Familiarity Affects Preferences for Text or Video

This weekend I had to replace the solenoid in my Frigidaire Gallery refrigerator. The solenoid controls the flow of water into the ice maker, among other things. I’m not a technician, so when I received the new solenoid and looked at the instructions, I was a little hesitant to do what the text said.

The instructions

The instructions said to cut off the ends of the water tubes.

I was supposed to actually cut off the nozzles at the ends of all the tubing (shown below).


Tubing -- am I really supposed to cut these ends off?

Uh, if I did that wrong, or if I somehow had the wrong part, cutting all these tubes would pose major problems for my refrigerator. So naturally we googled this procedure to look for a video. The following video is about 9 minutes long, but it walks through the process perfectly.

The text instructions took 30 seconds to read, whereas the video took 9 minutes to watch. But since I was unfamiliar with the process, I preferred the video to make sure I was doing the task right.

My wife later commented that the more familiar you are with something, the less instruction you need. I think this sums up well the preferences for video versus text. In my previous post exploring this topic, many readers said they always preferred text. “Always” is a strong word. I think it’s more likely that for things we’re familiar with, we prefer text because it allows us to quickly find the information we need. This is true, my wife said, when she’s cooking in the kitchen. If she’s making bread, for example, she often needs only to glance at the recipe to get the measurements for ingredients.

But if you’re less familiar with the task, video and more abundant instructions are welcome, even if lengthy. If I myself were making bread in the kitchen, I would benefit from watching a video that shows the kneading and punching process, because I don’t think I’ve ever made bread in my life.

Given the possible differences in the audience’s familiarity, it’s a good idea to provide multiple forms of instruction — both text and video.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

17 thoughts on “Familiarity Affects Preferences for Text or Video

  1. Patty Blount

    What an excellent point your wife made. We had a similar problem installing a shower pan. The written instructions said to mix the adhesive to the consistency of cake frosting. We followed the ratio and what we ended up with was more like dough than frosting. We next viewed a YouTube video and watched as the installer placed the shower pan on the bed of adhesive and the CUT the excess with a knife. That told us our dough-like consistency was correct.

    Sometimes, pictures really are worth a thousand words.

  2. Patrice Fanning

    Great follow-up to previous post Tom. I like that you’ve used a real-life example to illustrate how different each user’s information needs are based on their experience and understanding of the task at hand.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Yes, it turns out that replacing a solenoid is really easy. I was hoping it would fix some icemaker clicking noises too, and it did for a while, but they were back this morning.

      1. Jessica C.

        Guess you can’t have it all! :)

        Btw, I talked with one of my project managers and mentioned adding some videos to our help. She was thrilled with the idea and we plan to add them in our next release. Thanks again for this great post and sharing the idea.

  3. Laura Mahalel

    Very timely post.
    I’ve been cutting my daughter’s hair for the past year. She gets tons of complements. I learned by watching a couple of videos on you tube. Ten minutes tops. It would have been really hard to get that same knowledge from a textbook, no matter how beautifully illustrated.

  4. Cindy Pao

    I really that, in addition to familiarity, it depends on what you are doing and how good the instructions are.

    If I can’t understand my written knitting directions, I know I can look for a video and probably will understand from that. On the other hand, I don’t know that a video would help me figure out valid field values.

    Now the instructions you were reading don’t sound correct. It’s a good thing you looked for a video!

  5. Meredith

    Great and useful post. And a good real life example to remember.
    But I think you also need to take into account this issue of time. It’s so frustrating when you just need to know how to do one simple thing, but you can only find a video explanation, when you’d rather just read a couple of paragraphs. Like you say,”it’s a good idea to provide multiple forms of instruction — both text and video.”

  6. Jimmy Breck-McKye

    I think there’s another, more fundamental reason for the preference: because the contents of a video are harder to scan and seek than the contents of text. When I have a text manual, I can read a ToC, then scan the textual content. Most videos, on the other hand, are monolithic blocks that I have to watch all the way through.

    As a user, I don’t just prefer text to video. I actually *avoid* videos. Videos force me to spend 10+ minutes waiting to see if relevant content actually appears (and knowing my luck, it always appears at 9:32). Videos force me to unmute my workstation and make my colleagues listen. Video streaming fails on poor connections, and video players often crash (especially the Linux flash player). Because I can’t read a transcript, a narrator’s language has to be repetitive, constantly referring back to topics and the parents of relative clauses.

    As an author, too, I sometimes dislike videos for production reasons. Producing a new video and swapping in new content is much harder than updating a text guide. Hosting a video and resolving technical problems is much more difficult than FTPing simple HTML + CSS. Users with visual or aural impairment are disappointed when vital content is locked up in movies.

    Don’t get me wrong, videos can be a powerful tool. There are some things an animated image can express far more efficiently than text – like your plumbing example. Inexperienced users respond well to videos, and the presence of a movie itself seems to prove a commitment to technical communications. I’m not dismissing the idea of help videos entirely. I just have my gripes as both producer and consumer.

    Some of these issues, I think, could be resolved by more mature video technologies. Adobe Captivate already allows producers to embed some basic navigation controls into demonstrations, and it’s feasible that similar tools might allow us to auto-generate ‘video ToCs’ and content-seeking tools. Decent HTML5 media players could help us get around the traditional problems with Flash (which I openly loathe). And better internet networks and compression algorithms will mean users won’t have to wait ten minutes to buffer a video that lasts two. But until these problems are resolved, I’m still lukewarm to videos as help content.

  7. Pingback: Video video at Danegeld

  8. Oana

    I agree we should use both text and videos. Why? From the exmaple you give in teh post we could assume that unexperienced users might prefer watching a video instead of reading text. Visual is

  9. Oana

    I agree we should use both text and videos. Why? From the example you give in the post we could assume that inexperienced users might prefer watching a video instead of reading text. As Patty previously said “Sometimes, pictures really are worth a thousand words.” It depends on familiarity, people personality and situation.

    Even experienced users avoid text. Some of my senior colleagues were asking about some app functionality. When I asked them they find their answers in the user guides they were very resistant to reading the text and said they prefer someone to explain.

    I could not agree more that we should use both text and videos. It is true for me is easier to write text than create videos. As the technologies and user requests change rapidly we should keep up-to-date with them.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>