Videos in technical communications

By Amulya Suraj and Athulya Sekhar

Why videos?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand. That’s certainly true when it comes to showing how to do certain things – from using tasks in Microsoft Outlook to using a new mobile phone. Most of us would rather be shown how to do something than told.

YouTube is the second highest rated search engine after Google. That alone is critical and a good reason to embrace video. Video is a critical part of the culture we live in.

The explosive growth of the Internet has resulted in increasing diversity and heterogeneity in terms of client device capability, network bandwidth, and user preferences.

Mobility and smart devices make it possible to download and view videos more easily than ever before.

Video is a great tool for certain kinds of documentation. As video becomes ever easier to access over the web and on smart phones and multiple devices, people are increasingly comfortable with it and are even coming to demand it. For technical communicators, video will grow in importance for the foreseeable future.

Audience reach

If a product has multiple modes to support the end user, whether text, illustrations or video, it provides a more complete package to reach a broader audience.

Attention spans are getting shorter. We are living in an era of immediacy; a user would prefer watching a quick video to perform a task rather than read a document with a step-by-step procedure. Video documentation, via Captivate and similar tools, is becoming a must-have component of product documentation. In fact, it seems to be common practice to record a video demo of every new software feature for a product release.

Seeing a person, hearing a voice and interpreting facial expressions is more “natural” for a human being than deciphering symbols on a page or screen. The written word, according to him, was a cumbersome workaround developed to store and transmit information when technology did not allow to record images and sound.

For introducing a product or providing an overview, video is great. Seeing someone else use a product can overcome those initial feelings of apprehension when faced with something new.

For example, take a look at the following marketing video:

Alcatel-Lucent LightRadio cube


Memory retention survey

Statistics show that individuals retained more information when a video was presented when compared to reading a document with only text or reading a document containing text and images.

The following survey was conducted by globalspeak – www.globalspeak.com.

Getting Started with Video Documentation

A few things to keep in mind when working with videos are:

  • What is the video supposed to accomplish?

At the outset, there should be a clear idea and purpose to the video. The information that should be assimilated by the viewer should be kept in mind while creating the video. It should be structured around the key audience takeaways.

  • Who is my target audience?

The type of viewer is an important factor to consider while developing a video. Whether the viewer is an engineer, a first time user, or a general viewer, the video should cater to the viewer. An engineer would be familiar with any technical terms and procedures used in a video, while a first time user would need a more basic overview. Similarly, a general viewer would identify more with generic information and procedures.

  • What is the ideal length of the video?

The purpose of using a video in documentation is to capitalize on the short attention spans of users. This purpose is defeated if the video is long and meandering. The video should be crisp and concise. A good rule of thumb is that the impact should be greater than the length of the video.

  • How do I integrate search terms and metadata?

It is essential to identify the kind of information that a viewer would be looking for in a video, and use this information to make the video more searchable. The video should be tagged with multiple keywords that would ensure that the relevant video is found and also enable a potential viewer to understand the content of the video without actually watching the video.

  • What tools are best suited for my requirements?

The kind of software tools and recording equipment, if any, need to be identified early on based on the requirements.

  • Are subtitles required? Can adding text enhance the video?

Based on translation and localization requirements, the video might require subtitles. This would mean a separate subtitle script would need to be developed and incorporated in the video as an SRT, SUB or SSA file.

Adding text to video frames in the form of pop-up boxes, interactive text boxes or a scrolling ticker tape at the bottom of the video can add a lot of value to the video. Strategically placed text in a video can impart crucial information, and to a certain extent, perform the function of a note or a cross-reference in a document.

  • How do I address format and device compatibility?

Not all video file formats are compatible with different platforms and devices. The file format should be decided based on factors such as storage space, resolution, video player used, and method of delivery.

Creating a video

The process of creating a video can be broadly classified into the following phases:

  1. Content selection
  2. Story boarding
  3. Video scripting
  4. Capturing required video clips
  5. Recording required audio
  6. Synchronizing audio and video
  7. Editing and special effects
  8. Combining clips to make a complete video
  9. Modes of delivery

Content selection

Videos are efficient for demonstrating product overviews, hardware installations, configurations, new features and also to simplify concepts and explain system architectures. Video is an innovative aid even for presenting conceptual information.

Take a look at the following video, which, otherwise if presented as written text, would not be as impressive.

Story boarding

It is complex to decide the visuals and the script all at the same time in one process, in one single meeting.

This is why script and storyboard should be considered as two separate but highly related processes.

Story boarding allows you to theme chapters and theme the production with an overall creative concept, down to the small details of where you think:

  • You’re going to need graphics and captions
  • You’re going to need a special shoot
  • You need to use stills.

From all this, a storyboard is produced.

A storyboard document is a lot more than just a list of the visuals; it should be an industry standard storyboard, a Master Document.

This master document will contain every detail for your video production, not just the visuals to go with every sentence, but a list of all the outstanding stills required, or cast and props.

In can include all the shots and footage required, a shoot list (or route march) for the shoot, instructions for camera and director, instructions for the editor such as any graphics that are required, any graphics instructions, or post production effects.

A storyboard is a complete master document, the complete blue print of your corporate video, and it’s something that all parties can understand, so there’s no mystery.

This is what a storyboard is. It’s everything about your corporate video on paper.

Video scripting

Video scripting is developing a creative visual story with impact and style combining audio, video, music, and graphics.

As a technical communicator, one can changeover from writing manuals, procedures, and brochures to writing video scripts.

