Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Creating great demonstration videos

Introduction

One of the great things about so many people having broadband internet access is that it makes it practical to have a video-based demonstration of your product available via your web site. If you've never done this before, it's not that hard but there are a few gotchas that can cause you some grief. Since they have already caused me that grief, please learn from my mistakes rather than your own. If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video must be worth at least two thousand.


Here are my top 10 tips on creating an effective demo video:


Tip #1: Keep it short

Some people don’t have a long attention span. The longer your video is, the more likely you will lose your audience. So make your video only as long as it needs to be and no longer. Decide up front what the point of your video is and focus only on making that point. For example, in the Introduction to REALbasic video, I don’t mention most of REALbasic’s features. That’s because the point of the video is not to familiarize the viewer with all of REALbasic’s features, but instead to give them a general feel for what it’s like to use REALbasic. The two things you do most in REALbasic are build a user interface and write code, so the video focuses on those two topics. If you can’t seem to keep the video under 10 minutes, considering breaking it up into a series of videos.


There may be other factors that limit the length of your video. For example, if you are going to put it on YouTube, it must be no more than 10 minutes long. You should determine ahead of time how you will host your videos so you know about limitations like this. Another potential limitation can be file size which can affect the length of your video and, in some cases, video quality.


People also like to know how much time they will need to devote to watching your video so make sure that’s clear before they start. Ideally, you should put the length of the video on the web page where the video is displayed.


Tip #2: Get feedback early in the process

It can be really frustrating to spend hours on your video only to find out that you left out something important or communicated something in a way that makes sense only to you. The best way to avoid this is to record a rough draft and get feedback from others. I use Screenflow for Mac OS X to create screen recordings. With it you can simply start recording the screen, do your demonstration and talk. Screenflow will record everything. Don’t worry about ANY polish at this point. Just record your demonstration so that you can see how it flows. Don’t worry if you make mistakes. The point of this rough draft is to look for any major flaws in the overall demonstration. If you find any, record another rough draft until you think your demonstration (both on screen and what you will say) is pretty solid.


At that point, get feedback from appropriate people (ideally those that are the intended audience). Let them know you want any and all constructive criticism they have. Takes lots of notes and take the criticism seriously. Keep recording rough drafts until the only feedback you are getting is that the video needs polish.


Tip #3: Know your aspect ratio ahead of time

There are a few different aspect ratios. For example, standard television uses a ratio of 4:3 which is the ratio of the width of the screen to its height. If the width of the area of your screen you intend to show is 800 pixels,for example, then the height would have to be 600 pixels. For more information on aspect ratios, see this article on Wikipedia.


YouTube recently switched to 16:9 which is the widescreen format used by most of the movies you watch on DVD. So if you plan to host your videos via YouTube, you will want to be prepared to use the 16:9 format.


How do you prepare? After you record your video, Screenflow will let you crop the video to a specific size in pixels. If you are using something other than Screenflow, make sure it provides this feature. Experiment to find the right height or width and then adjust the other size to match the ratio you are using. For example, if you are using 16:9 and the width that works for you is 1250 pixels, divide 1250 by 16 (78.125), drop the decimal portion (if there is one) and then multiply that value by 9 to get the height. In this case, that would be 702 (78 * 9 = 702).


Getting this right will take some experimentation. In almost all cases, the person watching your video does NOT need to see your entire screen. Doing that will only distract them and make it more difficult for you to get your message across. Instead, make sure you arrange your windows so that you show just what is needed and so that it can be cropped to the aspect ratio you will be using. I do this by doing a short Screenflow recording (perhaps 30 seconds) then cropping it to 16:9. I use iMovie to create titles and apply transition effects. So my next step is to create an iMovie project using the same ratio (16:9) and import my video. Then I can preview the video to see that it is going to work correctly. Getting this right for your rough draft will save you hours of time and a lot of frustration later on.


Tip #4: Write a script

Ten minutes may seem like a long time but it goes by pretty fast. If you are going to get your point across, every word must count. Write a script of exactly what you intend to say and follow it. This will help you keep your message focused. When recording without a script, people tend to add non-words like "um", "uh", etc. These non-words will make your presentation sound less professional. Make sure you include any directions you need to remind you what to demonstrate as well. Remember that your on-screen actions take time so you may not have as much time to talk as you think. You can then time yourself following your script to make sure you will stay within whatever time limit you have.


Tip #5: Keep the presentation focused

The best demonstrations are those that are extremely focused. Don’t allow anything to distract the viewer from your message. Keep this in mind when determining what you will show. If it doesn’t support your message, don’t show it. Remember, time is at a premium. Don’t assume the viewer will watch the entire video. If you don’t keep them interested, they may stop watching. When recording your video, make sure there isn’t anything that could be a distraction, like unnecessary icons on your desktop or edges of other windows in your video.


Tip #6: Make use of pan and zoom

When you introduce a topic, the viewer needs to understand the context. Showing them the entire window, for example, will help. After that, you can zoom-in on the part of the window or screen where the action is. This will help keep the viewer focused. If you are hosting your video on YouTube, it will really help the user to be able to see what you are demonstrating. I didn’t consider this when I made the first Introduction to REALbasic video and as a result, it was difficult to follow. The updated version makes extensive use of zooming and is much better as a result. Screenflow makes it easy to zoom in and out and this can be done after you finish recording. It also makes it easy to pan from one place to another. I do this quite a bit in the Introduction to REALbasic video so that I can stay zoomed in, but still keep the viewer focused on what I’m showing them. Screenflow also has some other effects you can use. One feature allows you to highlight the foreground window. This causes everything else to be shaded. I use this effect in the Introduction to REALbasic video. Screenflow can highlight just the cursor as well. I do all my video recording on Mac OS X so I can use Screenflow, but there are almost certainly tools for Windows and Linux that provide similar features.


Tip #7: Make sure you’ve got quality audio

I’ve seen some video demonstrations that use text rather than voice to guide the viewer. While there may be times when this makes sense, try to avoid this if possible. Effective demonstrations should be similar to what they would be if you were standing in front of the person to whom you are demonstrating. Explaining your point with audio will be far more effective than using text. Text is fine when you are introducing a new topic but not for the entire demonstration.


The quality of your audio is another important factor. Make sure you have a quiet place to record so that background noise won’t be recorded and provide another distraction. The microphone built in to your computer is fine for recording a scratch audio track, but it’s not good enough for your final version. It will pick up too much of the sound around you and it will sound like you are too far away from the microphone (because you are). As a result it will not sound professional. Invest in a decent USB microphone. Logitech makes some good ones. This will allow make your audio sound much more professional. If you happen to own the video game, Rockband, the USB microphone that comes with it works with the Mac quite well. I haven’t tried it on Windows or Linux but I suspect it will work there as well.


Don’t try to record your audio and video at the same time for your final version. You will make too many mistakes and this will just be an exercise in frustration. Plan to re-record the final audio after you have finished editing the video. Screenflow provides this ability and any good screen recording/editing software will offer this. You don’t have to record all the final audio at once either. You can record segments of it and insert them as you go.


Finally, if you don’t have a voice that comes across well when recorded, find someone who does. You don’t need to sound like a radio or TV announcer but your voice does need to be clear and easy to understand.


Tip #8: Introduce yourself

People want to know who is talking to them. At the beginning of your demonstration, make sure to introduce yourself. This will make your demonstration feel more personal. If you have the opportunity, record a thirty seconds of yourself talking with video, or include a picture of yourself.


Tip #9: Fix your mistakes

The more polished your demonstration is, the better. A polished demonstration is a more credible one. Since you can re-record both the video and audio as many times as it takes to get it right, there’s really no excuse for having mistakes in your demonstration. The kinds of mistakes I’m talking about are things like selecting the wrong menu, clicking the wrong button, spelling mistakes, using nonsense words (as I described earlier), etc.


If you try to record your entire demonstration perfectly, you will end up doing it over and over again and just get frustrated. Instead, think of your demonstration as a movie. Movies have scenes, each of which is shot separately and not necessarily even in chronological order. You can shoot a scene from your demo, make sure it’s right and then move on to another. Screenflow makes it easy to do this because it allows you to make a new recording and add it to an existing project. You can add new audio tracks as well. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to record a scratch audio track while you are recording the video from your computer. If you don’t do this, you might find that you don’t actually have enough time to say what you want to say. When you are done with the video and the scratch audio, you can use the scratch audio as a guide and re-record the audio to get it just right. When you’re done, it’s easy (at least in Screenflow) to delete the scratch audio track.


Tip #10: Export to the highest quality you need, but no higher

When you are finished with your demonstration, you will need to export it via whatever software you used to put the final version together. That might be Screenflow, it might be iMovie, etc. The higher quality, the better your demonstration will look and the easier it will be to watch. However, the higher quality, the larger the file will be, which may exceed the limit of your hosting service. So be careful. Also, you’ll probably be surprised at how good a movie exported at a medium level of quality looks. Again, experimentation will help a lot.


Tip #11: Bonus tip - Creating cross-platform videos

Screenflow is great for recording videos on the Mac. I’m sure there are applications like Screenflow for Windows and Linux but I’m not familiar with them. However, if you have a Mac or access to a Mac, there is a way to use Screenflow to do screen recordings on Windows and Linux. You can run Windows or Linux using Paralells or VMWare on the Mac and use Screenflow to do your recording. You can do this when running Windows/Linux in a separate window or in full screen mode. Either way, you can use Screenflow to crop your recording to the appropriate size. The downside to this method is that a few of Screenflow’s features that help you to enhance your video (such as highlighting the foreground window) won’t work. However, Screenflow does detect the cursor on Windows so you can enhance the cursor but this doesn’t appear to work on Linux.


Summary

Demonstration videos take far longer to create than screenshots or feature descriptions but can be far more effective at getting a message across (and closing a sale as a result). They can also be more effective at teaching your users how to be effective with your software product. The better they are at using your product, they more productive they will be. This will almost certainly lead to your users recommending your product to others and that leads to more sales.

3 comments:

Jedt3D said...

Thank you for you tips.
It's summarized all every screencaster need. I'm sure that Screenflow is one of the best Mac screen capture.
-Snapz Pro X is very good quality also, just lack of realtime support
- iShowU HD, HD Pro are the good realtime capture also, I use it for a quick screencast because of no need to recompress again. (But you have to setup the output BEFORE record.)

For pro screencaster, Final Cut Express/Pro is also a good additional.

You can take a look at a very good quality screen cast recording and Ruby on Rails screencasts itself at http://www.peepcode.com

Bests
Jedt Sitthidumrong

ZZapp said...

Great Tips, Thank You! Now get back to work on Cocoa! ;-)

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