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Familiarity Affects Preferences for Text or Video

by Tom Johnson on Aug 8, 2011 •
categories: technical-writingscreencasting

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.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.