Video Will Not Eclipse Text

There is a fallacy that seems to have worked its way into the shared psyche, a belief that the next generation (whichever one that might be) will not read text at all but will demand video for everything. This seems to have produced a kind of fatalism in some tech writers, a belief that video will conquer all despite its obvious unsuitability for many technical communication tasks.

Here is one expression of this, from a recent discussion on LinkedIn:

I agree that videos can be frustrating, particularly when you know most of the information and you only need help on a small area of a product. But customers like them and the upcoming generation will require them.

But why should customers like, or the next generation require, a form of information delivery generally acknowledged to be frustrating?

Most people do like videos for some things, of course. How-to videos are very popular on YouTube. I have watched a number of them and found them valuable for a certain kind of question, generally ones involving some complex physical process such as installing a headlight bulb or getting three stars on a particular level of Angry Birds. Videos are by far the easiest way to understand these kinds of actions.

In the past, these types of actions were usually described using diagrams or text because the cost of producing and the difficulty of delivering and viewing a video were prohibitive. Now that we all have easy access to decent quality video and sound recording tools and to Internet-connected devices capable of receiving and viewing videos, the reasons not to use videos for the things videos are best at have gone away.

This does not mean that there is any reason to use videos for things they are not good at. If videos were cheaper to make, distribute, and consume than text, there might be an economic motive to use video where text would be better, but cheap as videos now are, text is still cheaper, and can be viewed in more places and on more surfaces.

Nor is there any reason to believe that the next generation will lose the willingness or ability to read text. We are talking, after all, about a generation that has abandoned the phone call in favor of texting and can type 50 words a minute with one thumb. Unwilling to read text? They may generate and consume more text than ever before.

Do they watch a lot of videos and play a lot of video games? Sure. Do they do this instead of reading books? No. They do it instead of playing outside with their friends. Bookish childhoods have always been in the minority. And in any case, this is not about the consumption of literature. The reading that matters for purposes of everyday business and technical communications is business and technical reading. Not reading for pleasure, but reading for work. Reading is an essential part of most modern work, and most workers learn to do it well enough to get their work done, regardless of whether they read for pleasure. That is no different today than it was fifty years ago.

Because video has become cheaper to produce and easier to distribute, it is naturally being used more. Reducing the price of a commodity generally leads to increased consumption, driving the trend line upwards. This does not mean it will inevitably drive all other commodities out of the market. If you take a rising trend line at the right point and project it outwards, the projection will inevitably reach 100% share of any market. But that is not what happens to trends in real life.

Chart showing trends in car and truck sales

Percentage of the US auto market for car vs light trucks. Trends do not continue in a straight line and may reverse direction. (Data from: http://www.goodcarbadcar.net/2011/01/us-auto-market-size-2001-2010.html

This chart (data roughly copied from http://www.goodcarbadcar.net/2011/01/us-auto-market-size-2001-2010.html) shows the relative percentage of car and light truck sales in the US over the last decade. Project the trend line for trucks from 2001 to 2004 and you would conclude that car sales would be zero within a couple of decades. Project the trend line for cars from 2004 to 2009, and you would conclude that truck sales will be zero in a few years.

Neither of these things will come to pass, of course. Some people live in city apartments and will always want city cars. Some people live on farms or work in construction and will always want trucks. In between there are folks who might buy either depending on their income, their stage of live, government regulation, gas prices, and fashion trends. Some of these folks might prefer a truck but buy a car because it is cheaper. Some might prefer a car but buy a truck because they need it for work. A complex of economic, political, and demographic factors will drive the trend line in one direction for a while, and then in another direction. A simple rise or fall in interest rates, for instance, can profoundly change the trend line for things like home ownership or vehicle purchases.

But present trends don’t continue. Never have. Never will. What trends do, generally, is stay flat most of the time, and then, when conditions change in some significant way, the trend line ramps up or down quickly to reach its new natural level in the new environment and then goes flat again at that new level until the environment changes again.

Flat trend lines are not newsworthy, so we only notice them when they take one of their sudden upward or downward swings. Projecting the new trend line out to infinity is a good way to add some punch to the news story. But trend lines do not stay steep. Like water rising when a dam breaks, their rise can be spectacular and disruptive in the moment, but there is only so much water upstream. The water level will crest and find its new natural level.

Demand for video is increasing because prices are down and delivery and consumption are easy. This will reduce the demand for text for applications where video is a superior alternative. It will not reduce demand for text in applications where text is a superior alternative, though there may be a temporary crest of video usage before the new natural level is found and the trend line flattens out. Video will be used for the things it is good at. It will not be used for the things that text is better at. The next generation will not be illiterate morons. They will use text where text is best and video where video is best.

