The Evolving Role

Technical Communicator as Video Tutorial Producer

By Stephanie Schrankler | Member

Maybe it’s not entirely comparable to the arguments for Darwinism or creationism. But there’s no denying it: the role of the technical communicator is transforming. The role of the technical writer evolves constantly, and now it’s producing writers who focus on technical training, project management, development and engineering, or other specialties. These subsets don’t always fit one specific mold.

Twenty or thirty years ago, technical writers primarily focused on writing instructions and other documentation for the use of machinery. A specialized group of people built the machine. Another group created and facilitated courses to teach people how to use the machine, and technical writers documented the processes start to finish. But with the growth of organizations, the merging of positions, and the rise of multitasking, these separations aren’t always feasible or applicable for organizations.

Although videos have been traditionally used for technical training, traditional technical communications take the form of user manuals, help documentation, and instructional guides. Technology has arguably blurred the lines between “traditional” technical communications materials and “traditional” technical training materials. Technical writing has begun to morph with technical training. The once-clear difference between documentation and training now lends itself to the ever-growing trend of super hybrids. Just do a search for “technical writer” or “instructional designer” on any popular job search engine; you’ll find that the title “Technical Writer” today requires us to understand and create job aids, e-learning content, and learning management systems along with all the traditional user manuals, audience analysis, and usability testing.

Tradition No Longer Holds True

Take a closer look at the traditional definitions of help documentation versus training.

Traditional help documentation addresses broad audiences. Traditional technical training addresses more specific audiences. Help documentation isn’t meant to address a broad audience anymore. Although help documentation can address a broad audience, how many times do we see things like Guide for Administrators or for Dummies? As technical communications evolves, more of us are finding a need to write audience-sensitive help documentation.

Traditional help documentation is function-oriented; it focuses on the “what.” Traditional technical training is task-oriented; it focuses on the “how.” Although it can be true that help documentation includes function-oriented content, it’s not true that help documentation does not include task-oriented content.

Traditional help documentation is unidirectional. Traditional technical training is interactive. Unidirectional help documentation may hold true with the simple printed manual you find in the box with your new DVD player. But with fully integrated enterprise knowledge systems, context- and audience-sensitive help, and even the functionality offered with complex online help systems, help documentation is nonlinear and more interactive than ever before.

Traditional help documentation includes information about everything. Traditional technical training only includes information about the fundamentals. Although this definition may still hold true for training, you can’t include everything in help documentation without including the fundamentals. Providing the fundamentals helps authors, instructional designers, and technical trainers avoid an area of overlap.

Traditional help documentation is usually delivered through written text (print and HTML). Traditional technical training is usually delivered through an instructor or video. With evolving technology and new products available on the market, video tutorials are increasingly replacing traditional help documentation. More instructor-led training is delivered without an instructor via computer-based training (CBT). It’s common for training materials to be delivered in print or HTML, and for help documentation to be delivered through something that looks an awful lot like CBT and videos.

Traditional help documentation is descriptive, clarifying, and explanatory. Traditional technical training focuses on improvement of skills or performance. In help documentation, the purpose should be descriptive, clarifying, or explanatory. The result helps the user accomplish a task, improve their skills or understanding, and improve performance overall.

Traditional help documentation provides less opportunity for evaluation and feedback. Traditional technical training allows for continual evaluation, feedback, and improvement. Past and present help documentation—whether delivered online or in print—provides less opportunity for evaluation and for feedback from users/readers. Most technical training provides some sort of facility to survey or collect evaluation and feedback from participants, allowing more opportunity for continuous improvement. However, tools that provide wiki- or forum-like help documentation (e.g., Adobe AIR) are beginning to blur the lines between training and help documentation. Good help documentation relies on interaction, participation, and sharing of knowledge from large user groups.

Traditional help documentation is ongoing. Traditional technical training is one time. Traditionally, help documentation is available to the user/student “forever.” Training, however, is available for only a limited time (i.e., during the training session). With the introduction of CBT courses, enterprise knowledge systems, and learning management systems, organizations can allow training and training materials to be available for reference long after the course is over.

