I am an immediate fan of Common Craft’s style of concept videos. Their explanations of how and why to use del.icio.us and Google Docs are crisp and entertaining. They convey the essence of these activities more clearly than any other visual explanations I’ve seen, including many of the screencasts I’ve made.
The style is called paperworks because these sketchcasts are made by capturing screenshots, printing out key elements, and then filming, animating, annotating, and narrating arrangements and rearrangements of these scraps of paper. The first time you watch one, you’ll be captivated: it’s cute, it’s fresh. But is this just a gimmick? After you watch a few more, and you begin to acclimate to the style, does its effectiveness wane? Not yet, for me, because these productions have more going for them than cuteness and freshness.
One of the principles at work here is the moral equivalent of cropping and zooming in the screencast medium. When you’re trying to explain software on a conceptual level, images captured from screens can be a mixed blessing. It’s valuable to show exactly what screens look like, and exactly how actions flow within and across them. But the amount of detail that’s visible in a typical screen can often distract from the story you’re trying to tell. By cropping the screen, and/or by zooming in on the active region, you can prune away a lot of visual clutter and focus on key interactions. The paperworks style is an extreme form of cropping and zooming; it prunes and focuses very aggressively.
Another principle is sketching. According to Bill Buxton, sketching goes hand in hand with what he calls design thinking. When I asked Bill how he would have used sketching in the design of a feature like the Office ribbon, he said:
You’d start with paper prototyping — quickly hand-rendered versions, and for the pulldown menus and other objects you’d have Post-It notes. So when somebody comes with a pencil and pretends it’s their stylus and they click on something, you’ve anticipated the things they’ll do, and you stick down a Post-It note.
If that’s a helpful way to imagine software interaction in the design phase, why wouldn’t it also be a helpful way to conceptualize the software in use? The paperworks style strongly suggests that it is. These sketchcasts are great visual explanations of working software. I suspect they’d be equally useful during the design of that software.