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Video tutorials are the bane of my existence

By Cameron Chapman | How To, Web Design, Web Development | Apr 4, 2013

We’ve all been there. You have an idea, something that just seems like it would work perfectly for your current project. It’s the ideal solution. Nothing could possibly be better suited.

Except you’re not quite sure exactly how to implement that idea. You can see it in your head, and you’re pretty sure you’ll need to use CSS3 animations, or Canvas, or some other technology you aren’t 100% familiar with yet.

You have a few options here. You can look at hiring someone else to do the coding for you. Except may your client won’t approve extra funds to do that, which means you’ll be cutting into your profits (potentially by a lot).

You can drop the idea and figure something else out. This is generally a last-resort, and besides: this idea is perfect!

Or you can learn to do it yourself.

If you’re like a lot of designers out there, that last one is the one you’ll go for. Which means you’re probably going to turn to the internet to see if someone has already done what you’re trying to do (spoiler alert: they probably have).

Now, the last time I searched for a “how-to” online, I was presented with a huge number of results. Many of those results are crap (yes, even the ones on the first page of Google, hard to believe, I know).

Then you have the decent results. The ones that sort of tell you what you need to know. If you’re lucky, you might even have a couple of really good results that tell you exactly what you need.

But more often than not, the most promising “how-to” links are to video tutorials. And that brings us to the point of this whole thing: why video tutorials are the worst possible way for a lot of people to learn anything.

 

What’s wrong with video tutorials?

The idea behind a video tutorial is that a lot of people learn to do things by being shown how to do them. And in real life, that makes a ton of sense.

The master-apprentice relationship has been around for centuries. The idea being that an apprentice learns first-hand from someone who has already mastered a craft, by observing them work and then by having them give feedback to the apprentice’s early attempts.

Do you see the problem with comparing this to modern-day video tutorials? In a master-apprentice relationship, there is a give-and-take. The apprentice not only observes, but also has the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback.

There is also the element of time. Apprentices generally studied with masters for a period of years. They observed the master performing their work hundreds of times, and then had the opportunity to do the work dozens or hundreds of times themselves before being considered a master.

Video tutorials don’t offer that kind of time. The idea is that you’ll watch the video once or maybe twice, and attempt to follow along. No wonder users get frustrated.

classroom

You might want to liken video tutorials to more of a classroom setting, rather than a master-apprentice setting. But the most effective teachers don’t simply lecture (which is effectively what a video tutorial does). They engage their class, they ask questions, they allow their students to ask questions, and they adjust their lessons to fit the pace of those they’re teaching.

Video tutorials offer none of those options. They’re not particularly engaging on anything but the most superficial level. And other than the user’s ability to pause/rewind/play the video, there’s little adjustment.

 

Video tutorials ignore the student’s needs

Video tutorials don’t really take into account the needs of the learner. Instead, videos are done in the style and pace that works best for the teacher.

computer class

The person giving instruction goes at the pace they’re most comfortable working at. They may gloss over parts that a student would question, or spend an inordinate amount of time talking about things that most of their students are already familiar with. How many times have we wanted to fast-forward through a tutorial, but are afraid we’ll miss something that’s actually important?

And on the flip-side, how often have we had to replay something half a dozen times to understand what the teacher is saying? It’s very inefficient.

Video tutorials are often incredibly inconvenient, too. How often do you want to learn to do something when listening to audio just isn’t a good option? How often are you on your laptop, running on battery without a convenient place to recharge, and been forced to waste precious resources watching a video just to learn something that would have taken you a minute or less to read instructions for? It’s a waste of both time and resources.

 

Very few things are suitable for video instruction

One thing I’ve found over and over and over again is that video tutorials are often used for things that are completely and totally ill-suited for video instruction. Things like financial planning. Creating entire website layouts. Editing video.