The Handshake Between Help Documentation and Training

The truth is, in today’s market, the help documentation doesn’t work as well without adequate technical training and the technical training doesn’t work as well without help documentation to reference after the training is over. There’s a logical cross-over relationship between creating help documentation and user manuals and creating training and instructional materials. As technical writing and technical communications evolves, it’s the job of technical communicators to evolve their skill sets to meet the needs of their audiences and prove to be a valuable asset to any organization. This new skill set includes learning to plan, write for, and produce high-quality video tutorials.

The Can vs. Should Dilemma

Time and technology have blurred the lines. Once solely responsible for writing procedural manuals, technical communicators are now well-rounded, interdisciplinary employees. They are project managers, help system developers, help authoring software tool experts, communication destiny makers, and … video-producing machines?

The technology used in video screen-capturing software and online help system video-embedding functionality allows help writers to expand their skill sets with ease to include video tutorial production. Technological advancements, user-friendly software, and a low purchase cost make it possible for anyone to record and produce video tutorials. However, just because you have the ability or opportunity to do something doesn’t mean you should (or that you know the best way to do so).

In a nutshell, video screen software captures the actions taken within one or more software applications. This develops a video of those actions (think of an old-fashioned cartoon). The software takes a series of still shots of the computer or application screen. It then strings these still shots together, so that when “played” it looks like the actions were recorded like traditional video. Often, the viewer cannot detect when the video transitions from one still shot to another. Most video screen-capture software packages also allow for:

  • video editing
  • inserting other graphics and still shots
  • applying audio files
  • creating captions within still shots
  • using a timeline that allows items and resources to appear/play at the right time

In general, video screen-capture software tools are easy to use. Most users require little or no training. Video screen-capture software tools are a relatively inexpensive means of creating videos that provide high-quality, professional output.

The Pros and Cons of Video Tutorials

The biggest advantage of using video tutorials to supplement or replace traditional “written” help documentation is that, simply put, it’s impressive. As far as other advantages are concerned, although they definitely exist, video tutorials for technology user assistance are being overused because they’re easy to create.

Many people assume that interactive content is translated simply by having a translator look at what’s on the screen and translate it, followed by someone else.

The Pro List

They’re impressive. To people who are not avid tutorial users (or who have already developed a bias against video tutorials because of all the badly developed ones available on the web), video tutorials simply look cool.

They’re great for first-time users and technophobes. For people who are not familiar with your product, need a place to get started, or are scared of trying something new, a video tutorial is much like a security blanket. Tutorials can make users who fall into this category feel like you spent a lot of time caring about their needs.

They can be reused for sales. Providing video tutorials on your sales webpage can help convince prospective customers that your product’s features are as good as you say they are because they can see them. This sales technique is similar to allowing users to download a trial version of software. Video tutorials can be a great tool for describing and displaying new features of your product.

They clarify your intent. Visual aids clear up discrepancies. Although screen shots and arrows are a major part of text-based tutorials, there are cases when the ability to show outweighs the ability to tell.

They can be effective user assistance tools for people with different learning styles. As we all know, there are different kinds of learning styles. Auditory learners learn by listening, and thrive in environments that use lectures. Visual learners learn best by watching, and kinesthetic learners learn best by reading. In most cases, a single learner can have a combination of learning styles.

Typically, screen shots, pictures, illustrations, and text are just as adequate for the learner as a whole video demonstration. Additionally, there are people who will learn information faster through video alone.

The Con List

They can be a maintenance nightmare. When a screen or a few steps change, help documentation is relatively easy to maintain. You may have to take a new screen shot or update your text, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Unfortunately, video tutorials aren’t as easy. Although most video screen-capture software tools allow you to remove certain slides from your video, then record and insert new slides, it can be difficult to make this transition look natural. At times, it could require re-recording, and essentially re-producing, the entire video. It takes more time and more planning to maintain videos than text.

They’re not great for users who need a quick refresher. In these days of instant gratification, users get frustrated when they have to sit through 10 minutes of video to find the 10 seconds of information they want. Although this can be mitigated with good planning and several short videos rather than fewer longer videos, nothing beats the ability to type keywords and find little chunks of relevant information in a matter of seconds. Doing a quick search through popular blogs discussing the benefits of video tutorials over help documentation, you’ll find the following points:

  • Video tutorials make it hard for viewers to skip to the information most important to their specific situation.
  • People can read text faster than viewers can view a video.
  • Text allows you to spend as much time as you want on a certain step (text allows you to be self-paced); video tutorials deliver information at their own pace.
  • Speakers (audio) frequently get side-tracked by information outside of the initial scope of the video.

