Secrets of screencasting

With a little diligence, short online videos can become powerful educational tools for IT

I’ve mentioned Nic Wolff’s nifty SSO (single sign-on) solution several times before. It’s a simple JavaScript hack that empowers people to do something about a critical IT dilemma: weak passwords that are guiltily reused everywhere.

Geeks immediately get how it works. You combine a master passphrase with the domain names of Web sites to produce a unique password for each site. But geeks aren’t the problem. I wanted to transmit this idea to regular folks, too, but the message wasn’t getting through.

So I made a screencast. I hoped it would attract a wider, less technical population than usually visits my blog, and my referral log tells me that it has. I also tested the screencast on a couple of civilian (nongeek) friends. Both instantly grasped the concept. And I think there’s a good chance they’ll be able to apply what they learned in order to manage their passwords more sanely.

Can a 2MB Flash file that plays in 2 minutes and 45 seconds really pack that kind of a wallop? Evidently it can, and that should give us a rather large clue about how we information technologists ought to be educating the clientele we sometimes call clueless users. Screencasting is a medium that can deliver order-of-magnitude improvements over conventional documentation and training. If people aren’t “getting it,” maybe it’s time to stop blaming them and start telling stories they can’t forget or misunderstand.

There are plenty of compelling stories to tell. We IT folk can perform tricks that civilians would find amazing and, under the right circumstances, would want to emulate. But we often hold this knowledge tacitly. We have to surface our unconscious competencies before we can communicate them.

As it turns out, making a screencast achieves both objectives. When you narrate a software demonstration, you’re forced to go step by step, analyzing and describing everything that happens. Odds are you’ll find that tasks don’t unfold in quite the way your conditioned reflexes led you to believe. Even if they do, you’ll likely find that your performance relies on more unconscious knowledge than you could reasonably expect people to have.

Consider the password generator shown in the screencast. It comes in two flavors -- one a stand-alone Web page, the other a bookmarklet. In real life, I only use the bookmarklet version. But that version hides aspects that are crucial to understanding the concept -- in particular, it obscures the generated password. So in the screencast, I present the stand-alone generator first, to clarify how the master passphrase and domain name combine to yield a unique and repeatable result. Then I introduce the bookmarklet as a shortcut.

Step-by-step exposition can, and should, proceed quickly. All else being equal, a short screencast will have more impact than an epic. Tight editing is the secret here. A raw video screen capture is full of false starts and wasted motion. By leaving all that on the cutting-room floor, I was able to cut 10 minutes of raw footage down to less than three. And then, by recording the narration in pieces, I was able to synchronize it closely to the onscreen action.

The result goes way beyond what I could achieve in a live, in-person demonstration. And of course it’s available on demand to anyone, anywhere. I never intended to become a filmmaker, but these effects are too potent to ignore.