And that is what we should be striving to do in tech comm today. We should not be setting out to replace text with video wholesale across either a particular company, or across the industry generally. Nor should we dismiss video, by focusing only on the things it is not good at. Rather, we should be setting out to use video where video works best and is price competitive with text, and we should continue to use text for the things that text is best at.

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24 Responses to Video Will Not Eclipse Text

  1. Craig Haiss 2014/02/18 at 17:41 #

    Great points, Mark!

    I agree that the aversion to reading tends to be a bit overstated. I think it boils down to motivation. If you hit upon the right subject, even young people will devour text. And for complex, grown-up matters, where detail is important, there’s no replacement for the written word. There’s plenty of job security in written communication.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 02:38 #

      Thanks for the comment, Craig.

      I agree about motivation. Even if people have a media preference, they are fundamentally motivated by their need for information and will follow the scent of that information through whatever media it leads.

  2. Chris Despopoulos 2014/02/18 at 19:55 #

    I’m glad to see you raising this issue. I really can’t see videos making text obsolete. The reason videos can be so aggravating is that they are experiences themselves, and experience is serial. Text is information about experience (the experience of reading notwithstanding), which compresses the experience into symbols that:
    * Take less space
    * Work in low-tech formats
    * Support random access
    * Support combination to produce unique constructs

    I don’t think we’ll be abandoning that any time soon.

    • Julia Williams 2014/02/20 at 02:48 #

      Lynda.com has recently revamped their courses so that the videos are very closely linked to the transcripts. The transcript scrolls as the video plays, and you can click on the transcript to jump to that part of the video (to within about half a sentence). I usually find video aggravatingly serial as you say, but this feature comes closer to random access than I’ve seen before in video. It certainly helps me to catch up if I have a microsleep during the video.

      • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:39 #

        Thanks for the comment Julia.

        That is certainly an interesting approach, though if you can follow a video with a transcript, it suggests that not much use is being made of the visual aspects of the media.

        A lot of what is presented as video is really more like books on tape. It is the audio stream that carries the meaning, not the visuals.

        Actually, it is interesting that this format is so common, whereas the use of pure audio tracks on the Web is relatively rare. Why does the visual track make such a difference when all the meaning is conveyed by the audio track?

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 02:41 #

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      That is a fascinating distinction. People have talked for a long time about how passive TV viewing is. In tech comm we are supposed to be getting people back to work as soon as possible. Asking them to sit back and watch may not be the ideal way to do that.

  3. Rick Broquet 2014/02/18 at 23:50 #

    Outstanding post !!
    In adult learning there are 4 pronounced learning styles: 1. Visual 2. Read/Write 3. Auditory 4. Kinesthetic. Each of us has their preference on how we like to learn and often it is a mix of inputs to the grey matter that make the topic click and connect to our personal knowledge base. When developing courseware the education component (the presentaion part of the course) the content needs to include the Visual, Read/Write and Auditory aspects of learning. The training component is hands-on activity where one transfers the education/knowledge into a practical skill; the Kinesthetic aspect of learning.
    Technical writing/communication is much like building the education component of a course (the technical content and not the topic review activities or quizes). The learner or reader is attempting to perform the task but is looking for the technical content that will educate them on how-to-do.
    Your arguement is spot on when you said use text when text is best, video when video is best. I would also include graphics and audio.
    Technical communication is most effective when we understand our target audience and apply content balance to the topic delivery stream.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 02:50 #

      Thanks for the comment Rick.

      One of the great things about text is that, in the hands of a good writer, it is capable of appealing to all leaning styles. In particular, text is capable of being a highly visual media through appropriate use of metaphor.

      Video can definitely be a useful tool, but fundamentally it is not a versatile a media as text.

  4. Scott Abel 2014/02/19 at 01:24 #

    Video is my preferred way of learning how to do many things. It’s a personal preference. And, it has eclipsed text in many (but not all) parts of my life.

    Documentation can many times be eliminated altogether; sometimes by video, sometimes by better product design. Sometimes documentation needs to be written, but can be augmented/accompanied by video. Sometimes, not.

    It will be interesting to see how well video performs over the long haul. My view: It’s going to replace many types of information that we consume. That said, a video without a text transcript, isn’t as easy to find with a search engine. So, as much as we try, text will play a role in all we do.

    Well, until my psychic markup language project makes it big. 🙂

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:01 #

      Thanks for the comment, Scott.

      It will definitely be interesting to see where video will find its new level. I am amazed by the quality of both the picture and sound on the video’s I can record on my phone, just by holding it up and pressing the record button — no production knowledge required. Getting that level of quality — not perfect, but good enough for many purposes — with no craft knowledge really opens up the possibilities for video production.

