Technical Writer Tips & Tricks: Video Tutorials

Video Tutorials: What Your Mother Doesn’t Understand

It should come as a surprise to no one that we all hate to read technical documentation. Not just our end users, but us technical communicators too. So it should also come as no surprise that, over the last year or two, requests for video tutorials (standalone or as companions to written documentation) have been at an all-time high. The major leaders in this space (Google, Apple, Adobe, and Cisco) have already dedicated huge resources to video libraries. If you’re not making (or considering making) at least some video tutorials, then you’re about to be left behind.

Before venturing into this space, consider what value video tutorials will  add to a particular product. For example, there’s not much point in creating videos for basic feature functionality that no one can find or will watch. On the other hand, if you integrate the same sort of video tutorials right into your product, all of a sudden you’re on the leading edge of user experience. By embedding user assistance right into the product, users get a quick how-to the first time they go to use a feature or product without ever having to go to the documentation at all. Result: Blissfully grateful users who think you make really cool products.

As with any content, you need to carefully consider the audience, the user experience, the content, technical requirements, the content developers, and strategies for quality assurance and long-term maintenance. Once you have all that figured, you can start considering the tools and techniques you’ll need to create the sort of video tutorials that will provide value to your users.

Areas Where Video Tutorials Really Add Value

  • Introduction to a product (what it can do, how it works, what the user experience looks like). Tend to be marketing material or high-level explanations. Useful in pre-sales. Example: Cisco’s Show and Share.
  • Introduction to new features of a product (usually for a new release). Useful for technical end users in pre- and post-sales. Example: Adobe’s introduction to FrameMaker 10.
  • A how-to tutorial for either new or advanced users. Very useful for training content. Example: Apple’s iChat or Google Earth.
  • Illustration of an advanced technique that is difficult to describe in written form. Areas of existing documentation that are heavy with screenshots or illustrations are good candidates for this kind of video tutorial.

Guidelines For Video Tutorials

Like other technical communications projects that your mom still doesn’t understand, put together a plan for how you’ll get it all done.  Some things to keep in mind as you plan and as you execute:

  • Keep it short (1 to 5 minutes), except for videos that cover advanced techniques, which can be longer.
  • Do a storyboard (download a template) to keep it focused and clear during production.
  • Make sure your screen and recording resolutions result in crisp, clear video.
  • Encode your videos as required by HTML5 (no more 3rd party players! But you’ll have to encode your video more than once right now to make it viewable by all OS, browsers, and devices). See for more information.
  • Make sure the title is clear and descriptive and the description accurately reflects the content.
  • Add metadata to the page that will help users find the video based on keywords (for example, Vimeo lets you add tags). Make sure your tags are consistent! Tip: If you develop an extensive library of videos, plan your metadata scheme to ensure that it is robust, useful, and can grow/adapt as the market changes.
  • A series of short, related videos is more useful than a 60-minute video. Ensure navigation between the video tutorials in a series is easy and logical.
  • If you do produce a long video, you can and should tag the video with metadata when the subject changes. This lets viewers go directly to that topic without having to watch or fast forward to the part that interests them.
  • A good, experienced narrator is vital. A badly narrated video reflects very poorly on the product and company. If you can’t hire a professional, make sure you get objective opinions before you proceed with one particular narrator.
  • Background music (soothing and quiet or upbeat) can add that extra polish to a video that makes it professional.
  • Have a feedback and rating mechanism available for each video. This lets them participate
  • Monitor page/video metrics so you know how many people are watching (or starting to watch and abandoning) a particular video. This will help you decide which videos need improvement and which areas of the product your users are most interested in.
  • If you’re creating training material for your video tutorials, make sure you stay SCORM compliant so your Learning Management System (LMS) can help manage the video content.
  • Follow a maintenance schedule! Don’t let old videos sit around showing users old features or clunky ways of doing things that have since changed.

Some Popular Tools for Online Video Capture

Here’s a list of some of the best known tools for capturing online video, technically known as “screencasting tools.”



You’re a great technical writer, and you make every task look easy. But keep in mind that, just like help, FAQs, and manuals, it takes a lot of work to produce one short video. On average, expect a 3-minute video to take you at least a day to create and polish. That doesn’t include the time it takes to plan, prepare, deliver, and maintain that video.

And if you’re expecting to get rich (or having your technical communications department become a revenue generator) by charging money for videos, think again. The current expectation is that a person might purchase a book, but any videos should be free of charge or included with the price of some other purchase (like that book or a larger product/training bundle). So build the cost of creating and maintaining your videos into the purchase price of your product.

Video tutorials are already becoming the next hot niche in technical documentation and training. If you have an interest in planning, creating, or even consuming technical communications content in video format, then it’s time to start looking at what’s been done so far and what improvements you could bring to the field.

Category: TechWhirl Columns - Tag (s): Visual Design


12 years ago

Great article! I have bookmarked this page. My company is looking into creating videos now, and they asked me to get things started. Thank you, Jacquie!

Jacquie Samuels

12 years ago

No problem! Have fun!

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