In the last post, I discussed simplified user interface (SUI) images as a potential solution to one of the biggest challenges that technical communicators face - keeping content up-to-date in the face of frequent product updates. While I've seen some examples of SUI in images, I've noticed far more examples that take it a step further by adding action as animated GIFs.
Here's an example from the Tips & Tricks in-product help for Dropbox Paper. The in-product help provides structure and context for the task being demonstrated (I realize the GIF doesn't make as much sense here), and there is just a small amount of text with this moving image that explains how to assign a to-do.
I'm fascinated by the SUI GIF for the same reasons I love SUI static images. According to TechSmith, "a simplified user interface graphic can often sustain multiple software versions...before needing further updates. The simplified design is more forgiving to minor interface changes and additions, as it is already an abstract representation of the interface."
A 10-15 second "video" or GIF takes this benefit a step further by illustrating the basics of a single task. From a user perspective, it's much easier to see how to do a task in a glance rather than reading an article or even watching a video with narration and annotations. In other words, with a reduced cognitive load for learning the new task, the user gets some quick success.
Though I recently completed TechSmith's Camtasia 2018 Certification, I've been making screencast tutorial videos since 2011. When I started seeing these GIF images, I knew they could be valuable for my clients. I've started seeing these appearing not only in help centers and in-product guides, but also in nurturing email campaigns when trying out a new tool.
Process for SUI GIF Creation
Even though a GIF may only last 10 seconds, it takes quite a bit of planning, as well as some extra time to create and produce if you want to make a quality image that communicates a task well with professional production quality.
In order to get clear on the process for developing something like this in Camtasia, I borrowed a sample from Unito, which is a tool that I'm testing for automating Trello cards from one board to another (that's not all it does). Reverse-engineering to build this image from one I already had is a little different from building a GIF from scratch, but it will serve the purpose for defining the process.
Here's the overall process for designing and developing an animated GIF:
We all know a picture is worth a thousand words. In documentation and customer education, a clear image can make or break how well end users understand the accompanying text.
The problem in customer education for technical products is that frequent product updates can render some or all of your educational images out-of-date.
I've been fascinated for some time with one solution to this problem: the simplified user interface (SUI). Here's an example from Outlook's "Coming Soon" in-product guidance.
So what's the big deal? The SUI image takes a bit more time to prepare than a screen shot.
But that extra time pays off big with two main benefits.
For example, in the following image, I was able to easily and quickly simulate the Outlook environment by using a real Outlook environment and then masking the information for the purposes of this educational content.
And honestly, this is a quick and dirty example that's not nearly as visually appealing as the above Outlook example.
If you are localizing your educational content, you already know how complex that can make your project. Using SUI images means you could potentially use the same images across content in multiple languages.
The good news is that SnagIt 2019 by TechSmith has a new feature that automatically simplifies your image. Just grab your screen shot and SnagIt does almost everything else.
Here's a demonstration using that same "real" screen shot from Outlook.
Ok, maybe the image is still not perfect in under 5 seconds. But those colored rectangles can be styled or removed individually, and it's easy to add your own if you can't find the right balance using the Auto Simplify feature. (Tip - use the Detail slider to change how SnagIt interprets what needs to be simplified in the image.)
With just a little more time and customization, here's that same image.
It might not look as awesome as you could do by mocking it up in Photoshop, but it gets the point across quickly and without any advanced graphics skills.
To learn more about why and how to use Simplified User Interface images in your content strategy, you can read this article from TechSmith, one of many they have on using SUI.
Camtasia Certification™ Process
For certification, you have the option to go through 10 separate courses and their quizzes - all related to various aspects of screencasting. You can also skip all that and just take the certification test without going through the courses.
I opted for the video courses - just in case I might pick up a few new tricks. The courses include some 15 hours of video content. Thank goodness for watching at double-speed. The narrator does get a bit long-winded at times, and not being a beginner, I didn't need to dwell on every explanation. Overall, the certification courses were very helpful and on point (and I did learn a few new tricks).
The course author's process is much like my own. We'll take a quick look at each of the courses, which walk through the process of creating a screencast.
Preparing to Create Screencasts
No matter which tool you use for screen recordings, you'll want to prepare accordingly - not only with a script and storyboard, but by making sure the environment you plan to record is ready. Turn off notifications and clear your computer desktop of clutter.
Recording Audio and Narration
While Camtasia does offer voice narration tools, like the course author, I find it more efficient to do the bulk of my narration recording outside Camtasia in Audacity. Camtasia's audio editing tools are passable. The one thing in this area that I learned the hard way is that Camtasia does better with WAV files rather than MP3 (as of mid 2018).
