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Why Is It Important for Video Tutorials to Be User-Led?

by Tom Johnson on Nov 13, 2009
categories: technical-writing screencastingvideo

I recently spent 10 days in Florida visiting my family and giving a couple of presentations to the STC-Suncoast and STC-Orlando chapters on blogging. You can hardly take a family of kids to Florida without going to Disneyworld and Seaworld, so we did that as well.

In case you're unaware of the cost of theme parks, prices are enough to bring on a cold sweat and tremor. (Thanks to some friends, one park was free.) After we completed our four day theme park immersion (Seaworld x 2, Disneyworld, and Busch Gardens), we took life a little more slowly and went to the Fort DeSoto beach.

While my kids were digging in sand and collecting seashells, I dared to ask whether they would rather spend a day at the beach or a day at Disneyworld.

Their answer? Unanimously, they said the beach. I even asked them multiple times on different occasions. Always the same answer: the beach, Dad. We would rather go to the beach and collect seashells.

The interesting question is why. Why do kids prefer the beach to Disneyworld? I think the answer is wrapped up in the phrase “child-led.”

What child-led means

My sister is a proponent of child-led parenting. I was first introduced to the idea when we went on a walk along a trail near Timpanogos Cave in Utah. Rather than pull her kids along or push them in a stroller, my sister preferred to follow her children, allowing them to explore what they wanted and go at their own pace. Given that she has a one and three year old, we moved at about .01 miles per hour.

She later added that child-led parenting doesn't mean you let your children do whatever they want without rules. Instead, her model of child-led parenting is to allow the children to make decisions and determine their course of action by themselves (to some extent).

Some examples of non-child-led activities might be letting your children watch TV or parading them around rides at a theme park. In both cases, the child is floored by the external stimuli, not making decisions on his or her own but rather sitting back and letting someone else drive the input and thought.

In contrast, on the beach, the activity is much more child-led. The child drives the activity all the way, deciding where to dig in the sand, how deep, whether to build a castle or not. The child decides whether to wade deep or shallow in the water, to run from waves or into waves, whether to dance around or stand still. The child decides what seashells to collect, how many to put in his or her bucket, how to arrange them, which ones to keep, and so on.

In child-led activities, the child makes a ton of decisions about how he or she wants to do an activity. The activity doesn't drive the child. The child's choices drive the activity.

If child-led activities are more engaging to children than other types of activities, is there such a thing as user-led documentation? Most written documentation is more or less user-led, because the user must decide which topic to read, how long to read it, and how to navigate the content.

But when it comes to video tutorials, long narrations quickly tire the audience. Why is that? The same reason my kids prefer the beach over Disneyworld: most videos are not user-led.

Should cinema be the focus?

I recently read a good post by Brooks Andrus on combining cinematography with video tutorials. He mentioned incorporating a variety of cinematic techniques to keep the audience's attention. Brooks writes,

How can we make screencasts more engaging? What can we learn from the masters of visual literacy, cinematographers, about pacing, depth, emotion and visual narrative? These sorts of questions are important to explore if we want people to engage with, learn from and, dare I say, enjoy our screencasts. That's the mindset I think we need to establish for screencasting. We're not just recording the screen, we're telling a story and there is a well established historical record of the art and science behind motion picture narratives.

I agree with Brooks on the importance of story. And I certainly welcome the integration of cinema with screencasting.

But no matter how good you make a video online — even if you make the video as cool as a Disneyworld ride — your viewer is still going to be bored if the video is not user-led.

The direction we should take with video, then, is not so much moving into the domain of cinema. It should be to make the videos a user-led experience.

Some concrete ideas

Exactly how does one make a user-led video? Here are a few ideas that come to mind.

  • Present the user with learning options in the middle of the video (branching).
  • Provide users with a let-me-try experience at the end of the video.
  • Keep the videos short (30 seconds to 2 minutes) so that you allow the user to click and watch the segment of the video he or she wants.
  • Require the user to perform some actions during the video or at the end (like homework).
  • Make the videos into more of a choose-your-own adventure.
  • Provide periodic quizzes during the video.

User-led is a concept that I'm going to be thinking more about in the upcoming months as I create videos for my documentation projects. If you have any tips or thoughts on creating more of a user-led experience, please let me know.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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