Video knowledge

Sean McCown is a professional database administrator who writes the Database Underground blog for InfoWorld. Lately his postings have been full of references to videos. One day, he watched a Sysinternals training flick, combining live video with screencasting, and made immediate use of it to pinpoint and fix a problem. Another day, he made his own training screencast:

I sat down last night and made a video of the restore procedure for one of our ETL processes. It was 10mins long, and it explained everything someone would need to know to recover the process from a crash. [Database Underground: Not just a DR plan anymore]

Screencasting is poised to become a routine tool of business communication, but there are still a few hurdles to overcome. For starters, video capture isn’t as accessible as it ought to be. Second Life gets it right: there’s always a camera available, and you can turn it on at any time. Every desktop OS should work like that.

Meanwhile, I’ll reiterate some advice: Camtasia is an excellent tool for capturing screen video on Windows, but its $300 price tag covers a lot of editing and production features that you may never use if you’re capturing in stream-of-consciousness mode for purposes of documentation. In that case, the free Windows Media Encoder is perfectly adequate.

On the Mac I’d been using Snapz Pro X for short flicks, but it takes forever to save long sessions. Next time I do a long-form Mac screencast I’ll try iShowU. That’s what Peter Wayner used for his AJAX screencasts. Peter says that iShowU saves instantly. I tried the demo, and it does.

Finally, there’s the odd hack I tried here: I used the camera’s display as the Mac’s screen, and captured to tape. If the 720×480 format is appropriate for your subject — and when the focus is a single application window, it can be — this is a nice way to collect a lot of raw material without chewing up a ton of disk space.

Capture mechanics aside, I think the bigger impediment is mindset. To do what Sean did — that is, narrate and show an internal process, for internal consumption — you have to overcome the same natural reticence that makes dictation such an awkward process for those of us who haven’t formerly incorporated it into our work style. You also have to overcome the notion, which we unconsciously absorb from our entertainment-oriented culture, that video is a form of entertainment. It can be. Depending on the producer, a screencast documenting a disaster recovery scenario could be side-splittingly funny. And if the humor didn’t compromise the message, a funny version would be much more effective than a dry recitation. But even a dry recitation is way, way better than what’s typically available: nothing.

9 thoughts on “Video knowledge

  1. Bernard Farrell

    I agree completely with the use of screencasts for communication.

    When I was leading the team to implement the fix for the applet loading change in IE (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/ie6/using/techinfo/activexupdate.mspx) earlier this year, we had several issues where people in the field didn’t know:

    1. Exactly what the issue looked like when it appeared in our applications.
    2. How to verify whether the Microsoft IE Patch had been installed.
    3. How to uninstall the IE Patch.

    I was able to use Camtasia and create several short (less than 2 minutes each) screencasts that helped explain each of these issues clearly to the support folks.

    The biggest issue I found was scripting the words that I wanted to say alongside the video. It took several attempts to get this right, and it was a LOT easier on the last one that on the first one.

    Thanks for the pointer to lower cost alternatives to Camtasia, I’ll investigate these for personal use.

    Reply
  2. Balazs Fejes

    We just started to record screencasts for our internal systems and tools at my company (EPAM), with great success so far. It’s just easier to pay attention to video walkthroughs than any online help or tutorial we could provide.

    We’re also trying to capture our internal training sessions, mixing the screen captures during the training with the DV camera feed looking the speaker. Basically we need to combine the screen capture video (when presenting something on-screen) with segments when the speaker just talks and draws stuff on a whiteboard. This turns out to be quite a hassle.

    So either we find a nice capture/combine workflow for the screencast and the speaker video, or we need to just stick to capturing the screencast, and just mix in the speaker’s voice, and not the video.

    This would mean that we can’t really use the whiteboard during the training, which would be unfortunate. I suppose we could use a software whiteboard to sketch and illustrate points during the session, but it would not feel very natural somehow.

    Reply
  3. Joshua Bloom

    Hey Jon,

    I’ve had really good results with wink http://www.debugmode.com/wink/ to capture and edit screencasts. It’s freeware, crossplatform, outputs to flash and a bunch of other platforms. If you want to get fancy you can add text boxes and arrows, callouts etc. I recommend it.

    Good luck with your upcoming MS job, they need more people like you.

    -Josh

    Reply
  4. Dror Harari

    I am a long time reader of yours and very much like what you do (the last thing I liked was the recommendation of the Long Now podcasts which I greatly enjoy) and hope you find your job at Microsoft fruitful.

    About screencasting, I had to make a demonstration that involved complex orchestration of many machines we integrate such as mainframes, Tandem NonStop machines, etc. This kind of thing rarely succeeds in a live demo and I decided that making a screencast of this would be much safer.

    Our company had one copy of Camtasia that was not available. Looking for another tool, I found a comment on one of your blogs regarding a freeware tool named Wink (http://www.debugmode.com/wink/). I tried it and manged to create a good screencast within minutes (with audio in a flash format with a sample HTML code to run it). I think it is an amazing tool that definitely worths mentioning (even more so since it is also available on Linux – in your blog you mentioned only Windows and Mac).

    The only problem I found with the tool is that if you use the Time Capture mode (rather than the default input-based capture) then the screencast size becomes very big – the other modes result in surprisingly small flash files. In fact, it’s help menu actually opens a wink presentation that you render and view to see how the program runs.

    For me it was amazing to see such a powerful program being free (so free that there is not even donation button or link to be found anywhere on the site). It includes sound editing, callouts and navigation aids so that people with time and will can produce professional screencasts with it.

    Regards,

    Dror Harari

    Reply
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  8. mike whatley

    There’s nothing new here. Screen casting as a tool for explaining a process is pretty routine. As always the issue is NOT about technology or the application, but rather imaginative presentation and conveying the message in an interesting manner.

    Techies rarely discuss how to present their message, be it Server 2003’s auto reboot functionality triggered by a Blue screen or other routine just in time learning.

    Take a look at the generally well regarded Lynda.Com site. You’ll see a wide range of technical teaching styles through screen casting. From faux enthusiasm projected by some “instructors” to the dry, self important manner of others. Still others, actually convey substantive information in an interesting manner without injecting ego and other phoney methods to engage their audience.

    As for Sean McCown being bitten by the “screencasting bug”…one wonders, where has he been? It’s not a new process.

    Mike Whatley
    Altadena, Ca.

    Reply

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