If a subject is complex, then a video tutorial can become almost impossible to follow. This is where lots of screenshots and text are a better idea. Mix in a short video (less than 30 seconds) here or there where it might be more helpful for your students to actually see something in action, but otherwise, an image-heavy text lesson can be much, much easier to follow. (While it’s not a design tutorial, this tutorial on reupholstering is a great example of this format.)

If a subject is dry or boring (let’s face it, like financial planning), then text is probably going to make more sense. People want to get through it as quickly as possible, which means they’ll skim a lot of things in text. They don’t have that option with video.

If something is relatively easy to do, then a video tutorial is usually a big waste of time. If something takes four steps to complete, I can read a bulleted list of four points a whole lot quicker than you can explain and show me something in video form. My time is important to me, it’s the most valuable resource I have, so why would I want to waste any of it?

 

So why, then, are video tutorials so prevalent?

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. First of all, people like to hear themselves speak. They like the idea of others listening to them, and of teaching people in what (poorly) simulates a one-on-one or classroom environment. Video seems to impart more authority than text to some internet users, which means it’s a great boost to the creator’s ego.

Second, recording a video is easier than writing, especially when we’re talking about a screencast. To create a video tutorial, all you technically need to do is demonstrate something and talk about it (although the second part of that might not even be necessary). Writing reminds us too much of school, while making a video seems like more fun.

Neither of thse, unfortunately, is a very good reason to create video tutorials without some other compelling reason to do so.

 

If you absolutely insist…

If you absolutely insist on creating a video tutorial for your topic, here are some tips for making it more bearable.

  • Make sure your subject is appropriate. This means it needs to be something that is more easily learned by being shown, while not being so complex that your viewer will constantly need to pause and replay sections.
  • Overly technical tutorials are generally ill-suited to video. Anything where your viewer needs to follow along in order to understand/complete the tutorial is probably best-suited to a more user-controlled tutorial format.
  • Provide a transcript if at all possible. This becomes a sort of quick-reference guide for those who maybe need a reminder of how to do one part of your tutorial, but don’t want to rewatch the whole thing. It’s also helpful for those who learn better via reading.
  • Make it interesting! There are way too many dry, boring tutorials out there where the narrator is speaking in the most monotonous voice possible. Don’t be that guy.
  • Make sure your recording is high quality. Nothing worse than bad audio, or visuals that are so blurry that I can’t tell what you’re doing. Take time to find the best tools available to you for the types of tutorials you’re creating.
  • Cut the extraneous information. You don’t need to spend the first minute or three of your video telling us what you’re going to be telling us. We already know! That’s why we’re watching! If you feel an explanation is in order, then include it in the video’s description instead.
  • Use a script. Practice. Don’t let your tutorial be filled with “um’s” and “ah’s”, or with you constantly stumbling over what you’re doing. And if you screw up, then redo it! Don’t just say, “Oh, sorry, that was wrong.”

 

The future of video tutorials

In the hopefully not-too-distant future, interactive video will become a much more common sight online. We already have interactive music videos, interactive short films, and some interactive video tutorials out there.

Video tutorials that give the user more control over the pace of the lesson, as well as offer other features that better simulate a classroom environment (like discussions and better annotation tools) will make video tutorials more useful to those looking to actually learn things.

 

Conclusion

Just because you can create a video tutorial, doesn’t mean you should. Consider it carefully. Decide whether your content is best delivered in video format or as something else. In all likelihood, it’s better as something else.

And if you absolutely must create a video tutorial, then find a subject that’s well-suited to it, rather than the other way around!

 

What are your thoughts on video tutorials? Do you enjoy them? For what subjects? Let us know in the comments.

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  • dedide

    So agree with you about this. I was a classroom teacher for over 30 years and found very few topics benefited from the deluge of video tutorials. Most are too long and not well enough thought out.

  • http://twitter.com/Tystarr Tystarr

    I was JUST thinking this. When I was teaching myself Flash and html years ago I didnt’t have this issue. Recently I was attempting to find tutorials on Illustrator and a lot of them are video tutorials. Ughh!

