Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

What Is Screencasting? An Interview With Jon Udell

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A screencast is a digital movie that shows an animated computer screen recording, with an audio narration. Screencasts are typically recordings of what is happening on a screen, which might be a web browsing session or a software demonstration, reported in real-time by a guide showing a particular task.

Photo credit: Paynt Ball

Screencasts are a tremendously effective way to explain how a software or a web-based service works without needing to write lengthy documentation. If you have never seen a screencast here is a good example for you:
Windows hidden desktop search feature

The word "screencast" was invented by by the columnist Jon Udell in 2004, who chose it among a list of definitions suggested by the web community. Udell first used the word in an article published on InfoWorld, describing the benefits of using this technique to show how computer applications worked to his readers.

This is the reason why I took the time to contact Jon Udell and to ask for a good conversation around screencasting, while I was preparing with Livia Iacolare a short introductory article around the topic. I wanted to learn and ask more to the person that first saw and shared the extremely effective use that could be made of screen recordings. This mini-documentaries, as Jon likes to call them, are truly invaluable pedagogical tools, that can supply an extremely effective user-centered educational method for learning rapidly how software, web services, and other computer-based applications work.

Here, in this audio conversation with Jon, you can learn directly from the man who has been placing screencasting to good use what is required, needed and essential to make a good screencast. Just click the play button on the audio playback toolbar here below or download directly the .mp3 audio recording of this interview (25 mins - 4.5 MB).

Full Transcript of interview with Jon Udell, InfoWorld technology columnist and accredited "screencasting" father.

Photo credit: raelity

Jon Udell: The first thing to point out is that the technology itself is really not at all new. It's been probably ten or more years since I was first using a product callted Lotus ScreenCam to make narrated video demonstrations of software, back when I was a product developer and a product manager. And I think what changed fundamentally is the fact that we're now in the era of broadband widely available to lots of people -- number one -- and that, number two, there are some tools that are freely available to people which are not very widely recognized.

And so, I guess what kind of got me started on this about a year and a half, or two years ago, is noticing the availability of Windows Media Encoder, which is a free utility that even lots of people at Microsoft don't seem to be aware exists and don't seem to be aware is capable of making some very effective little narrated presentations of on-screen software behavior. Packaging the stuff up into a nicely compressed WMV file that can be uploaded anywhere, like to someone's blog, and then progressively downloaded for viewing. So just a really easy, simple, effective way of communicating using moving pictures and sound. Much more effective, in many cases, than trying to document what's happening on-screen with static screen shots or with text narrative.

Robin Good: Great information. So you got yourself started into doing screencasting by using Windows Media Encoder. Can you tell me a little more about this tool? Whether its free, what is its original purpose, and what do you use it for? What does it exactly perform for you?

Jon: Well, I don't use it much myself now, because the screencasts that I make, I always want to be more broadly available. So I prefer putting out a format that anyone can view. But also, I tend to want to edit the things that I do. So Windows.

Media Encoder is -- it's really a transcoder, it's a way of getting other media formats into Windows Media and the fact that it has this screen-recording capability is kind of a sidelight, I think, to the -- and that's part of the reason why people don't seem to know much about it. But the bottom line is, that if you want to make a short, not-edited video of some piece of software behavior that you want to communicate to someone else, it's an extremely effective way of doing that. And there are a number of interesting use cases for that that I see, which haven't really caught on yet, I don't think in the popular consciousness. One of them is what I would call "user-to-user support." So if you look around on web bulletin boards and blogs and newsgroups and things like that, you'll see endless amounts of discussion amongst people about "how do I do this in this application?" and lengthy, written explanations. Maybe screenshots.

I think hardly anyone realizes how:

  1. straightforward it is

  2. how effective, how much more effective it is to spend a couple of minutes just driving the application on your PC and capturing that interaction with audio voiceover, and then uploading that for someone to see how to do something.

It's a great way that people can show other people how to do stuff and, related to that, is another use case that I think is potentially huge that people haven't caught onto yet, which is people who are users of software being able to communicate about the software back to the developers. In particular, bug reports. So we've all been in a situation where the poor, frustrated developer is trying to get the user to explain "well, what were you doing when such-and-such happened?" and that stuff always kind of bogs down. But here, you can simply show and tell directly what's going on, so potentially a great way to feedback to developers.