      Becoming cheaper and easier to produce will not raise video about its natural level of consumption, but by removing the economic barriers to production, it can allow it to reach that level, so we will really be able to discover what that level is.

      Another factor we ought to remember that will affect the demand for documentation of all kinds is maturity of the market. Growing market maturity has already greatly reduced the amount of documentation required in the software and electronics industry.

      This means the technical communication is being driven back to the more technical side, focusing on tools and industrial products rather than the consumer market. It will be interesting to see what affect this movement has on the use of video. Is video more or less useful for more technical applications?

  5. andrew clarke 2014/02/19 at 14:08 #

    Interesting article Mark.

    Let’s not forget the painful process of modifying a video (set up camera, set up equipment/apparatus, record, retakes…) just to change a step in a procedure. I like the lazy option of modifying a phrase with my keypad.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:06 #

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      The cost of video production and editing is definitely coming down, but text production and editing remains simpler and more flexible for sure.

      As the price differential between the two drops, of course, the question of which is more effective for the customer becomes more relevant. For cases where video is highly effective, it may now be worth the extra cost.

      But text will still remain cheaper, and highly effective for many purposes.

  6. Marc Gravez 2014/02/19 at 23:09 #

    Mark, nice job! I remember having to do something on a cell phone once. There were about 10 steps. Each step was pretty basic. The instructions only existed as a video, but what I really needed was the steps written down. They had written a script for the video, so they most likely already had everything needed for the written instructions. But I couldn’t have them, which was very frustrating.

    What I note in common in the article and comments is a focus on choosing the medium that best meets the business need, whether it be text, graphics, video, or a combination. I’d like to add that we should take into account that not everyone learns the same way. Often you can support multiple learning styes without incurring excessive cost.

    Unfortunately the folks who decide how info is presented often don’t think as we do and impose their preference on everyone.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:10 #

      Thanks for the comment, Marc.

      One of the issues with video, certainly, is that while they are great as showing you a physical process, they don’t work well when you are trying to do the process as you watch. If you are doing a process step by step, you need time to do each step, and video does not allow for you to do things at your own pace.

      For a single step that is physically complex, they are fantastic, because they can show you the action in a way that text cannot describe as well. But for multiple simple steps, they are frustrating because of the timing issue.

  7. John Collins 2014/02/20 at 05:19 #

    I definitely agree as a user that video instruction has its place, but I also believe that a properly-crafted software experience doesn’t need video. Just put the right bits of text in the right place at the right time.

    From a production standpoint, high-quality video (with voiceover) isn’t cheap nor particularly quick. And when you add in localization, then it gets quite labor intensive. Much more so than localized on-screen text or a help page, etc. (Along the lines of what Andrew Clarke says.)

    There may be tools to help with this, but the ones I’ve seen are quite lacking, at least for the quality that I want. In my opinion, there’s no way to single-source for video like we would for other outputs. (Some vendors may disagree w/that statement.)

    Marc Gravez makes a good point about needing to choose the medium that’s best. And that often the decision is a preference imposed versus an analysis.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:21 #

      Thanks for the comment, John.

      A properly-crafted use experience is definitely important. At the same time, there will always be some users whose experience is different from those the UX was designed for, and will not be able to intuit its function. We will still need docs for them.

      The issue of video quality is an interesting one. What we are seeing with text is that the Web is putting a premium on immediacy and personality, and is willing to accept much less polish to get those qualities. The same is also true of video, as we can see very clearly on YouTube. The interesting question, for both text and video, is what level of polish is really necessary in a world the values immediacy above all else.

      We can certainly see on cable news networks a tolerance for lower production values, and for unscripted reporting, which we would not have seen 20 years ago. But at the same time there is still a definite level of professional polish in what they do. Professionals acting in the moment are still clearly professionals and what they produce ad hoc does not look like what amateurs produce ad hoc. We need to find that same balance in tech comm.

  8. Alex Knappe 2014/02/20 at 15:47 #

    I don’t know, but videos are so 90s. Now, some 20 years later we’re really near (well, at least within the next two or four decades) a breaking point.
    It is not solely video, that will influence or work in the future, it is also animation, graphics and written stuff.
    The keyword here is Augmented Reality.
    AR will drive us to the next level of Technical Communication, where we will need to create content in the way it fits best for the task. Google Glass is the first step in this direction and I’m pretty sure many other will follow.
    AR gives us (the content) the view of the user. We can and should use this to our advantage. Be it text, audio oder video snippets that we use to explain an objective – for a good set of documentation you will need to use it all.

    While I think AR is the next big thing in tech comm, I’m not so sure about the how.
    The same content engineering (thanks for that one Mark) problems as we have now will still be the same, maybe even more.
    Granularity will become even more of a focus problem, as the grains will be different types of media.
    I’m a bit excited about this, but I wonder how our job will change in a few decades.

