Words Are What We Want - Just Say No To Video Tutorials!
Thursday, 10 June 2010

Are video tutorials worth the bits they are written on? You might well suspect that they are just excuses for not doing the documentation. I'm sure they are. It is time to get back to writing words and reading words.



 Worth a thousand words?


It is an ever increasing trend – the API/Framework tutorial video.

They are not exactly YouTube material but they still turn up there some even clearly hoping to make some money.

On viewing figures clearly someone likes them - the question is who?

Increasingly when I finally navigate my way to the web page of promised detailed technical stuff what I find is:

"click this link to view the video presentation of how to ..."

Well, I don't want to.

I've already had to click my way through countless index pages offering me overviews of overviews and finally I'm given a video to watch.

Without fail my spirits, which are already low enough after a fruitless search, now sink even lower as I face the prospect of yet another video tutorial on how to get started with some framework, API, language even.

Some of the introductions are embarrasing and it takes ages to get to the meat even then what you need to know usually just vanishes off the screen never to be seen a gain - assuming you could read it in the first place.

I simply don't want to waste time watching a video while some well meaning educator attempts to convey to me in images and actions something that would be much better conveyed using an age-old invention - words.

I'm sure that such videos are great fun to make, because I've made them, and in some cases they might be useful, but only as an addition to some text based documentation. I also admit that video tutorials are created with the best of intentions but...

Before you suspect that this move to video has something to do with big corporations having too big a budget for their media departments it's worth saying that many of these videos are about open source software - and as we all know there is no big budget in open source.

What is more many of the videos are fairly low quality and definitely desktop productions. The video tutor often doesn't even seem to have a script and just offers ad-hoc descriptions complete with ums and arrs and pauses long enough you could have read the documentation if you could have found it. The audio quality is often poor, the camera work unsteady and screen captures can be very difficult to read. Occasionally the quality and amateurism is so bad that it is frankly embarrassing.

No this phenomenon doesn't seem to be about glitz.

My best guess is that it's a manifestation of a deep and much older problem – programmers don't like documenting stuff.

We prefer programming, of course!

What seems to be happening is that instead of struggling with words the tutorial video is a misguided attempt at the show-and-tell approach. It sounds good in the sense that a video, i.e. a lot of pictures, must be greater than many thousands of words but this just isn't the case.

The more detailed the specifications the more inadequate the video tutorial approach. It may save time for the creator of the video, though I doubt it, but it wastes the viewer's time and doesn't really serve the intended purpose. Have you ever had to write things down as the tutor carefully spells out the name of a directory or a parameter?  At least in a text document you can use copy and paste to transfer the instruction into the program you are working on! This is certainly one case where less is more and lower tech wins out.

The written word lets you skim read what you need, skip what you clearly don't, and return time and time again to whatever turns out to be essential. A video presentation is linear, difficult to skip, and impossible to use as a reference.Even with the help of a good media player jumping about is imprecise and wastes yet more time and what if you have missed a really important point like - "if you don't assign variables in this particular order you machine blows up."

Even if the video is good, it's still not up to the task of conveying advanced technical data. It might be a suitable vehicle for a promotional or inspirational exposition of some new idea but not for basic documentation or procedures.

The same is true of conference presentations. Why did I travel a 1000 miles only to listen to something completely transient. At the end what to I have? A new skill? Something to take home? At best I have an opinion garnished with some sort of demonstration that, at best, proves that what is being talked about works. In the very best such presentation I might just walk away with a very rough model of the system and perhaps an idea of why it was like it put together as it was.

In the case of a tutorial programming video a thousand words says much more than almost any amount of digital video. The only advantage they have is that they are quick and easy and the quicker and easier they are the more useless they become.

There are exceptions. When a motivated speaker can make you see that some phillosophical point is important. Something about methodology or why one langauge has an approach that is better than the rest but never the fine detail of what to functions to call and how.

We need to go back to the keyboard and stop creating video excuses for proper documentation and text based tutorials.











Last Updated ( Thursday, 31 May 2018 )