Robin: Absolutely agree, yeah. Those are two fantastic applications. And so, Windows Media Encoder is a free tool that can be used to record your screen activities while narrating what is happening through your microphone connected to your PC. Do you normally do this live? That is, while you perform the activities, you narrate what you're doing. This is not done as an overdub later on, right?

Jon: Yeah, and I don't even try to edit the stuff that I do in Windows Media. In fact, I don't really use it myself much at all now, because I tend to be making much more highly-produced kinds of things. But what I'm pointing out here is, that apart from the more highly-produced sorts of things that I do, there's a whole range of use cases where you simply want to capture some 90 seconds worth of demonstration, for purposes of communicating to someone else how to do something or where the problem is with something.

And so that tool is extremely useful for that purpose, but again, it's not the true focus of what I've been doing. I've sort of gone on from there to see that there are modes of using this medium which are, really in my mind, related to documentary film-making more than anything, I would say. And the way that I think about this is, that as all of us are increasingly experiencing electronically mediated versions of reality, right? I mean, a lot of our social interaction nowadays is mediated through networks, and so from that perspective, it's really interesting to be able to document the -- not just how to use software kinds of aspects -- but sort of why you use it.

What is this stuff really all about? What is the culture that surrounds this application or this service? So some early examples of that were -- and probably the most famous one -- was the Wikipedia movie that I made, or the screencast about the evolution of a particular page in the Wikipedia, which is serving for a lot of people who are not really advanced geek-types, it's serving as a way in, to understanding what the Wikipedia culture is and how such a thing could even possibly work.

The Wikipedia movie - an early screencasting "classic" - click on it to watch it

So people get a sense, I think, of the culture of that environment as much as anything. And it's been extremely effective. And then I've had a few other similar experiences making documentaries about, for example, Which again, you know, can be viewed as an advanced tutorial on how to use, but it's also helping people, I think, to think about what are we really doing here as we engage in this kind of shared vocabulary or metadata vocabulary development.

Robin: Yes, indeed. So you like to call them more documentaries now, rather than screencasts?

Jon: Well no, I mean not necessarily. What I'm saying, that's to me the most interesting aspect of what I've been doing. I mean, the thing that you just put up on the screen here is more in line with the kind of thing that you would expect to see.

From, let's say, a magazine like InfoWorld, right? So I've been doing a monthly series of pretty lengthy -- like 20, 25-minute -- in-depth screencasts, where I explore new development tools and technologies. And so the first one was IBM's Unstructured Information Management, SDK. The second one was Flex 2.0. And the third one, which I just put up a few days ago, is about Microsoft's Atlas, which is their new AJAX toolkit. So these are quite interesting from the perspective of InfoWorld and what magazines like InfoWorld have traditionally done, because it's completely different from anything either in print or online. There's no way that a 2500-word review of the Atlas toolkit or the IBM SDK could begin to communicate either in terms of depth, or in terms of comprehension what can be put across this medium.

So I think another interesting use case here going forward is going to be that. I think a lot of deeply technical information is going to turn out to be best communicated in this medium. And related to that, there's sort of a marketing aspect to it. So a number of people have mentioned to me that they claim that one reason why Rails was so incredibly successful so fast is because of the screencasts that the Rails folks made, where people could invest five or ten minutes and watch and hear this process of building an application from scratch using this amazing toolkit. Now the toolkit is amazing, but you don't really get the sense of that as effectively and as quickly in any other way.

Photo credit: Digital Inspiration

Robin: You've been mentioning duration of these screencasts. And there have been some very effective ones that are very short, as you have also been mentioning some that take up to 20-25 minutes. Do you have any recommendations, in terms of the lengths of these?

Jon: So, that just completely depends on what it is that you're trying to do. In general, the shortest ones are reaching the widest audience. I mean, there are some that are even just 90 seconds long. And, in general -- the one about Wikipedia, the one about -- these are in the sort of five to eight-minute range. And, in fact, one comment that a lot of people have made about the Wikipedia one is that, at eight minutes, it's too long. So, I think, in terms of something that's going to reach a really large audience, you're probably not going to find... Well, I don't know. You know, it's hard to say, right? It's, you know, people will certainly sit and watch an hour-and-a-half long movie.

