Videos Help Fill in the Gaps

By | 2012/01/20

It’s no secret that I am not the biggest fan of videos as a vehicle for technical communication. Not that my personal preferences have much to do with whether a video is the best medium for other people, but I’ve complained enough about videos in the past that should acknowledge when I find a video to be the best solution, as I did for a problem I had to solve today. Plus, I think I have figured out a useful property of videos that is worth making a note of: videos help fill in the gaps.

I have been working a lot in Linux lately, in part because I have a client whose SVN repository I need to connect to, and that repository includes files with names that are illegal on Windows. On my main Windows machine, I have an Ubuntu virtual machine running in VirtualBox. So, I created my SVN working copy on that virtual machine and installed a bunch of tools so that I could do my work in Ubuntu on the virtual machine.

That has worked fine for the last few months, but today the update manager tried to update my Ubuntu install and told me I was out of hard disk space. I guess when I first set up that virtual machine, I had not intended to put so much stuff on it, and the original 8GB assigned to it was full. I needed to add more space to the Virtual Box virtual drive, and then expand my Ubuntu partition to use it.

I Googled “expand virtualbox disk” and got a whole bunch of hits. Most of them were bang on topic, but most of then seemed to be written on the assumption that I knew a bit more about virtual machines than I actually do. Virtual machines are pretty much a black box to me, and it was clear that this operation had to be done with a command line utility. It wasn’t completely clear to me exactly were certain command were supposed to be run, or what files I was supposed to run them on. And it was not an exactly a lets-try-this-and-see-what-happens kind of operation. I wanted to make sure I got it right.

At that point, I discovered this video. ALERT: The video has sound. (<– Baker’s Top Tip: Always warn the reader before you invite them to click on something that will make noise.)

It is worth watching at least the first minute or so of the video for his comments on the manual. “The actual directions for this is not under Virtual Storage where you would think it would be.” Indeed — I had already looked in the manual and not found the information.

Actually, the manual was the most useless of all the information sources I looked at. Every one of the web posts was better and, on this occasion, the video was best of all. Sure, maybe the manual could have been designed and written better. But every one of the other sources I found was better. Much better! Every one! The problem is with the form, not merely with the writer.

The video was great. It filled in the gaps nicely and I was able to confidently resize the virtual hard drive of my Ubuntu virtual machine. What struck me, though, was that the video did not fill in the gaps because the narrator anticipated them and filled them in deliberately. It filled in the gaps simply because the narrator was actually going through the steps as he talked and I could watch him. The gaps were filled in by what I was watching, not by what he was saying.

When we write, we only convey what we write. When we record a video, the images convey information that we may not even be aware of, or at least, information that we may not think of as something that needs to be conveyed.

Of course, part of good writing is figuring out exactly what does and does not need to be conveyed. But even the best of us can get this wrong. Video provides a second channel in which that information may get across despite our failure to consider it necessary.

Videos can be tedious, of course, and it is hard to skip and skim effectively when they fail to get to the point (as so many do). But on the positive side, the visual channel and the audio channel are running in parallel, so there are two bands of information being conveyed simultaneously. That does help to make better use of the time, and sometimes it can help fill in the gaps.

So, on this occasion, thumbs up for videos from me. Yes, me.

Category: Content Strategy Technical Communication

About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

15 thoughts on “Videos Help Fill in the Gaps

  1. Prasanna

    I agree Mark, information in two modalities can help absorb information better. Do you think it also helps more where the user is not familiar with the interface?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Prasanna. Thanks for the comment. You ask a good question, but I think the answer is that it depends. Too much information can overwhelm a novice. Sometimes less is more when dealing with new users. And it depends also on what you mean by unfamiliar with the interface. There are a handful of interface conventions that are used for the vast majority of devices today. If the user is not familiar with those, chances are they won’t be able to find or run your video.

      If you are talking simply about a particular interface product within those conventions, then I don’t think that that is a major factor. In my case, it was not unfamiliarity with the interfaces that made me turn to video, but a lack of confidence about the task. I think confidence is probably the number one determinant of help seeking behavior. Unfortunately, it is not easy to anticipate the user’s level of confidence.

      1. Prasanna

        Hi Mark,
        I agree that the basic interface elements may not be that different. By unfamiliar interface I meant the layout of menus, panes, etc. Or, say when the interface is completely overhauled.
        The text here may provide just adequate information. However, determining the location of these elements will take a bit more effort compared to getting the same information from a visual that informs and orients the user at the same time.
        I am thinking video cuts the step of constructing the imagery from the user initiates the action.
        And as you say, seeing it in action gives the user that confidence that whatever the author is saying actually works, and I won’t break anything :).

