceover is especially hard to navigate when you want to re-visit just a portion of it later.
Instead of voice, the Stikkit screencasts use pointer highlighting and informative text, shown in attractive superimposed titles, that provides both additional instruction, and structure, to the video. Seeing that they were done on a Mac, which lacks even the primitive screencasting tools that Windows offers, I asked Stikkit’s Michael Buffington, the author of the screencasts, how they were produced:
“I use a handful of tools to do the job. I use Snapz Pro X to do the actual screen capture, Adobe Image Ready to create the titles you see when the screencast starts, and OmniDazzle to highlight elements on the page.”
Michael continues, “I use Growl and Quicksilver to make [the floating titles], and that's some pretty tricky business. I'd love an app that makes this easier, but basically here's how it works: in Quicksilver, I set up triggers that I tie to specific key commands. Those triggers send text to Growl, which sends up the notification panel you see onscreen.”
Michael goes on to note that because these are silent screencasts, you can’t explain an accidental misstep like you can if you’re speaking (“Oops. Wrong button”) so everything has to be done correctly in a single-take. That includes triggering the correct title to appear, at just the right moment. An alternative would be to edit the captured video, but as he pointed out, if you do that users might rightfully wonder what happened during those missing moments, and perhaps decide the product isn’t as easy, or as capable, as it appears.
Screencasting definitely presents new opportunities for technical communicators, and clearly a whole host of new challenges. I think these Stikkit sceencasts raise the bar, now let’s see if others can push it even higher, and if customers find them as engaging, and useful, as I do.