They were originally designed for e-learning. Most video capture software tools were originally designed to develop e-learning videos. Although there’s an overlap between the role of a technical communicator and an instructional designer/technical trainer in thousands of organizations, some additional planning and consideration has to be given to using these tools to create pure help documentation rather than e-learning or training materials.

They’re not as reusable as text tutorials. Just like the problem with maintaining video tutorials, reusing the actual video for a different purpose is not as easy as reusing text for a different purpose. For example, if you create three user guides for the same software application targeted toward three separate audiences, some text and screen shots between the user manuals may be reusable. However, if the entire video tutorial is not reusable, in most cases a separate video will have to be planned, recorded, and published.

They can’t be parsed by search engines. For those worried about search engine optimization, it’s important to note that only the title (or a textual summary about the video) can be parsed by search engines, and not the content in the video. Beware of including sales information, features, and benefits as audio or captions in video tutorials alone (e.g., not including supplemental text on your website).

Replacing Text With Video

Video tutorials should always be supplemental to help documentation or text tutorials—not replacements for them. In many cases, you will not simply be video-itizing your written text tutorial but creating a video tutorial that supplements the documentation you’ve already created. You shouldn’t overuse video tutorials just because you recently learned how to create something that looks cool and initially impresses your coworkers and a few potential clients. Although you’ve expanded your traditional technical communicator role into video production, you’re still a technical communicator. You should still have the goal of providing the user with the best assistance possible—which is not always a video tutorial.

Guidelines to Making the Right Decision

Before planning and writing your script and recording your video tutorial, make sure that the video’s concept passes the “Should You or Shouldn’t You Test.” Although you may find a need outside of the information provided here (i.e., a special request from a client), in general the concept you are planning for your identified video tutorial should follow these general guidelines.

It’s all about the fundamentals. It’s acceptable to create video tutorials for a task or information that’s fundamental to user success. These video tutorials should supplement help documentation or text tutorials. They should also provide you with several of the advantages listed earlier, including:

  • “Wow” factor
  • Accommodation for different learning styles
  • Appropriateness for first-time users or techno-phobes

This does not mean you should create a video tutorial for every concept or task. But you should pick the top three (or five or ten depending on the amount of functionality offered by the product) that are most common.

“Make me quit” concepts. It’s always important in any kind of user assistance or help documentation to thoroughly cover concepts and tasks that users seem to struggle with the most. You can usually identify these pain points by talking to and gathering information from your user community. Another good rule of thumb is that if you (the help writer) understand most concepts and tasks within the product you document but are struggling with one or a few concepts yourself, others will probably struggle as well. Misunderstanding these concepts can become so frustrating for users that it makes them feel as if it is too complicated, and, as a result, they don’t want to use it.

Regular occurring tasks with long duration frequencies. It’s often appropriate to create a supplemental video tutorial for tasks that must be performed on a regular basis, but the frequency of that regular basis is considered a long duration (e.g., a task that must be completed annually or semi-annually). These tasks are good candidates for video tutorials because they’re fundamental but are performed so infrequently that users feel like first-timers every time.

Information that is pertinent to success but not covered in technical training. As technical communicators begin to bridge the gap with instructional designers and technical trainers, it’s important to work together to determine information, concepts, tasks, and so forth that there isn’t enough time for or resources available to cover in technical training. This information is well-suited for video tutorials and is supplemental to help documentation, text tutorials, and technical training.

You may find that the concept for your video tutorial falls into the category of multiple guidelines listed—and the more, the better. If you can create an argument for your video tutorial concept that meets two or three of the guidelines, it’s probably a great idea to move forward and create your video. If you’re on the fence about whether your concept for a video tutorial falls into any of these, rethink the benefit to the viewer. Most users, if given the choice, would rather have no video tutorials than a catalogue of poorly conceived and poorly implemented ones.

Stephanie Schrankler

(stephanie.schrankler@sagitec.com ) is the chief communication and learning officer for the Communication and Learning Shared Services Team at Sagitec Solutions, LLC (http://www.sagitec.com). She has developed hundreds of video help tutorials for customized software products used nation- and worldwide. Schrankler holds a BS in technical communication from the University of Wisconsin—Stout.