How many words is a video worth?

Who doesn’t like videos? From the silliest ones on America’s Funniest Home Videos to how to cook a turkey (one of my personal favorites which I come back to every Thanksgiving), there’s a video for everything you ever thought you wanted to know about – and lots of things you didn’t. Due to the popularity of these videos, technical communication has seen its share of examples. When you’re stumped on how to post an expense in QuickBooks, for example, you only have to Google the question and wait the requisite 0.20 seconds for the 400,000,000 results.

I’m not complaining.  Videos do offer the user a different and often better perspective on the topic. Trussing the turkey, for example, is easier to learn on a video than reading about it in the Joy of Cooking (though I still consult Rombauer because I’m so old school). And I wish the ping-pong table I recently had to assemble came with a video instead of the wordless pictures that accompanied the box so I wouldn’t have had to sacrifice a whole weekend trying every conceivable permutation of the parts to get it to finally work.

But is video the answer (or should I say The Answer)? To return to QuickBooks for a moment, how helpful is a video on importing transactions from your bank? Or subtotaling project expenses for a specific company? Perhaps, a better way to ask the question is, is it more helpful than simple steps that describe what to do? For example:

  1. Click this
  2. Enter that
  3. Click OK

I’m old school, as I said before, and I imagine our generation Y’ers would insist on video as the best (and probably only) way to learn.  But we all learn in different ways.  And it is important, when attempting to communicate information, to anticipate the myriad ways people absorb information.

For communicating technical topics, we’ve learned that our “audience” is not a uniform, single type of learner. And neither is the information we have to write about. Documenting an application programming interface (API) is not the same as writing a user manual for processing a credit transaction on a credit card terminal – both of which we write. Developers and programmers need certain information and expect it to be presented in a certain way (no pdfs, please) and a clerk in a store trying to figure out how to process a return for an irate customer needs something very different. And, I would argue, neither has time for a video.

Videos are great. I’m certain I’ll be visiting my favorite sites again next Thanksgiving and watching people’s pets do clever or silly things. But let’s not completely abandon the printed word. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, there times a few good words are worth a thousand frames of video.

1 reply on “How many words is a video worth?”

I might hazard an assertion that certain tasks are simultaneously highly technical and richly organic. The best example I can think of is physical exercises. Video and direct personal instruction are and have been the most effective training, hands down.

One would be hard-pressed to learn karate or yoga from a manual without lots and lots of practice. I experienced a similar phenomenon last year when I carved my first turkey for Thanksgiving. If I had more than one bird to cut or had a thorough understanding of avian anatomy, you might have found me reading about it. But since there was only one, I made use of several youtube videos.

Relatedly, screencasts are becoming more and more popular in the development community.

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