  • http://twitter.com/kylehayes Kyle Hayes

    Yes, yes! I’ve noticed a big trend towards video tuts and I was trying to figure out why. I would much rather have a textual article that I can gloss over, read in detail, re-read for clarification, and potentially archive into Evernote for re-visiting later. This is certainly not something one can do with video.

    Also, video content providers seem to think it is premium content that they are delivering and feel compelled to charge quite a bit for it. I laugh at this because so often I find much higher-quality content from a well-written post on someone’s personal blog for free!

    I hope it is only a novelty.

  • 1076

    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    Video tutorials are far and away the LEAST helpful method of presenting information.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that they aren’t helpful. I’ve learned a lot from video tutorials. But I would take a text/screenshot (or short clip) tutorial over a full video tutorial any day!

    My main issue with them is the pacing problems that you mentioned. It would be ridiculous for me to expect that a tutorial is exactly on my level. So it is much better for the tutorial to be overly detailed, and let me skip to the parts that help me, than to be rigidly paced.
    Some people might say that you CAN skip past parts in videos, but that process lacks all efficiency. There’s not headings to browse, or formatting to consider. Just a single timeline with no indication of where it gets to the parts that help you.

    Another thing about video tutorials is time. I consider my time valuable as well, and I’m quite happy to spend a few seconds skimming over a tutorial as a whole and seeing if it’s worth reading, rather than waiting for a video to cue up in various spots to get the same effect.
    Taking in to account loading times (which are brief, but not as brief as text loading) and the possibility of ads (a common occurrence with Youtube tutorials), and I’m spending 1-2 minutes on a video that isn’t what I need, whereas a text tutorial I could rule out in 20-30 seconds.
    It seems trivial, but when I’m going through 20-30 different tutorials to find the specific thing I need, that time adds up. Suddenly, I’ve spent half an hour looking through information that I can’t use, instead of spending that half hour working on a useful tutorial (be it video OR text!).

    I will say that I think another reason make video tutorials is because they think it will be more illuminating than text and screenshots. There are things, as you noted, that play better in motion. It just seemed like the to reasons you gave were a bit jaded.

    Anyway, excellent article. I totally agree.
    I mean, I feel like a bit of a heel spurning the time and effort of people who are giving free help out of their own altruism but, as the saying goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.
    I think it’s good advice that if someone really wants to help, they should default to a text/image tutorial, and use video only when it’s a requirement.

  • http://twitter.com/drgs100 drgs100

    I think the answer is people learn in different ways. Personally I don’t mind video tutorials but some of the points hit home.

  • http://twitter.com/drgs100 drgs100

    I don’t mind video tutorials but as we all learn in different way their ubiquity can become a problem for some. My biggest problem with video tutorial is that they are blocked at work, so might as well not exist. Maybe they’re scared we might spend out time watching surfing cat videos.

    Your suggestions are good (especially keeping them short) but sometimes I just need to see. When fixing my bike I could not work out how to remove the rear block, I had the principles in place but it wan’t until I saw someone do it that it clicked.

    Thanks,

  • http://twitter.com/p1BK Brian Kelley

    Personally I despise video tutorials. They may work for a novice, but some one of intermediate skill or higher doesn’t typically need their hands held to get the information needed.

    my #1 reason for hating them is (mainly for development tutorials), I don’t want to, or have the time to sit down and watch some one type out code. Just show it to me, watching you set up a default html document is a complete waste of time. I can read code faster than people can type, watching typos, etc doesn’t speed things along. I’m already going to have to do it myself so your just doubling my time with out even getting to the “learning” part of it.

    tutorials for graphics programs usually offer more, but i can still skim a tutorial and get the idea in less time than most video tutorials buffer.

