Making video documentation by Sarah Ley-Hamilton

Catherine Heath | September 20, 2018

Sarah Ley-Hamilton giving her video talk at Write the Docs Prague 2018

At Write the Docs Prague 2018, Sarah Ley-Hamilton gave an excellent talk on how to make video documentation for your company.

Sarah is a freelance Product Education Specialist and was formerly a technical writer at Timely. She describes herself as a Creator and Communicator.

Sarah’s creative ethos directly influences her perspective on creating videos for your company, and we’ll go through her recommendations now.

Why do you need video

Image of a video screen

First, why would you even need video documentation for your company?

According to Sarah, video is an excellent way to differentiate your documentation from the rest of the herd. Not only is video currently extremely trendy with marketers, it has also huge potential for those working in product and support.

Sarah says, “Humans are incredibly visual creatures. We existed for thousands of years without any formal written language.

“Instead, we had to rely on our visual skills to recall things like which berries were poisonous, which situations posed an immediate danger, and who we would continue the species with.”

Sarah’s slide showing the kinds of danger prehistoric humans watched out for

Image caption: Sarah’s slide showing the kinds of danger prehistoric humans watched out for

“Videos appeal to our visual sense which is an ability we have relied on for far longer than our understanding of language.”

Sarah’s slide showing the kinds of danger prehistoric humans watched out for

Image caption: A verbal explanation of a “circle” is nowhere near as effective as the visual representation of a circle

It’s true that an image is worth a thousand words, but many companies are struggling with video, or currently producing the wrong kind of documentation.

There’s a clear production process to follow when making good videos. We’ll take you through Sarah’s version of the process now.

Research Script Record Edit Share Review

Image caption: 

  1. Research
  2. Script
  3. Record
  4. Edit
  5. Share
  6. Review

Research what video you need

Sarah’s words of encouragement should help you overcome any opposition you have to make some fantastic video content for your company. But what now?

Decide what video you actually need before you launch into any kind of strategy. Sarah says, “Your video strategy is an ongoing process, and you need to identify all the places where you could benefit from video.”

This is the start of the research phase of your video production project, and should take between 30–35 minutes. Certain types of documentation lend themselves very well to video.

Video documentation is a great way to help your users learn more about your product – but its use cases range far wider than most people typically think about. Everyone is familiar with the “How-to” video but you shouldn’t stop there.

Image caption: Identify the areas of your product documentation that needs video.

Documentation that could benefit from video could include:

  • Any part of your documentation that is very complex or nuanced
  • Any part that involves an overly detailed, long or intensive process
  • Conceptual product knowledge
  • Working with third-parties

Sarah gives some specific recommendations of the types of products or processes that benefit from video:

  • Product + feature releases
  • Release note round-ups
  • “Getting started with” videos
  • Best practice videos (Whiteboard Friday)
  • Advanced or in-depth videos
  • Navigating change in the product

Sarah recommends doing some in-depth research into exactly what benefit you would get from video documentation, and where exactly your operations could be improved by video docs.

Keep track of the areas you identify as needing documentation because they will come in useful later.

Who should be helping to make video documentation

Documentarians are product experts and these people are usually – but not always – technical writers. To find video ideas, ask around the whole company.

Support staff are close to the customers so talking to support gives valuable insights, and can tell you where the points of confusion or difficulty with your product are. So talking to your front-line teams is a valuable exercise.

Dive deep and talk to your front-line teams, listen to rich support conversations, and tag them for further context

Image caption: Dive deep and talk to your front-line teams, listen to rich support conversations, and tag them for further context

It’s possible to outsource some (or all) of your video production processes to third party services or contractors, but you’ll still need to understand exactly they need from you. The knowledge is internal and you will have to audit and index it in some way to get value from it.

The value of video documentation

Videos are a great way to reduce the number of questions support receives, and this type of video documentation gives the most return on your investment.

Videos can be used to document new features and a map will keep you on track even if you are working in an agile manner. Sarah recommends to “plan like waterfall and work like agile” for best results.