Recording Your Screencasts
When you start a new recording in Camtasia, you have the option to control what you capture with this toolbar. You set your area, as well as controlling whether to include the webcam and audio. I find it much more straightforward to leave the camera and audio off (unless you need to record system audio). But recording audio as you go through the recording process has its merits for some situations.
There are some handy menu settings you can use before you start recording, including:
One of the tricks I picked up in the certification course is this option "Restore cursor location after pause". It means that if you pause the recording, move your mouse in the process of whatever you do during the pause, Camtasia will restore the mouse position when you resume recording. I wish I'd known about this time-saving trick sooner!
Once you finish recording, the editing environment allows you to use a number of tools to edit the recording - along with other types of media - into a final video. This course/part of the process focuses on cutting and trimming the screen recordings and/or audio or other media. The timeline helps you understand when a particular item begins to show and when it ends. This course also explains how to manipulate items on the canvas.
This course of the certification process is the longest at 3 hours 12 minutes. Part of the reason is that the author chose a really long sample video (about 10 minutes) for the example and practice. Maybe for version 2.0 of the course, they'll use a shorter example.
Visual effects include things like annotations, scale, opacity, rotation and position of your media.
There are six different types of annotation tools. Between the captions, lines and shapes, you are only limited by your imagination (and time you want to spend) to create everything from a speech bubble to a scene with multiple moving shapes - such as a truck driving across the screen. Note that you won't get sophisticated animation possibilities like you could in an animation tool, but annotations are great for conveying conceptual information and adding visual interest. The blur, highlight, and sketch motion tools are great for enhancing screen recordings. And you can easily show that you are pressing a key in your video by adding keystroke callouts. Just select the type and press the keys you want to show.
This course is super short - these items are generally used in conjunction with editing and animating items in the video.
Animating and Moving Elements
We could play with these tools all day, especially the transitions, behaviors and animations. Suffice to say, there are lots of possibilities. What's important to remember is that you can do more than one change with each animation and you can layer multiple behaviors on objects or text to achieve a different effect. Plan some time to design your animations, because this can get time-consuming, depending on what you want to accomplish.
No matter how great the audio is from an external source, you may find the need to add an extra pause or otherwise manipulate the audio. It's a super-short course in the certification process.
Captioning Your Videos
I haven't done much with captioning yet (but I probably should). Now I know exactly how to add closed captions or create an SRT file to upload for YouTube.
Effects, Quizzes and Interactivity
Transitions and cursor effects offer more options for editing and enhancing your videos.
I've avoided quizzes and interactivity in videos until now. Many of my clients host their videos on You Tube (where these features aren't available), but when the video is hosted on a website, adding interactive elements like quizzes, a table of contents, and interactive hotspots are really great ways to add engagement.
Producing and Hosting Your Videos
The last course in the process is of course discussing the options for sharing your videos.
Now, you've completed all of the courses, and passed each of their quizzes with at least 80% (it's easy to retake a quiz - I did have to retake one because I'm no longer a Mac user and I skimmed over that part). You can now request your certification, which doesn't take long. And you can get the correct settings to use to add it to your LinkedIn Profile.
Camtasia for Customer Education
Camtasia is my tool of choice for creating screencasting videos, although sometimes I use it in conjunction with other tools. And screencasting videos are my favorite form of customer education. They are short, practical, and thanks to Camtasia's updated tools, full of possibilities.
If you'd like to watch my sample video from which the opening image for this post was derived, you can find it here: http://bit.ly/2xKGu24. I'm not the world's best narrator, but it gets the job done.
The Camtasia Certification courses are only available if you have a Camtasia 2018 maintenance plan. Find out more at TechSmith's site. You can take courses in their new TechSmith Academy (that don't lead to certification) for free.
Captivate has always been an option for recording your screen and automatically generating different types of eLearning based on those recordings. But did you know that it also records video demos?
As a freelancer, I often have some flexibility and discretion on which tool I use to do a project. I have used Camtasia for screen recording videos since 2011. I've also created videos with Captivate for some projects, when certain aspects of a project suggest that it would be a more efficient tool for the job. But I hadn't ever tried the video demo functionality until recently.
Let's take a look at the different demonstration and simulation options before detailing the video demo option.
Before you record a demonstration or simulation, you can set Global Preferences to customize your recording and resulting slides.
