What is screencasting?
Screencasts are short videos that show how to do a specific task (usually in a software application). They’re recorded using a tool such as Camtasia Studio, last between 30 seconds to several minutes, and often include a voice providing commentary and instruction to complement the visual demonstration.
Why I embraced screencasting
Screencasts rose in popularity as YouTube came of age and people started promoting video as the primary form of instruction that the younger generation preferred (over text). I created a ton of screencasts for software applications I was documenting. I was also getting into podcasting at the time, and podcasting seemed like a close cousin to screencasting, as it involved much of the same audio techniques. I even took private lessons from a voiceover professional in hopes of improving my audio techniques. (I learned how hard voiceover actually is.)
Why I abandoned screencasting
As I moved into developer documentation, screencasts became less popular and relevant. At the first company where I started writing developer docs, I also did a series of code-tutorial videos. The product managers were ecstatic to have some code tutorial videos in their help library, but almost no users watched them or seemed to want them (according to the analytics). With developer docs, having code samples was more helpful than videos. Code just doesn’t work great in screencasts. Screencasts work best with visually rich software interfaces, where it helps to see different elements on a screen.
Further, many developers said they loathed videos because the medium didn’t allow them to easily scan and locate content. For them, it was an experience of having to patiently wait for a video to proceed while the developer waited/hoped/wondered if the narrator would get to a relevant detail that would address their specific question or concern.
Current status of screencasting
Screencasts are still popular, especially for non-writers providing tips and tutorials on YouTube. Video has gained a lot of popularity for tutorial sites like Linkedin Learning (formerly Lynda.com), Safari Books, and other sites that teach users from the ground up. However, video-based documentation didn’t replace text-based documentation. Video continues to be time-consuming to create and inflexible to update over time. Agile development makes video content go out of date rather quickly.
Tech writers tend to be understaffed already, and the effort required to create screencasts often doesn’t match their time availability or interest. Corporations expect professional-grade results (rather than the many amateurish but still helpful videos on YouTube) yet many companies don’t want to invest the time or resources (such as providing a dedicated recording studio on site, or adding additional writers to allow for video-based deliverables). Additionally, many tech writers are more keen to write copy instead of engage in multimedia anyway.
Finally, for documentation that is highly technical, screencasts tend to fail. Screencasts work better for simpler content that can be explained in plain language. At some point with technical content, it no longer becomes possible to communicate it in a conversational, natural way.
Screencasting works best for applications with a visual interface, and even then, the how-to scenarios need to be somewhat simple. Screencasting doesn’t work well for code tutorials since code is non-linear and is better understood by looking at code samples, which don’t work well in video.
Continue to the next post in this series: Quick reference guides.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle 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.