Whether there is something in this medium that would command attention for an hour and a half, I just don't know. I haven't myself come across a topic that merits that sort of treatment. So what I'm finding is that, in the case of these development tool screencasts that I've been making, I've been letting them run longer because I know that there are relatively fewer people who will be interested in any one of these topics. But the people who are interested will probably be interested to watch for half an hour and get a really deep, thorough treatment, right? It's not just sort of trying to communicate a single, short idea.

Robin: Guess it would be also good to evolve into chunking up these into a smaller module sometimes, so that people can zoom in right into what they want while keeping the thing very modular and accessible. Did you have an opportunity to check out -- I'm sure you have -- those four, five, six screencasts from the Microsoft Research Group when they presented at the beginning of March, their RSS cut-and-paste facility. What did you think of those?

Jon: Yeah, actually I know Jack Ozzie, and he got in touch with me for some advice on what tools to use to put those things out there. So I thought that was great. Although in that particular case -- well, no -- I was going to say that you didn't need, in that case, you didn't the screencasts so much because the software itself was accessible online. So you could simply go to the example, and it was pretty clear what was going on, right? But I don't know. What was your experience with that? I suppose it's also the case that things that aren't available online right now are shown in screencasts, right? Like the interaction with the Windows tray, for example, right? And with native Windows applications, the only way to see that happen is in the screencasts. So I don't know, I wonder how many people did watch those.

Robin: I think they were great, and I was so happy to see that there was an extended family of researchers using your same approach. I haven't seen very many of these outside of yours, and so it was very positive. I think it's very useful. I did watch all of them. I learned a great deal, and it's just another experience. It's more, they're acting to understanding to what is really going on. So from an educational point of view, from a learning standpoint, they're absolutely extremely valuable for me. So did you recommend Jack to use more sophisticated and expensive tools, like Camtasia or something like that?

Jon: Yeah, I had him use -- well, he ended up using Camtasia, although I would say that probably he didn't wind up doing much editing. So in his particular case, when he was just making little one to two-minute episodes, apart from the format conversion issues, he might have been able to do that just as easily in Media Encoder, right?

Robin: What are, in fact, the key advantages of going to Camtasia over using just Windows Media Encoder?

Jon: So, it's all about the editing. And I've gotten to a place where, again, these things are very carefully produced. In fact, I'm actually sort of chafing at the bit in terms of Camtasia, because it is not as effective. What you end up doing is working back and forth between the video track and the audio track -- kind of shortening up the video, or lengthening the video to match some audio, or then doing a bit of extra narration in the audio track to cover some action onscreen. And ultimately, what you really want is a completely full-fledged video editing tool. So I've actually kind of gone back and forth. I mean, I've had in some ways better success in iMovie on the Macintosh, from a pure video editing perspective. But the -- it's kind of like, what I would ultimately like to have is three functions broken up and completely decoupled from one another. So the first one would be capture. So what tool I use to do my capture to some neutral video format shouldn't matter, I should be able to use anything, right? And then, the second function is editing.

And there, I'd like to use again a best-of-breed editor that makes things go as quickly and effectively as possible. And third is, then I want to be able to produce the stuff. Ideally, in -- well, for a long time, I was focusing on SWF, on Shockwave Flash, as the universal delivery format. More recently, I'm moving into the use of Flash Video, FLV, which has the advantage of being lighter weight in terms of the playback, right? So, SWF files, when you get into these longer video things, they tend to bog down. Basically, they just chew up a lot of memory in the browser and on every operating system. So you know, FLV is where things seem to be headed, but you need the latest Flash player -- version eight or better -- to play FLVs in this progressive download mode. So I've ended up for the ones I've been recently producing multiple formats, right? So also producing Quicktime and Windows Media, which I would really rather not do. I'd rather that there just be a single, canonical playback format.

Photo credit: MSND Microsoft

Robin: Absolutely. And then, if you want a showcase tool that is just on the Mac, what do you do?

Jon: So there, the best one appears to be Snap Z Pro, which is a combination of screenshot capture and video capture tool. So I've used that with some success as well on the Mac. And then editing an iMovie. Although iMovie seems to be set up -- and maybe this is just my own limited understanding -- but it seems to be biased toward kind of DVD formats, right? And so, these things that I do can come in any shape or size. And I haven't really worked out yet how to deal with that in an iMovie. I don't know if you know more about it...