    • Mark Baker 2014/02/22 at 03:34 #

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. I’m not sure about AR. It seems to have been the next big thing for a very long time now, without actually making any significant impression on the mainstream.

      What we have actually see with the Web is not the emergence of new forms of expression, but a huge reduction in the cost of creating and distributing conventional forms of expression — text, graphics, audio, video — which has had a revolutionary effect in democratizing communication. This has had a far more effect on how the world communicates than any new form of expression.

      That does not mean we won’t see the emergence of AR, VR, or some other new form of expression into the mainstream, it’s just not the trajectory that the revolution has followed to this point.

  9. Drew Hodge 2014/02/22 at 22:03 #

    Very much enjoyed this post, Mark, thanks. And the intelligent discussion in the comments is just as valuable as the initial post.

    • Mark Baker 2014/03/02 at 19:55 #

      Thanks Drew. I love it when my posts get so many great comments. The Web is a colloquium, and I love it when my blog becomes one too.

  10. Barry Schaeffer 2014/02/25 at 15:52 #

    One way to think about the differences between text and video is to see them as “experiential” and “informational.”

    Video allows the viewer to experience something as it happens while text (with the inclusion of graphics of course) allows the reader to locate and gain information at whatever level he or she needs.

    Each has its value, but they are not interchangeable.

    I would suggest that the current fascination with video comes from the trend in society, especially among the young, to prefer the experiential (it’s more fun.) That does not, however, change the fact that much of what we need to do in our lives, especially if we are to have any semblance of a modern technological society, is informational. If that were not true, ancient scrolls and the oral tradition would never have given way to the codex book, page artifacts, indices and mass printing. Indeed, the apprentice system of the middle ages where apprentices studied (experientially) with masters then took their knowledge into the field, acting as human libraries, broke down by the mid-1850s. It worked but could not be replicated fast enough.

    Our greatest danger, it seems to me, is that we will confuse the two and produce a generation of young people who don’t know how to find,use or create information, having spent their youth experiencing instead of reading.

    • Mark Baker 2014/03/02 at 20:10 #

      Thanks for the comment, Barry.

      In his seminal work, The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll described what he called “the paradox of sense making”. In a nutshell, the paradox of sense making is that people cannot successfully follow systematic instruction because their current mental model is more real to them than what the instruction is saying.

      Long ago, I used to teach people to use Macs. More than once I saw that people were very reluctant to eject a disk by dragging it to the trash. “That will erase the disk,” they insisted, utterly convinced by their mental model of what a trash can does, and not in the least convinced by my assurances to the contrary.

      According to Carroll, there is no instructional cure for the paradox of sense making. People have to actually experience things for themselves. Thus Carroll’s prescription for minimalist instruction is to encourage experimentation an support error recovery. Experimentation and error are a necessary component of learning that cannot be replaced with instruction.

      If Carroll is correct, it makes sense that young people will prefer experience over instruction: they need the experience in order to learn enough to understand the instruction.

      Of course, not all instruction involves the paradox of sense making. Pilots are capable of following their checklists, for instance. But the pilot, thanks to a lot of hands-on training, has a mental model that aligns properly with their task. The reason they need the checklist is not lack of understanding, but the fallibility of human memory.

      Whether video can play the role of giving experience rather than instruction is an interesting question. Certainly it does in the case of a pilot’s use of flight simulator, which allows them to learn to handle emergency situations without crashing real planes. But simulators are highly interactive. Can watching a non-interactive video provide an experience sufficiently real to be an effective substitute for real-world experience?

  11. Michael Thomas 2014/03/13 at 15:55 #

    The bigger problem for me is that product users will not read the documentation.
    Some support cases have been resolved by reading the user guide to the customer over the phone.
    Video might not be as good as text for many reasons, but if it is more likely to be accessed it is better for that target audience.

    • Mark Baker 2014/03/13 at 17:49 #

      Thanks for the comment, Michael

      Indeed, people not reading the documentation is a big problem. The question is, why are they not reading it?

      * because they can’t find it (it is not on Google)?
      * because they can’t find the information they want in it?
      * because when they find it they can’t understand it, or are not confident in doing what it says?
      * because the documentation takes so long to get to the point they have no patience with it?
      * because they don’t want to read/can’t read?
      * because they prefer video?
      * because they prefer to talk to a human being?

      If we could be certain that only one of these reasons applied to all cases, then we would clearly know what to do. The truth is, alas, that all these reasons apply in different cases.

      I expect video use to increase now that it is cheaper to produce, but it is not a panacea and will not solve all cases.