Will online video replace the written user guide?

TED’s Chris Anderson says the rise of Web video is driving a worldwide phenomenon he calls “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” – a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print.

He claims

What Gutenberg did for writing, online video can now do for face-to-face communication…Information often can be taken in faster by reading it, but there is a necessary depth and richness that is often missing…In fact our brains are exquisitely wired for the medium of video.

But to tap into its power, he claims organisations will need to embrace radical openness.

Here is his 18 minute presentation:

If he is correct, what does that mean for technical authors and others who are writing instructional manuals?

His presentation is based on the assumption that video is available on demand, that we live in an ‘always on’ connected world. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that in Europe video chat on mobile phones never took off, yet text messaging has exploded.

Clearly video will play a role in technical communication, and this is something I’ll be covering in my TCUK conference presentation next week (on creating an emotional connection with users). It will also be the theme of my article on “The emotion factor” that’s due to be published in the November 2010 edition of the STC’s Intercom magazine.

What’s more likely is we’ll see a blend of both video and the written word – two mediums that require different skills to deliver effectively.

What do you think?

(via Presentation Zen)



I think this is critical: “His presentation is based on the assumption that video is available on demand, that we live in an ‘always on’ connected world.”

And by ‘always on’ I’m guessing he means access at decent broadband speeds.

There are plenty of areas in the so-called developed world where that assumption is not true and might not be for many years. For example, I live about 20 kms from a major Australian population centre (80+K people). Even though I pay for an 8 Mbps connection, the limitations of the copper wire and the policies of the ultimate telco that my data runs on (and that my ISP *has* to go through as a result of an historical monopoly), means I can get no better than 2.5 Mbps download and 0.3 Mbps upload — and that’s on a good day!

When you’re putting too many things in a tiny pipe, either the pipe bursts, or everything slows to a trickle. If I was required to download user assistance videos all the time, as well as use the cloud for backups and do all my other work, my speeds — and therefore my access — would be throttled.

That assumption of his is only true for certain parts of the world… certainly not all of it.



I think that his talk touches only tangentially on Tech Comm.

My take is that his talk was about inspiration and the ability to see the BEST that’s out there in any endeavor, and to be the best and inspire others.

This is as opposed to using video to accomplish a task that anyone could do with a bit of know-how (like most tech comm).

So I don’t think that tech comm is much affected by his vision. Or at least, not more than most tech communicators already realize.

It’s interesting and apt that he compared this revolution to the printing press. He said something like this:

“For the first time in human history, talented students don’t have to have their potential and dreams written out of history by lousy teachers. They can sit two feet from the world’s finest.”

That reminds me of something I read years ago about books. The idea was that you hold this object in your hand that allows you to hear from the finest minds in history. Kings and queens and scientists and philosophers and artists.

As far as access to video, I believe there are something like 10-15 million dial-up users in the US! So they’re out.

But that still leaves plenty of people to draw inspiration from, and to inspire!

Greg DeVore

Video is simply another tool in the belt. It is very important and very effective when used correctly. But there are still many times that text is important as a delivery format for a variety of reasons:

* It is easier to keep up to date
* It is easier to scan
* It is easier to search

We have found that from an application support standpoint short videos work very well to introduce new concepts and features. The purpose of the video is to let the user know what is possible and help them decide if the task one that they want to perform.

For “how to” content we create text mixed with a lot of screenshots. This is much easier to keep up to date as the application is updated/changed but still makes implementation very simple because of the added visuals.

We actually hosted a webinar on this very subject, when to use video and when to use screenshots. It really depends on what type of information your user needs at any given moment.

Alan Conroy

We needed to create clear & concise instructions for our clients. Video was an ideal method for us and we set off creating a number of video tutorials for our software and when we received support requests we would point our clients to the video as a reference.

So far so good.

The problem we encountered was that most work places did not purchase speakers for their PC’s, only about 20% of the clients had speakers and they were mostly laptops.

Perhaps as we move to more mobile and integrated devices we will revisit this, but for now we couldnt move from text


Mitchell Stephens wrote about the power of the image (which includes video) back in 1998, in his book The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word. His analysis is totally fascinating, but as someone who reads and watches a lot of video (as well as sometimes producing video productions), I still think the written text engages the mind and learning process differently than images and video. Both mediums are valid, but text can enable us to be more reflective in processing information and analysis and not just have it thrown at us in a short video.

The video from Kibera, Kenya is indeed a testament to the power of video, but there‘s lots of information that does’t get included in that video—information that can be best conveyed in text format.

So while I concur that video is a powerful tool, we clearly need to focus on textual literacy as well.

Julie Norris

Absolutely. I think video will play a huge role in docs from here on out. Or they should, anyway. Tech writers can make their own little videos with a Flip camera or webcam and easily upload them to a site. Users can make their own. It will be another type of user-generated content.

Will it replace text? Not entirely. But it will definitely be part of an overall doc package.

IMO, it’s here already. Start experimenting with it, planning for it, and including it in doc strategies. The younger generation coming along will expect this, so you might as well start testing it now. 😉

Patty Blount

I agree with previous comments: it’s another tool on our belts and it will be part of the overall information package, but I don’t think it will ever replace the guide.

For one thing, videos are hard to index. If I don’t have time to watch the whole thing, how can I skip right to the good part, especially if I don’t know what the good part is called?

Reminds me of a much-tweeted decision I think Chrysler made to replace glove box guides with a DVD. (epic fail!)

For me, the best idea is to blend videos and written procedures so I can choose which one suits my needs in a given situation.

Simon Bostock

Of course, it’ll take time for the infrastructure to get built which will make this accessible to everybody.

But I can’t see this NOT happening.

BT have done some great work in this area for their technical engineers. Rather than commission a whole load of professional film makers, they’ve made it easy for the engineers themselves to records and distribute podcasts/vodcasts. This is classic ‘disruptive innovation’ – the content’s not as good as the professionally produced stuff but it often wins because it’s cheap and it’s timely.

Google/YouTube are working on cracking the indexing problem. Their automated close-caption thing (which, of course, means indexing becomes possible) is still fairly shoddy. But it’s early days.

For Tech Comms, though, I think video isn’t the really really disruptive thing. Augmented Reality apps will upend, disintermediate and unbundle in way that even the web didn’t.


There’s one more idea I’d like to add to the discussion:
A key factor whether video is superior or inferior when compared to text is the information type. While a video can be more powerful when presenting a procedure (especially when handling hardware rather than software), the advantages of text dominate when presenting a concept.

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