If you’ve ever watched a YouTube video of someone demonstrating how to master a software application (for instance, how to advance to the next level on Angry Birds), you have seen a screencast.
Screencasting is simply the video recording equivalent of a static “screen shot.” With a decent microphone, some screencasting software and basic video editing skills, anyone can create a short screencast.
However, as with all things creative (or, in life), a screencast is only as good as the innate talents and mastery of necessary skills by the individual (or, these days, team) creating it. In my opinion, a gifted teacher like Salman Khan, creator of Khan Academy, is proof that production values are less important than pedagogical skills. See his intro to trigonometry lesson below.
Screencasting has come a long ways since 2005, the first time I heard the term. That’s when Jon Udell posted this item on his former blog at infoworld.com:
“Today’s screencast traces the evolution of Wikipedia’s Heavy metal umlaut page…It’s a wonderfully silly topic, but my point is somewhat serious too. The 8.5-minute screencast turns the change history of this Wiki page into a movie, scrolls forward and backward along the timeline of the document, and follows the development of several motifs. Creating this animated narration of a document’s evolution was technically challenging, but I think it suggests interesting possibilities.”
Simply by narrating over a video recording of what he was clicking through on his computer monitor, Jon was able to tell a story that fascinated me and opened my mind to many of the possibilities that later became what is today’s version of SmallBusiness.com.
Sal Kahn today proves (as Jon did nearly a decade ago) individuals can create simple screencasts that can teach and inspire.
However, that doesn’t mean that “down and dirty” is always the best way to go. Indeed, unless you are Sal or Jon, it’s probably not a good idea.
To see the full potential of what can be accomplished with the medium, I suggest you check out anything produced recently by the online instructional company, Lynda.com. Not only are the production techniques of Lynda.com superb, the company’s approach to online training is redefining what professional training is all about. For an example of some awe-inspiring “instructional” video that will change your concept of online training, watch some of this introduction to Lynda.com’s Bert Monroy: The Making of Times Square.
When I see the work of Lynda.com, it makes me wonder: Why don’t companies provide such screencasts and instructional content to enable their customers to better master their tools and products? Lynda.com and countless publishers, seminar organizers and online instructors have discovered the tremendous business opportunities in filling the knowledge gap between what a customer wants to do when they purchase a product and what they can actually do.
There are a some good examples of companies that have mastered the screencast as a teaching and demo tool for helping customers get the most out of their products. However, the best ones I’ve seen are from software startups. The requirement by Kickstarter that everyone using its service have a video has spurred a wave of screencasts among new “makers,” as well.
Here are a few of the better screencasts I’ve seen in which a company presents its own product.
Apple Apperture: How to make prints and contact sheets
Okay. It’s Apple and I tend to notice the things they do more closely. However, these tutorials are aimed at a more professional audience than the typical Apple demos — no musical score, for example..
Notes Plus: Tutorial for “Close Up Writing”
I chose this one as an example because the product, an iPad app called Notes Plus is an app that I am using more and more. As with most software with lots of features, I often cannot remember how rarely used features work. That’s when I’m most like to turn to a company’s tutorial. Note Plus’ screencasts sound and look both professional and authentic — and provide a good benchmark for what a company’s product screencasts should be.
Do you have examples of companies doing a great job with screencasts for their customers? Use the comments below to share them. (Limit your suggestions on this post to company-produced screencasts — those created by a company to provide demos and how-tos to customers and users. We have plans to feature customer-created screencasts in a future post.)