In addition to these global preferences, you can set the style of objects to use for text, success shapes and captions, failure shapes and captions, hint shapes and captions, highlight boxes, text entry boxes, rollover areas, and smart shapes. These work in conjunction with your Object Style Manager to set the type, font style, size, color and other aspects of the items that will be generated in addition to individual screen shots. Use these options to save lots of time in getting the project to look how you want it to look.
Captivate makes it simple enough to start recording with just a few clicks, so even beginners can get a successful recording right away. However, as a robust tool, there are many nuances and steps to finessing a recording process that we're not going to cover in this blog post.
The Video Demo option in Captivate records a smooth motion video rather than individual slides like it does for demonstrations and simulations.
Unlike some aspects of Captivate, there's not much need for addressing complicated settings before you start recording. You choose the working folder location and whether or not to record mouse movements. In the recording window, you select the size and whether to snap to the application window, region or a custom size. You also choose whether to include panning, audio, and the webcam. (So you don't have to be talented enough to record yourself and the screen at one time after all.)
But Captivate doesn't exactly record what you do in real time, which provides some interesting options for modification.
For the separate recording from the webcam, you can resize and re-position it, but you can't crop it. If set up before you start recording, you can pick a different background, though I found it didn't do a great job of cutting me out from my office surroundings. Maybe if I had a backdrop with greater contrast or a green screen, that would look better.
When you end your recording, it plays automatically, with a tiny button labeled Edit to access the editing features. You can also process and upload the video to YouTube directly from here if you don't need to edit it.
However, in addition to the editing options listed above, you can add text, shapes, highlight boxes, images, animation and characters to the video. You'll publish it to your computer with options for controlling the video quality (like frames per second). You'll end up with an MP4 file that you can use just like any other MP4 file. Or you can import the CPVC (Captivate Video Composition) project directly to a slide, working it into a bigger eLearning project.
The Interactive Video options to use overlays and return to a position in the video from elsewhere via bookmarks (such as for quiz remediation) introduce some great possibilities for learning. These are new as of Captivate 2019, but that's a topic for another day.
The project I'm currently developing is for training on Office 2016 products and includes instructor guides, student training manuals, PowerPoint slides for instructor use, and self-paced eLearning, which includes some presentation-style slides, interactive practice slides, and review questions. For different projects or deliverables, like user guides and online help, I might choose a slightly different settings and outputs for this automated workflow.
I normally like to capture my images as I'm writing content to have the words that go with the picture and the picture that goes with the words. I love that SnagIt has made that process so friction-less.
When I first started freelancing, I used Adobe Technical Communication Suite for FrameMaker and Robohelp, and I really liked the simplicity of the RoboCapture tool that came with that suite. I kept using it long after I moved on from FrameMaker/Robohelp. Once Office added the ability to insert a screen clipping for Word and PowerPoint, I often used that. So it's only been recently that I've really embraced Snagit as my capture tool of choice. But I mentioned last post, I'll never go back!
In order to have a frictionless workflow for capturing images to build your library, you need to do a few things to set up your system ahead of time. While this is true with many tools, with screen captures, I had never found the need to use these features until I was staring up a mountain of work with similar content in different forms.
So here are the steps for setting up your capturing environment for use in the automatic workflow that I'll share.
I like to have a thin black border around the images for documentation, for use on PowerPoint slides and for use in self-paced eLearning materials. You can have SnagIt add this border automatically.
Note that there are several other effects that are possible to add at the same time, like adding edge effects, shadow, or scaling the image. I don't use any other effects at this time, but it's good to know that they exist, and that you can apply more than one effect at a time. With my next project that requires tons of images, I will definitely investigate applying some of those other effects automatically.
Now, your capture settings are ready to roll, and the workflow is really easy.
However, if I wanted to further modify the image (such as by taking out personal information in an example screen or add a highlight of some type, I can do that in the SnagIt Editor before I select Finish (see below). Note that the Copy to Clipboard option doesn't capture any editor modifications, so you would need to copy the final version or use the saved file if you do make changes.
Now, even though I make heavy use of copy and paste to shortcut work, I have the files saved when I come back to them in a different context.
*But I want to be completely honest about this workflow, so here's my confession. I planned to place each section in a separate folder and change the automatic name for each topic. But I sometimes forgot to change either name or folder as I was working, and I would end up with 30 or more files in one folder an hour or two later. They weren't as well-organized as I would have liked. However, it was still the quickest and most efficient way of capturing and storing images than anything I've previously tried.
I can think of some great applications for this workflow, especially when combined with single-sourcing. In the meantime, I'll keep writing and capturing those images as I go.
