How to create an effective screencast | 18 tips

Screencasts are quickly becoming an essential component of software documentation. They combine visual and auditory learning with text to provide a balanced learning experience. Here are some tips on how to create a screencast that engages viewers and provides maximum results for your efforts.

  • Start by listing the conventions you will follow for all screencasts, so that they will have a consistent look and feel. Users will have an easier time focusing on the content if all screencasts are presented in a similar way.
  • Create a template project that follows your conventions. That way you can generate new screencasts efficiently by inserting content into placeholders in the template. Be sure to include a title screen, corporate logo, and copyright information that should appear in all screencasts.
  • Consider the features offered by your screencast tool. Professional tools like Adobe Captivate offer robust features and scripting tools that will allow you to create interactive screencasts. Also, by using proven tools, you gain the benefit of active user forums in case you need assistance.
  • Start with a script or a storyboard. This will allow you to make extensive changes to the content without losing hours of work. If you start recording sequences immediately, you may end up scrapping a lot of work when reviewers suggest content changes.
  • Include plenty of summary slides. As you present increasingly difficult concepts, you may hit a point when the reader becomes overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information in the screencast. By providing summary slides, you can hammer in key concepts before moving on to more challenging information.
  • Pay attention to the pace of the screencast. Preview your work often, and verify that it moves slowly enough for the viewer to grasp the steps shown, but not so slow that it loses their attention.
  • Ask reviewers to pay attention to the pace also. As the creator of the screencast, you will be more familiar with the material, and may select a faster pace than someone who is relatively new to the content.
  • Be careful with your use of color for callouts, highlighting, and so on. Too much color can cause visual confusion. Save bold colors for only the most important element on the slide.
  • As you record the tasks in your software program, be sure that the tool is picking up the essential mouse movements, button clicks, and key presses. Some tools allow you to press a key to manually record a slide at any time. You can always delete unessential slides during the editing process.
  • Use the Save As option now and then to create multiple versions of the screencast. That way, if you make a mistake and delete or alter an important slide, you can revert to a previous version and avoid losing a lot of work.
  • Pay attention to the viewing area captured during the recording process. It should contain only the windows for the software applications you wish to demo. You may need to adust the recording area prior to recording the screencast; most tools allow you to do this manually or snap to fit an open window. You don't want to include random portions of your computer desktop that will distract the viewer from the important information you wish to present.
  • Consider whether the task you are recording should be presented as one long screencast or as multiple shorter demos. Longer demos may lead to weariness on the part of the viewer unless they are very easy to follow.
  • Watch for awkward transitions. As one slide fades and another appears, you may see ghost images, poorly timed button clicks, and so on. If necessary, adust the timing of these elements so that the slides resemble the actual software process.
  • Spell check your content. This is often an afterthought when working in applications other than word processors. However, typos are just as embarassing in screencasts as they are in printed documents.
  • Use image editing tools to alter backgrounds. If you spent a lot of time trying to record a process accurately, don't throw out your work because of imperfections in the screens. Simply edit those images to remove, replace, or touch up the background screens.
  • Add your screencasts to a server so that you can track usage data. The log files should tell you how many viewers are actually watching the entire screencast. You can make adustments based on this data, including trimming unnecessary content if users are only watching for a few seconds. Also, putting screencasts on a server helps reduce the size of software downloads and saves CD space.
  • If you add audio, invest in a quality microphone and fine tune your recording process ahead of time so that you get a clear signal. You don't want to waste time making adjustments for quality when you sit down to record. If you hire voice actors to record the audio, such adjustments could get expensive. There are many tutorials on the Internet for recording voice; research now so that you will be more efficient when it is time to start recording.
  • Provide appropriate context for your screencasts. If you link to them from help topics, be sure to include a video icon in the link, and use link text that summarizes the content of the video. For longer screencasts, consider adding a short outline of the material, so that readers can decide if viewing the video is worthwhile.

I hope these tips have given you some ideas on how to create a screencast that will engage your users and provide a positive learning experience. Good luck!

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