What's better? video or written help?


Earnsy Liu, TechCommNZ member and GDID student, looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession. If you have a question for Earnsy to tackle, please email our Comms Coordinator.

When you get stuck with something, do you gravitate towards videos or written instructions?

YouTube is only 10 years old, but it’s become so much part of everyday life. YouTube alone – never mind other video sharing sites – has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute, and is available in 61 languages to over a billion users (YouTube, n.d.).

So should technical communicators provide video instead of written help? Here’s some background on videos, a review of the literature, and some guidelines.


Videos are great for showing processes and orientation. They convey messages in more than one mode, make it easier to remember visual concepts, and are attention grabbing and motivating. If they’re available online, they make updating and publishing product information faster and cheaper, and provide better support to consumers (Alexander, 2013, citing previous literature).

On the other hand, videos can detract from learning. They tend to be more mentally demanding for users, and animations can be distracting. It’s also easy to mimic instruction videos without thinking about what we’re doing (Alexander, 2013, citing previous literature). And if you need to replay a video, can you find the right spot?

There’s been limited research into the measurable benefits of videos for users, with most usability research focussing on print-based instructions (Alexander, 2013). Let’s look at what there is and what users want.

Research on video vs written help

Two recent studies compared video and written instructions for Microsoft Word tasks.

Associate Professor of English Kara Poe Alexander (2013) gave 28 undergraduates instructions on creating a table of contents (ToC) and on using mail merge.

  • Half received ToC instructions in video and mail merge instructions in print.
  • Half received ToC instructions in print and mail merge instructions in video.

Technical communicator Steve Moss (2013) had 27 participants carry out a mail merge task.

  • One group watched a 5½ -minute video before starting their task.
  • A second group watched the same video divided into 13 segments, performing steps of their task after each segment.
  • The final group read written instructions on a screen and performed their task step-by-step.

Overall, there was no clear advantage of either video or written instructions, although video instructions could result in fewer mistakes. Alexander’s video groups made fewer errors and remembered their instructions more accurately later, especially when instructions were short, but the differences were not statistically significant. Moss’s screencast groups made slightly fewer mistakes than the written group, but they had to repeat their steps many more times, possibly reflecting the greater cognitive load of video instructions. His screencast groups also took longer than the written participants did.

Alexander’s participants were generally equally satisfied with both mediums of delivery, although they found written instructions more comfortable and easier to use. They particularly disliked how hard it was to find information in the videos. Interestingly, although they rated videos and written instructions equally for the tasks in the study, they would prefer video instructions for future tasks. (It is not clear if this difference was statistically different.)

Both researchers believe further research is needed, for example, on a wider range of tasks. I agree. I’d love to know how participants would perform after a longer interval. I’d also like to know if it’s possible to control for quality: can we check if the video and written instructions are of a similar standard? Because if they aren’t, how does that affect the results?

What do users want?

When I started researching this topic, I looked for data demonstrating that one method was quantifiably better, such as data on errors or learning speed. But I’m beginning to think ‘better’ is what users will respond to positively: It doesn’t matter if one method helps users learn better or remember the material longer – if they don’t use the method, those benefits don’t count.

Videos are becoming more popular

University lecturer Adam Simpson (2014) asked 30 undergraduates, ‘How would you characterize your use of technology on a day-to-day basis?’ His conclusions included:

  • ‘Video clips are a must for our classrooms’ (point 3 of discussion section). Students regularly turn to videos for information partly because that information is visual.
  • ‘Use visual stimuli at every opportunity’ (point 5 of discussion section). He cites previous research by Gomez (2007) that ‘Generation Y is a visually literate generation, comfortable in an image-rich rather than text-only environment … Indeed, they generally perceive print as expensive, boring, and a waste of time.’

The visual element could explain lecturer Alan Cann’s (2007) success with videos over podcasts. His podcasts containing supplementary feedback and tips (not lectures) weren’t exactly a roaring success, but his videos were significantly more popular:


Downloads per student per file



Students listening /watching



Undergraduates preferred supplementary information as videos over podcasts (adapted from Cann, 2007)

Is how we read is changing?

Anecdotal evidence suggests we are now less comfortable reading books and blogs than before, something that affects even well-regarded professionals (Carr, 2008; Self, 2009, and Young, 2014). However, it is not clear if this change applies to reading instructions.

Conclusion and guidelines

It looks as if the difference between videos and print is too close to call. Also, Grant MacKenzie, TCANZ's very own video champion, advises us: ‘Because of imponderables concerning the quality of the videos, I recommend caution when interpreting the results of any print vs video comparison’ (personal communication, February 27, 2015).

As always with communication, we need to consider the audience, material and purpose before deciding on a method. Those without computers or who are stuck with dial-up connections won’t thank us for going down a video-only route.

Moss writes, ‘Video is perfect for providing an overview of features, functions and options. It’s generally good for straightforward sets of instructions, but can get very hard to follow if it has to cover too many steps or provide too much detail. Using a combination of both video and written support/learning material is perhaps the best way to go, as it can play to the strengths of both modes of presentation (as well as being good for various learning styles)’ (personal communication, March 02, 2015).

Moss (2013) and Plaisant and Shneiderman (2005) have some video-specific communication guidelines:

  • keep videos short
  • provide context at the beginning
  • help users find information easily: for example, by labelling segments or providing a table of contents, so users can find what they need and skip what they don’t
  • use highlighting like shading or arrows
  • make the user interface in the video similar to the actual user interface
  • coordinate demonstrations with text
  • narrate the video.

If you want inspiration for videos, check out Common Craft’s 3-minute videos on topics like wikis, net neutrality and even zombies(!).


Steve Moss, Grant MacKenzie, and Emma Harding, thank you for your comments on my drafts.


Alexander, K. P. (2013). The usability of print and online video instructions. Technical Communication Quarterly, 22, 237–259. Retrieved from CMME database.

Cann, A. J. (2007). Podcasting is dead. Long live video! Bioscience Education E-journal, 10. Retrieved from http://journals.heacademy.ac.uk/doi/full/10.3108/beej.10.c1

Carr, N. (2008, Jul 1). Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/?single_page=true

Moss, S. R. (2013). Can computer-based tasks be completed more easily with screencast instructions than with written instructions? (Masters dissertation). Unpublished.

A ‘lite’ version of the dissertation, entitled Screencast or text – which, when and why?, was first published in the February 2014 issue of Southern Communicator. It’s available at http://www.tcanz.org.nz/Attachment?Action=Download&Attachment_id=303 If you need the full report, contact Steve Moss at steve@techwrite.co.nz.

Plaisant, C. & Shneiderman, B. (2005). Show Me! Guidelines for producing recorded demonstrations. IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing, 171-178. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Self, T. (2009, February). What if your readers can't read?, Southern Communicator, 16, 5-9. Retrieved from http://www.tcanz.org.nz/Folder?Action=View%20File&Folder_id=92&File=SC_Feb09.pdf

Simpson, A. J. (2014, December). The 10 commandments of teaching ‘Generation Y’ with technology. Humanising Language Teaching, 6. Retrieved from http://www.hltmag.co.uk/dec14/mart02.htm#C7

YouTube (n.d.): Statistics: Product. Retrieved February 15, 2015 from https://www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html

Young, R. (2014, April 9). Is online skimming hurting reading comprehension? Here&Now. [Radio broadcast]. Retrieved from http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/04/09/online-reading-comprehension