P.S. Here's one more caveat: SnagIt is not great at capturing itself. This blog post includes captures from both SnagIt and Word, with some additional editing done in SnagIt Editor.
Between instructor guides and student training manuals, I wrote approximately 1400 pages of content (or about 200,000 words) in 2017. To support those workshops, I developed over 400 PowerPoint slides and several quick reference guides. For self-paced training, I developed a total of about 800 eLearning slides, evenly divided between presentation style, interactive and review questions.
I produced 110 minutes of tutorial videos, and between the videos and eLearning, recorded approximately 210 minutes of narration. I wrote another 6000 words of new knowledge base content across four different software products.
After working as a localization specialist on other authors' single-source documentation for several years, I also authored my first massive single-source documentation project for both user guides and online help for a multi-module SaaS product.
In addition, in my own business as a freelancer, I wrote proposals, blog posts and even a start to my own course content.
It all feels like a pretty good accomplishment, so now I want to share the strategies and workflows that help me stay super efficient and productive.
In this post, I'll introduce you to my technology stack. What I've learned in 12 years as a freelancer, is that one tool does not do it all. I'm a big believer in using the right tool for the job, and these are the tools I've invested in on a regular basis to help me create effective content.
Words are the basis of any customer education project, whether they are delivered as guides, instructor-led training or scripts for narration work.
Images are an absolute must for technology documentation and training.
A video of under three minutes can teach a basic skill exponentially better than two or three pages of text with visuals. No one reads documentation, but as long as you keep videos short, your audience will watch and learn what they need to know.
*I have also used Adobe Premiere Pro, but find it way more power than I need for tutorial videos.
Video is just not the same if it doesn't include narration.
I worked in Authorware for a couple of years before my extended family leave from the workforce, so I was excited when I got the opportunity to add the rapid development eLearning tools to my skill set.
Project Management and Beyond
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that all of this content takes planning and project management to stay on task and get things done. I use a combination of Evernote and Nozbe to manage tasks and projects. I also have other tools that help me run my business, including Toggl, Excel and Quickbooks, but I'll focus on content development in this blog.
Coming up, I'll be doing some deep dives about specific workflows that help me take advantage of each tool's strength, while staying efficient and effective with the task at hand.
But with the coming “knowledge tsunami,” the time has come for single-sourcing to be applied to content creation everywhere. Marc Rosenberg reports in his October 17, 2017 article in the Learning Solutions Magazine on an IBM prediction that “by 2020, knowledge will likely be doubling every 11 to 12 hours.” He says: “Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
Single-sourcing is one of the most powerful processes available to prepare you for riding this wave.
“Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
The existing definitions of single-source publishing are often dry, nerdy and use complicated words. You can get explanations from Wikipedia, MadCap Flare (one of the providers of technology supporting single-sourcing), or this one by the CEO of another technology provider, Paligo. These definitions will probably make your eyes glaze over if you're not a nerdy technical writer type.
I used this utility to make sure I could explain single-source publishing as simply as possible.
To boil it down to the essence, single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. It takes a bit of work up front to write in a way to use it again, and another bit of work to store the content in a way to make the pieces easy to find later.
But the payoff for the added set up is an exponential increase in efficiency and productivity. You can maintain the content pieces in an agile way to keep up with your product changes, and assemble deliverables ranging from white papers to knowledge base articles to training materials in minutes.
Single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. Writing and storing the content takes a little extra work at the beginning, but pays off in increased productivity, with more efficient updates across multiple outputs and audiences.
Though write once for many uses takes some up-front work, the techniques are not complicated.
A good overview starts with a summary of Anders Svensson's 5 principles*:
It is possible to over-complicate the design for reusing content. I once had a client who wanted user guides for multiple modules of multiple products with multiple licensees. As I implemented his requests one-by-one over time, the documents I'd inherited ended up getting so complicated that maintaining what amounted to hundreds of pages of content needed to be a full-time job rather than a once-every-update outsourced project.
However, in the new subscription service landscape, these principles of single-sourcing are vital not only to documentation, but to every aspect of an organization’s content creation, from customer education and success to sales and marketing.
The most successful companies will master these methods of reusing and sharing content across their organizations.
* Rosenberg, M. (2017, October 17). Marc My Words: The Coming Knowledge Tsunami. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine: https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2468/marc-my-words-the-coming-knowledge-tsunami
* Svensson, A. (2016, January 13). The 5 Principles of Single Sourcing in Technical Documentation. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/5-principles-single-sourcing-technical-documentation-anders-svensson/