Unlike the two-dimensional print world, video offers the writer a dynamic, multi-dimensional palette – action, camera movement, point of view, sound effects, music, character, dialogue, and narration – even silence.

This writing changeover from a print to a visual medium also requires your acquisition of some new skills. The technical communicator must become familiar with visualization, dialogue, timing, and budget constraints.

Visualization is the ability to know exactly how the video should look, and know exactly how the video should sound.

The video should speak for itself.

Technical communicators must practice the skill of keeping a script within time constraints. The dialogue and narration must be compressed to fit the time frame of the action.

Video recording

Two things must be considered before recording the video:

  • Video Categories
  • Camera positions

Video categories

  • Talking head – One person on camera delivers a straightforward presentation. The camera occasionally cuts to simple visuals such as charts, lists, or graphs.
  • Documentary – A narrator, usually off camera, takes the audience on a visual tour, reporting on the program topic.
  • Voice-over narration – Visuals are accompanied by narration from someone off camera. The narrator may describe a job procedure being demonstrated or may comment on other types of visuals.
  • Demonstration – The person on camera describes while demonstrating.
  • Animation – Cartoon characters provide instruction.
  • Interactive – Prompting the viewer for inputs.

Recording tools

The commonly used tools are Microsoft Windows Movie-Maker, Adobe Premiere Pro, iMovie, Jumpcut.com, etc.

Screencasting tools

The commonly used tools are Adobe Captivate, TechSmith Camtasia Studio, TechSmith Jing, etc.

Delivering videos

Videos can be delivered as HTML output on a dedicated portal, on YouTube, or using a CD-ROM, etc.

Benefits of using Video Documentation

In this world of plug-and-play technology, short attention spans and instant gratification, what is it that makes videos an attractive means of information dispersion? There are a number of benefits to moving towards video documentation, namely:

  • Videos provide an additional option to reach a myriad audience. A video is a medium that is a visual aid and allows any viewer to get the gist of what is happening in the video. Viewers do not always require specialized skills to understand a video. For example, an interesting video on an engineering procedure or a product overview might be viewed and understood by someone who does not actually perform the procedure or use the product.
  • Videos reduce ambiguity. Often with documentation, there is a chance of ambiguity that arises from varying usage of terminology, interpreting an unfamiliar language, and even incorrect grammar. With videos, what you see is what you get. The chances of misinterpreting what is seen or demonstrated in a video are far less than that of reading them off of a document.
  • Videos that are precise and interesting, keeps the viewer engaged. As an immersive and senses-rich medium, videos are as informative as the written formats, but more compelling. They can also be interactive, prompting the viewer for inputs, and allowing the viewer to customize the video based on requirements.
    Take a look at this video advertisement by Nike:
  • Videos have the ability to convey a great deal of information in a short period of time. Typically, a procedure that would take an average of 10 minutes of reading (including time taken to assimilate and re-read, if any) can be depicted in a video of 3 minutes or less.
    For example, take a look at the following instructional videos:

HTC One – Smart Dial

Adobe Illustrator – Designing a Simple Logo


  • As with written material, videos are portable and support translation.

Disadvantages of Video Documentation

While videos definitely offer an exciting avenue to reach out to a broader audience, they can never completely replace the written word as a medium of instruction. A few aspects need to be considered carefully before actually incorporating videos in documentation deliverables:

  • Cost is an important factor to consider when working with videos. The cost of creating videos and reworking them is higher than in the case of written documentation. Correcting an error or updating a video is considerably more expensive as it would involve rerecording the entire video or video clip in question.
  • The functionality performed by cross-references is not completely available in videos. In written material, navigating between cross-references is relatively straightforward. Although, video creation technologies do offer various options such as interactive text boxes, hotspots or pop-up (nested) video windows to display relevant information, the ease of navigation and flow of information is not always simple.
  • Using videos can present information in fragments. Not all types of information are suitable for presenting in the form of a video. In written material that is structured, there is a clear logical flow while with videos information presented can end up being more modular. A user might miss out on a complete understanding of a product or feature if they choose to view only the videos in a deliverable that has both text and video.
  • With text, it is always simple to find something specific using the Find option.
  • Videos require much more storage space.

In conclusion, video complements the written word rather than replacing it. Print and PDF won’t go away completely, but content will be less textual and more dynamic, interactive imagery.

There’s no denying the potential of videos, but videos alone cannot be a comprehensive method of information delivery. The right combination of written material and videos would have a greater impact and is definitely the way forward. A paradigm shift towards adapting video documentation would not only enrich customer experience, but also help in technical writers evolving into technical communicators.

About the authors:

Athulya Sekhar – I am an Information Developer with Alcatel-Lucent, with a background in software development. I work on OAM and Installation manuals, and GUI based product documentation. I also work with analyzing, creating and incorporating CMS metadata so as to streamline CMS performance. I am an avid follower of emergent social media and technology trends. I am a movie buff, and particularly love South Korean and World cinema.

Amulya Suraj – I work with  Alcatel-Lucent as a technical writer. My area of expertise is in feature assessments, authoring and maintenance of information products. I work on Feature Activation procedure guides, Site Preparation manuals, Installation manuals, User guides and product overview documents. I have worked extensively in the CMS troubleshooting group and am a member of the Alcatel-Lucent CMS review and maintenance board. My hobbies include music, painting and travelling.


  1. Hi Amulya/Athulya,

    Very good article; well explained.

  2. The main Lift having Robin the boy wonder Williams. Many i recall is usually that we were right in front line plus Dustin Hoffman afraid the bejasus beyond myself

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