  • http://twitter.com/p1BK Brian Kelley

    I think the main reason video tutorials are so prevalent is because they are much quicker to produce than text / screenshots. You can do just about anything in a video tutorial in 10-30 minutes, where the same tutorial would take hours to assemble and layout in text

  • wmwmwm

    I’m so glad someone has posted this. I think it has much to do with the wide availability of fast internet speeds and ease to make. I much prefer step by step, text + image approaches, with source files. Maybe video could be integrated into these for small steps?

  • Adrian Robertson

    I think it depends on what I am learning about, and if it is something along the lines of what the article specifically spoke about (ie. learning a new piece of technology) then I couldn’t agree more.

    I tend to go out of my way to avoid the video tutorials. Mostly this is because I want to be able to scroll through the written tutorial, maybe see a demo of the end result (something that is often missing from video tuts), but more often it just annoys me to have to pause, wind back, play, repeat, to figure a tricky part out.

    That’s not to say a lot of written tutorials are exceptionally well written, but I have my half a dozen of so tut sites that typically have what I am looking for (or enough to get me started and tweak the rest).

    On the other hand, if I was fixing my bike (or seeing as I don’t have one, drgs100′s bike) then more likely I would want to see a video about how something is done. Maybe the difference lies in doing something physical (fixing bike / car / lawnmower / baby stroller / etc) as opposed to writing code.

  • Adrian Robertson

    You could say that I cannot understand the amount of dislike aimed towards someone’s dislike to video tutorials ;)

    As I said in my own comment, I think it depends on what it is I am trying to do. For example, if I am trying to create some funky new menu in a web page using methods I either do not know off the top of my head, or haven’t tried before, I prefer a written tutorial with screenshots.

    If I need to replace a metal string on my bass guitar, then seeing a video of it is immensely helpful (ditto learning to play a song .. a video tutorial is obviously more helpful than just seeing the music, or tabs in my case seeing as I can’t read music).

  • http://www.microsourcing.com/ MicroSourcing

    Interactive tutorials would be more effective for a variety of viewers who learn things differently. It would be helpful if they could control the pace of the tutorial and match it with their learning style.

  • dedide

    Oh I gave people every type of learning tool. I have never thought that one size fits all and was always asking students what worked best for them. Please don’t make unwarranted assumptions. My students always felt very respected in my classes. I just noticed that many of the people who always opted for video tutorials did not do as well as people who chose other methods or combos.

    • Jt

      I would say that it’s a pretty clear case of correlation without causation, and forgive me for seeming harsh, I suffered a lot of teachers who were not so accepting of alternative learning methods. I think it’s a terrible mindset to fall into, that one teaching method is “better” than others.

  • http://www.develop-a-website.com/ Jake

    Personally I find better use out of video tutorials then I do with most guides. I think its 50/50 depends on the author of the written guides and who is creating the video tutorial. For example thenewboston.org is a top resource for learning web development and its all video tutorials!

    • ThePhanein

      I was thinking your first sentiment exactly. I get more use out of doing and watching than I do discussing and reading. The author talks about the needs of the student, but fails to realize that most video tutorials can be paused. She also doesn’t take into account the different learning styles: Visual, Aural, Verbal, Physical, Logical, Social, Solitary.

      I’m a social kinesthetic (phyisical) & spatial (visual) learner.

  • http://twitter.com/p1BK Brian Kelley

    LOL whoever said I was landing on them. What got in your shorts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/LysandeEmil Emil Præy Johnsen

    All my knowledge of python, php and flash is from video tutorials, and I prefer them over any other form of tutorship, even teacher-based.
    Granted, you can’t ask the video any questions, but then again, neither can you ask a piece of paper, book or a website.

    The video tutorial allows me to rewatch, pause and resume as I wish, at the hours I prefer, and there is no haggle in going along. Try learning from a book: You’ll need to read the book, keep it open while at the same time typing or drawing on screen and trying not to forget what the book said.

  • Bob Ward

    I also dislike video tutorials. I have no patience for reviewing things I already know. I like to scan for new info.