  2. Kai

    I think videos work so well in cases like this, because they’re the next best thing to the #1 all-time-favourite format of user assistance: Asking the guy/gal over at the next desk who knows.

    That said, I think videos have drawbacks over and beyond the difficult skipping and skimming: They require much more bandwidth than HTML (or PDF). They require much higher language sufficiency than reading (or pasting into machine translation). They require a setup where you can actually turn up the volume.

    In the particular case, I think users should benefit from manuals that are updated easier and faster, not from a second, less accessible channel with conflicting, superior information.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      I agree, Kai, asking someone who knows is most people’s favorite help-seeking technique. (There are some, of course, who hate to admit to needing help, and so would prefer a more confidential and anonymous source.) I think this preference for human help is at work in more than just the desire for videos. It is the foundation of social help (which is not new, despite the current hype, but goes back to Usenet at least).

      I’m still very far from drinking the Koolaid on videos — but having expressed my skepticism publicly more than one, it only seemed right to acknowledge when a video did the job for me. However, I do think that manuals, as a medium, really do not work anymore, no matter how well written. With the web, we have seen the triumph of miscellany, and I think that, be the format video, graphic, sound, or text, this is an era in which Every Page is Page One.

  3. Sarah O'Keefe

    I, too, generally find videos annoying as a means of conveying information, with one major exception: Videos are fantastic for learning knitting techniques. Seeing someone else actually demonstrate exactly what your fingers, needs, and yarn need to do, often in slow motion, is vastly superior to any written description.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Sarah. Your example is a great one, and it leads me to think that what videos do really well is to show transitions. Knitting is the kind of activity where the motion is continual. You could break the action down into a series of steps or a series of photographs, but you would be lacking the motion that gets you from one step to the next. Video shows that in a way that is pretty much impossible to describe.

      1. Kai

        Thanks, Sarah & Mark: *Transitions*! That’s what videos are good at!

  4. Greg DeVore

    This article made me think about two things:

    1. Text can’t possible deliver all of the context (or fill in the gaps) that visual media can, no matter how good it is. The reason for this is that visual media delvers much more information besides the primary content. Text only delivers what the author considered important.
    2. Obviously this company doesn’t use their documentation in the customer support process. If they did then it would improve (out of necessity) and wouldn’t be the most useless resource out there.
    3. People still think that the choice is between video and text. We use a visual manual that is full of screenshots. We get the delivery benefits of HTML but the visual context of a video.

    Here is an example:

      1. Mark Baker Post author

        I think it is one of the laws of the universe that if you introduce any list by writing “the following X things”, that you will either forget one of the things before you have finished writing, or you will think of an extra thing while you are writing. I try to train myself to simply write “the following things” or “the following several things”. 🙂

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Greg,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you wholeheartedly on your first point. This is not to say that we should denigrate the author’s selection process universally. Selecting what to say and what not to say is an important part of making meaning clear, and it is perhaps ability that really separates the sheep from the goats in technical communication. We can’t not be selective and just dump everything on the user — they won’t have the patience to plow through material like that. The material we provide must first be palatable: it cannot nourish if it is not eaten.

      On your second point, it may be a little unfair to be too critical of Oracle on this one. After all, they give Virtual Box away for free, and virtual machine technology is really something for geeks, not the general public. What is notable in this case is that the manual did actually play a useful role. The guy who made the video read the manual to figure out how to do the procedure, and then make the information available in a more palatable form. Overall, that’s not such a bad outcome for a free product.

      On your third point, I think I have to disagree. A screen shot is not necessarily a substitute for a video in the case I am talking about. Screen shots are used selectively by authors. They do not show the transitions, but only (to borrow Wordsworth’s term) spots of time. Sarah’s knitting example probably illustrate the point best. The video captures the continuity of the motion, the transition between the state, whereas a screen shot only shows the individual states.

      Now, if you could come up with a product that allowed the user to capture a few seconds of motion in their screen shots — an animated gif would suffice for display purposes — then I think you might have an effective lite alternative to some of the things video can do well. We have to get past thinking only in formats that work on paper.

  5. Raj

    Moving images stay in the mind longer than written text. With the right speed, videos will be a great tool, supplemented with a text source for reference. Bandwidth and size of the video are the major constraints for people like me in Asia.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Raj, thanks for the comment. I had not heard (or noticed) that moving images stay in the mind longer than written text. Is this a personal impression of yours, or is it a research finding?

  6. Raj

    Hi Mark, there are references in mass communication studies on media effects (especially on the effects of TV) about the retentive power of visuals.

    Please search for “Dale’s Cone of Experience” about the retention rates of text or images, or their combo, with regard to instructional designing.


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