Video tutorials are the bane of my existence

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April 04, 2013
Video tutorials are the bane of my existence.

Video tutorials are the bane of my existenceWe'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.


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.


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.

Cameron Chapman

Cameron Chapman is a freelance writer and designer from New England. You can visit her site or follow her on Twitter.

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