Screencasts – what we need to know about users

This post looks at some aspects of creating screencasts and evaluates an open source tool I stumbled upon while looking for a low cost solution. I felt that the tool has the potential to compete with high-cost tools such as Camtasia Studio and Adobe Captivate. This could be an answer for a small and medium size software publisher’s license cost woes. But, before we start evaluating tools, let us first look at what screencasts are, what we hope to achieve with screencasts, and therefore what are the most important components of a good screencast.

Screencast Vs. webcast – is it the same?

Call it a screencast, a webcast, an online tutorial, or a Software Animated Demonstration (SAD). All these terms are used interchangeably to describe an audiovisual aid to instruct the users about software or by teachers to teach students in an online course. Online teaching courses mostly require teachers to capture lab activities and show them to the students. Software publishers use screencasts to replace long winded step-by-step tutorials and to showcase interface elements. So, we will use screencast to mean any of these audiovisual aids in this post.

Why use screencasts?

Should we use audiovisual aids just because they look fancy and we now have access to broadband internet? Of course not. There has to be a better reason. The underlying theory that has made use of screencasts so prevalent and mainstream is the dual coding theory discussed by Paivio[1]. The theory claims that humans use distinctly separate cognitive structures to process visual and aural information. Therefore, screencasts that use both video and audio to explain complex concepts minimize the cognitive load on individual subsystems and assist in learning[2]. Using two different methods of providing information to the user can also have an additive effect.

Well, there is enough evidence to suggest that screencasts can accelerate learning and are helpful in explaining complex concepts to the learner. But, does using audio-visual content alone fulfill the requirements of a good screencast. What are the other parts of a screencast that can influence efficacy of screencasts? Let us now look at different parts of a screencast and try to come up with a evaluation criteria.

Screencast – What should we evaluate?

Technical writers take great pains to document technical information adhering to guidelines that have evolved over the years drawing upon different research areas. Similarly, creating a meaningful screencast must also look at guidelines that assist communication of information through visuals. However, use of screencast is comparatively new and the research conducted on its effectiveness to specific situations is far less compared to research on writing for specific contexts. Reduced cognitive load and faster integration of information by audiovisual aids are the primary benefits of choosing this medium over a text procedure or a tutorial with text and images. Before we establish some guidelines for creating good screencasts let us first identify the components of screencasts.

Screencast Audio

There has been an ongoing debate on use of narration in screencast. The dual coding theory supports using narration in screencasts as the information is provided to the user in both verbal and nonverbal media. For instructional videos, narration has proved to reduce cognitive overload and learning time, however, only with small video duration. In educational settings, screencasts with narration have proved to be most beneficial to students who are new to the subject or have very limited prior knowledge[2]. However, it is also claimed that long-winded introductory audio tends to distract the audience. Apart from this, screencasts used in software application require narration to be coordinated with the visuals. Mayer[3] found that narration before action or after the action is less effective. Similarly, it is observed that experienced users rely more on the audio whereas novice users on the visuals as they are not familiar with the software interface.

Screencast Visuals

Visual imagery of the software interface along with the audio instructions is the most important feature of screencasts. Normally users would read 2-3 steps and then switch to the software to perform the action. This comes quite easily to the users who are already aware of the software interface. However, novice users, who are not aware of the software interface, tend to read each step and switch between instructions and the software more frequently. With screencasts, listeners can get acquainted to the interface at the same time as they hear the instruction to act. Therefore this simultaneous transfer of information creates a better mental model for Human Computer Interaction and reduces the additional step of accessing and digesting the reference information[4].

Screencast Navigation

Navigation aids in printed as well as online media help users find relevant information and get to the information quickly. Document level navigational aids usually help users find the relevant information in the document. Similarly, page level or topic level navigational aids help users reach the exact information that they need.

Although it is advised that screencasts be short, at times, you might have to create screencasts that are more than a few minutes long; typically, if you are trying to show a long workflow or a process. The only navigation aid most of the screencast users get is the progress bar at the bottom of the video that users have to click multiple times to reach the desired portion of the screencast. Therefore, users who need to go back and replay a certain part of the screencast or skip ahead to a different part have no easy way to do this.

Screen real estate

One of the tiresome aspects of using printed manuals was that the users had to switch between the printed manuals and the software application. Online Help reduced  this split-attention problem to a certain extent as the information and application were both available on the computer screen. Screencasts now introduce a similar split-attention problem as users have to monitor both the software and the screencast in motion. This problem becomes more acute if the users have only one screen. Even with two separate computer screens, it is important that the screencast window remains on top, so that the users can view the visuals while working with the software[4].


Although screencasts provide a rich multimedia experience to the user and an opportunity to integrate information in more than one way, it is important that the screencasts are created considering the points discussed earlier in this post.

This post is already too long. That tool evaluation I promised earlier will have to come later. But then, evaluating tools without requirements will be like documenting the software features and not the user tasks.


[1] A. Paivio, “Dual coding theory and education,” Ponencia presentada en: Pathways to Literacy Achievement for High Poverty Children, University of Michigan. Recuperado de: http://www.umich. edu/~ rdytolrn/pathwaysconference/pathways. html, 2006.


[3] R. E. Mayer and R. B. Anderson, “Animations need narrations: An experimental test of a dual-coding hypothesis,” Journal of educational psychology, vol. 83, p. 484, 1991.

[4] G. Palaigeorgiou and T. Despotakis, “Known and unknown weaknesses in software animated demonstrations (screencasts): A study in self-paced learning settings,” Journal of Information Technology Education, vol. 9, pp. 81-98.

Join 49,687 readers who love our content

* indicates required
*get our popular guide on online branding free when you join!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *