How-to videos in technical documentation – user expectations and possibilities

There’s no doubt that how-to videos are gaining in popularity. Even back in 2016, a third of online video users reported that they watched instructional videos frequently or very frequently. Although this survey relates to leisure time and the private sphere, instructional videos also concern the technical communication sector.

Instructional videos, how-to videos, maintenance videos… there are various names for the trend towards instructions in video form, and it’s not just the manufacturers of consumer products that are being confronted with them. An increasing number of industrial companies are expanding their traditional documentation to include explanatory and instructional content in the form of videos and animations.

This enables them to meet user expectations and exploit the didactic potential this form of information preparation brings.

Where moving images have a clear advantage

So what advantages do moving images have over traditional printed instructions, which merely contain text and pictures to provide instructions? When it comes to space or motion sequences, moving images have the edge over printed images to communicate information.

Let’s take a look at a simple example: What is the easiest way to thread the needle on a sewing machine? In text instructions this would quickly become a very abstract explanation.

Of course, you can word each step in comprehensible language, using short sentences and not giving too much information in one go. But what to do with each hand and how best to hold the thread need to become an image in the reader’s head.

It’s much easier for the user to watch an animation or video that shows the process actually being carried out.

The issues that arise with our simple sewing machine example also apply to many processes in an industrial environment, which is one reason why an increasing number of mechanics in passenger and commercial vehicle workshops are using instructional videos. How do I lubricate an axle correctly? How do I hold the brush to ensure the lubricant is correctly distributed and the axle can work for another 100,000 kilometres? The success of videos is so clear that moving images are slowly becoming the norm.

While this may be true, videos certainly won’t replace “written” documentation. Some content is simply not suitable for being displayed as moving images, such as references for error messages or the obligatory safety section of manuals. What’s more, for legal reasons the written form will still play a crucial role. Machine manufacturers cannot afford to stop providing their customers with all the information in printed format.

Even if videos are increasingly coming to the fore, then they will be an addition to “traditional” instructions comprising text and images – albeit an addition with enormous potential.

What challenges can you expect to encounter as a technical writer?

If you’re responsible for the strategic or content elements of documentation, and don’t share the enthusiasm for moving images, I can totally understand. That’s because, although there are clear didactic advantages, the widespread use of videos as a form of preparing information brings with it some real challenges. I’d like to point out the most important ones here.

For one, you have to ensure that the users of your videos focus on what it is you want to show them. Without visibly pointing this out using arrows or hotspots, you may quickly find that the user cannot see the wood for the trees. This is a major challenge of didactics.

“Text in a video” is a similar feat. Often, a moving image is not enough to convey the required information. Text or warnings have to be added at certain points in the time line. How do you arrange the video and text?

Something that is of particular importance here is warning notices. In instructions for industrial products in particular, warning notices are crucial to ensure equipment and machines are used safely. They cannot be omitted from the video and they have to match their counterparts in the printed instructions exactly. How can consistency be ensured?

This brings us to the final point: the editing process. Films are usually made by professionals with their own tools and ways of working. If, as a technical writer, you come along with specific requirements, such as for callout and text, it’ll certainly get tricky, as you can’t do it yourself and each addition requires some communication and QA work. The level of complexity increases further if the text then has to be translated. This results in work ending up on the video maker’s desk that would be much better left with you as the technical writer. Not a good situation to be in and one reason why many technical writers cringe at the mere mention of videos.

How videos become managed content

As you can see, instructional videos will play a central role in technical communication in future and are clearly beneficial, yet bring challenges. In order that you, as a technical writer, can successfully master the new requirements associated with moving images, video handling needs to be incorporated into the core of modern content management, or in other words, integrated into the CMS.

In this way, videos are transformed from being a thorn in the side to managed content: linked to the existing text and image data, incorporated into the standard processes for translation, versioning and quality assurance.

Solutions using SCHEMA ST4

Callout in Motion brings your callout graphics and animations to life in SCHEMA ST4. Integrated in the component content management system, linked to the existing text and image content, incorporated into the standard processes for translation, versioning and quality assurance – Callout in Motion draws from the full functionality of SCHEMA ST4, enabling you to create completely new content in your technical documentation.

Sound good to you? Then check out our future blog posts! We’ll be giving you a quick tour of the new feature.

Plus, if you’re coming to Stuttgart for the tekom annual conference, you can see Callout in Motion in action on our stand – as part of a German session in our Blue Box or while speaking to one of our consultants.

 

Sebastian Göttel

Sebastian Göttel studied IT at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and in Bordeaux. He has been applying his expertise in text modularisation, single source publishing and translation management at SCHEMA since 1998 and heads up the company’s Sales and Marketing department. He also supports consultants and key account managers with XML and DITA-based projects.

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