Robin: [laughing] No, I don't. Actually, I saw some pretty outstanding -- I don't recall where -- screencasts, and I think they were done on the Mac. Probably the one you just mentioned, Snap X -- Snap Z Pro, where you could see good zooming in certain areas of a dial box that you were looking at. That kind of a spotlight that was coming in to highlight certain things, it looked very cool and very effectively produced. I know that that's not easily done on the PC side, so I was wondering if you had any experience or exposure to those.

Jon: So I haven't actually gone that deeply into it, but my observation is that the difficulty is getting things into iMovie and out of iMovie. At least, that's been the stumbling block for me. But anyway, all this stuff is -- I don't know, it's frustrating, because you end up kind of putting things together in ways that, I think, nobody really thought about. So whenever that happens, which seems to always be the situation that I land in, you're kind of cobbling together solutions that were never really envisioned by the developers. So that sort of takes a while to work its way out, and that's a bit of frustration. But I want to kind of back up and mention a few things here in sort of a larger context. And one of them is that, apart from the enormous educational value that this stuff can have, there's also a tremendously powerful, I guess you would say, marketing aspect to this. And I mean that in the broadest sense.

So my best example of this is actually something that I don't think most people think of as a screencast, or it hasn't been called that, but... I don't know if you've seen this, but about a year or a year and a half ago, the American Civil Liberties Union put together a little Flash video which was really an imaginary interaction between the clerk in a pizza shop and someone who's ordering a pizza, right? But the action is taking place on-screen, and what you see is the clerk's order-taking application and what you hear and see is the violation of every rule of privacy and every law of digital identity. So the woman knows everything about this guy. When he tries to order extra meat on his pizza, she complains that they're going to have to charge extra because she's got his medical records and... [laughing] It goes on and on.

Anyway, it's a wildly effective piece of well, I guess, propaganda, right? Now the interesting thing to me about this, is that I had originally heard about it -- I don't remember when -- but a long time ago, I had heard about this thing. And much more recently, probably eight or nine months after the thing first came out, I was forwarded an email from my sister, who's not a particularly technical person. And she said "oh, I just saw this thing" and her reaction to it was that it's really a shame, but this is probably how things already are. Or if it's not how things already are, it's how things are going to be pretty soon. So, in other words, she was basically resigned to the fact that this is what technology is going to be doing to us. And I thought that was interesting.

But what was really interesting was the next day, or a couple of days later, I guess it was Phil Windley, whose blog I read, was pointing to something on Kim Cameron's blog. So Kim Cameron is Microsoft's Digital Identity architect, and Phil Windley is the author of the O'Reilly book on digital identity. So two of the leading thinkers in the technology community and two people whose entire mission relative to digital identity is to prevent the dark vision that the ACLU portrayed, to prevent that from happening and instead to create a world in which there really are laws of digital identity that respect us in the way that we want them to. And my observation to Kim Cameron was that I know that you're building this stuff. And I know that you're putting InfoCard into Windows Vista. And I know that you've got all of this identity federation stuff happening. And I know that it's all good architecturally, right?

But how can it be that there was this vision that was percolating through the popular consciousness for eight or ten months, to the point where people are now assuming that there's no way that what you're working on will ever pan out? And instead it's going to be that dark vision, right? You know, how could you not be aware of that -- number one -- but, number two, why wouldn't you be presenting in an equally compelling format? Why wouldn't you be presenting your architecture and your vision and showing us how and why things are going to be better? So I think that's really the most important message in this, from me to people in the technical community, is that it's really cool to be able to show people how to use software. But it's way cooler, I think, to be able to communicate your vision of what your software is really about and how it's going to interact with society and why, in fact, if it's the right thing -- that it is the right thing.

Photo credit: White Light Media

Robin: Absolutely, great points. Well, thank you. Again, I don't know if you like to be called, how is it that it's pronounced? Tell me.

Jon: My name? Jon Udell.

Robin: I didn't see the "h" so I thought maybe there was some Scandinavian origin and maybe some different way of pronunciating. But I do know some other "John" without an "h" and indeed, they' re called that way. Okay, great, Jon. Those are absolutely great points. I appreciate your time and patience to go over these things with me. I am having a number of further questions I would like to ask you, but I don't want to stretch you too much. I think you've done a great job of helping me out, collect some information on this. And I will use it for an article that will include both your answers in our journal transcript and some of my own comments in it. So I truly appreciate your contribution. From Robin Good here live in Rome, Italy, this is all for today and I hope to be talking to you soon again.

Jon: Okay. Take care, Robin.

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posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, May 2 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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