I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You: Considering the video dimension of user assistance
As purveyors of the written word, we’ve been influenced by the well-articulated knowledge that much of our carefully constructed content is read under duress. When the users are in crisis, often as a last resort, they open and skim through the documentation we labor to provide.
With a minimalist approach, we practice all sorts of economies of words and space to equip our weary user with the maximum information in the simplest, clearest, and most convenient format possible. The user just DOESN’T—doesn’t want to scroll, doesn’t want to face a wall of text, doesn’t want to have to re-read anything or be mystified by complex descriptions or diagrams just because the subject matter itself is complex. The users want help, and they want it HERE and NOW! They want it here—right here, at that critical crossroads in the product where they have formed the question or are experiencing an issue. Not a moment before and definitely not after they’ve taken a right, instead of a left turn at Albuquerque. They want it right now—in a format that is easy to access and understand and that preferably doesn’t require going elsewhere to forage for an answer. They just want the information they need to continue on with their day.
In this age of mega-media, where users are constantly bombarded with messages and information, they desperately want a quick, reliable answer. Furthermore, they don’t want to be told what to do. After all, is there anyone you know between the ages of 2 and 92 who enjoys being told what to do? Gone are the days of bound user guides and extended document sets—a mini-library for each product, meant to provide reassurance that the answer is there—somewhere in that huge doc set. While knowledge bases, wikis, and discussion boards
are helpful, they still require a certain level of user participation and evaluation. After all, in such instances, the users have to review the answer and make a decision about whether they trust it. Embedded user assistance such as online help or guided help are more trusted and are intended to walk the user through required procedures and avoid pitfalls. Yet all of these methods are still “telling” to some degree. I submit that showing users what to do is even better than telling them.
Think about the first food you learned how to cook. For me, it was pancakes. Although I read the recipe, it wasn’t until I watched someone make pancakes—not until they showed me the nuances of how the batter should look, how to tell that the griddle was ready, how to tell when it was time to flip the pancake—did I feel confident and actually enjoy the process.
I believe my Pancake Theory speaks volumes about today’s user. While the other forms of user assistance provide a certain level of conceptual information, I believe that short videos highlighting very specific tasks by featuring simulations, video clips, animations, or similar illustrations, are in many cases the best way to disseminate information to a user. While user assistance combines learning and enabling objectives, I believe a focus on enabling objectives is immediately beneficial to the user. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of “showing” your user what to do:
Advantages of Video Learning Include
- ♦ Simplicity—videos are easy to view and understand; pacing is carefully planned and controlled. Every image, every word furthers the user along in meeting his or hergoal. Furthermore, the typical user comes to your product with an established knowledge about how to interact with a video lesson. Click-pause-play is easy to understand and rarely distracts the user.
- ♦ Specificity—videos don’t need to be full-length features. A video can be a short snippet reflecting a very pointed and specific task. Such modularity keeps the user in control by providing access to his or her specific area of interest.
- ♦ Repeatability—unlike the frustration that may occur when users have to re-read a page to gain meaning, users are much more receptive to the prospect of replaying a short video to ensure they fully understand a procedure. Providing an option to pause the video allows the users to more fully follow the provided instruction.
Disadvantages of Video Learning Include Lack of
- ♦ Adaptability—using visuals as the primary format places some visually impaired users at a disadvantage. Depending on the type of learning video, the audio may have to be adjusted to include significantly more detail for the visually impaired user. Or, in some situations, an entirely different video would need to be created and available. This requirement translates to a major drain on your instructional design resources.
- ♦ Accessibility—all bandwidths and video formats are not created equal. Providing information via video requires you to seriously consider and communicate minimum system requirements, along with access and instructions for all types of players so that your users can actually view your masterpiece. Very few experiences can embitter a user as much as the realization that additional information exists, yet is unavailable.
- ♦ Flexibility—video is ideal for illustrating a concept. As you move into practical procedures or simulations, the labor-intensive video user assistance should be implemented for fairly stable products. If your product’s user interface changes weekly or you know a major redesign is on the product roadmap, you should suspend your video efforts until the product is more stable. Otherwise, you run the risk of your video quickly falling out of synch with the product interface and becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, to your user. In addition, if your product deliverables include language translation, video production costs can run rampant.
Of course, all of this assumes that you have the prerequisite expertise and development tools to create learning videos. Offering many mini videos is another instrument in the Learning Designer’s arsenal. It is part of a concerted and ongoing effort to equip the user with relevant information at highly logical and convenient points of product interaction. Such information softens the learning curve, making it a gradual sloping hill instead of a grueling vertical hike. As you develop your long-term plans for user assistance, remember that in some instances, you can show them better than tell them.
For additional information on video creation, please see the 2010 Best Practices conference presentation given by Dave Johnson
Mirhonda Studevant works as a Knowledge Manager at ClickSquared, a global provider of cross-channel cloud marketing software and services. Currently the Secretary of the Atlanta Society for Technical Communication chapter (www.stcatlanta.org), Mirhonda has a TCOM degree from Southern Polytechnic State University (www.spsu.edu) and an MBA from Walden University (www.waldenu.edu). Mirhonda’s primary interests include knowledge management, information design, distance learning and usability. She also recently contributed a chapter to Virtual Collaborative Writing in the Workplace: Computer-Mediated Communication Technologies and Processes. You can connect with Mirhonda via LinkedIn. When she’s not taking meditative prayer walks or dancing in flash mobs, Mirhonda still enjoys making pancakes.