Video is not just limited to documentation or support, as it also has huge potential for repurposing and can add value to other teams.

Uses for internal video documentation and other types of videos

Image caption: Uses for internal video documentation and other types of videos

Internal video documentation can cover:

  • Documenting internal systems and processes
  • Sharing product changes
  • Giving insight into what different teams are working on
  • Celebrating wins, achievements and milestones

Sarah says that although videos are warmer and more personal than written documentation, they do have a shorter shelf-life than we would like.

If you split up your videos into sections, it will be easier to re-shoot only part of a video later instead of getting rid of it entirely.

Now we’ll share Sarah’s in-depth tips for good video production.


Writing a video script is ideal. It can take up to an hour but will also come in very handy later for captions.

“I 100% recommend scripting videos,” Sarah says. At the very least you should make a detailed outline even if you don’t write a word-for-word script.

Sarah shares a handy video script template you can use:

Video script template that Sarah uses

Image caption: Video script template that Sarah uses

Define your learning outcome by having one goal or task for each video. If you can’t define one goal for your video, then maybe you need to make it into a series.

Sarah’s quickfire tips:

  • After the 2-minute mark viewers drop to 50% – consider this when deciding what order to present information
  • 1:45 – 2:45 is Sarah’s range for video lengths – this will vary according to your audience
  • Include verbal instructions for viewers with visual impairments – avoid saying things like “Click here” without accompanying explanation
  • Break up longer videos into sections – this comes in handy when editing or reviewing videos at a later date
  • Include timestamps in the description – this allows viewers to skip to the part most relevant to them

Required equipment

Video production does require a bit of investment in terms of equipment. To record high-quality videos, you need an array of tools.

Diagram of tools needed for video production

Image caption: Diagram of tools needed for video production

You need:

  • Device like iPad, laptop or monitor
  • Microphone (not wireless)
  • Video recording software (Sarah recommends Screenflow)
  • Quiet space (record all footage in the same room)
  • Webcam

How to record

Videos are good because they are warmer and more personal than written documentation, but they still need to form a coherent part of your company brand.

There’s a certain way you can present your videos so they come across in the most professional way.

Sarah recommends to:

  • Speak clearly and slightly slower than normal conversation
  • Smile when you read the script so you sound warm – it makes a difference!
  • Leave breaks for easier editing (it’s hard to edit continuous speech)
  • Watch for pops on the microphone from the letters Bs, Ps, Ts, and Cs (potentially invest in a pop filter)
  • Perform actions in time with audio to help the audience absorb the information

Make sure the video software branding doesn’t overpower your own brand. Some software is so heavily branded it can be hard to get past when watching videos. Make sure you trial any software before you invest.

Use a test account if you are recording software tasks so it looks like a real, active account. Make up customer names such as ones from Harry Potter or Star Wars.

Example of creating test accounts for your videos

Image caption: Example of creating test accounts for your videos

It won’t be GDPR compliant if you use actual customer accounts with real and identifiable information!

Editing your videos

Now for the fun part – editing!

Sarah recommends to allow at least an hour for editing your video. Although this may start off a little tedious, you’ll get faster with time. You’ll also get used to the sound of your own voice, even if your accent starts to get weirder when you record yourself!

Transitions and call-outs

Add transitions and call-outs during the editing phase to make your videos look even more professional. A lot of software has this capability built in, and make sure you don’t use more than two types of transitions or you could end up looking very eighties.

Less is more when it comes to design!

Call attention to one part of the screen and blur out the rest to focus attention on certain actions or tasks. Like this:

Call attention to certain parts of the screen with focus

Image caption: Call attention to certain parts of the screen with focus


You can add animations like chapters, intros and outros to your videos using your brand colors and fonts.

“Keeping things professional doesn’t require a design degree,” says Sarah. You can achieve all this by using video editing software with the right capabilities built in.

Titles, chapters and call-outs should be added when editing your video

Image caption: Titles, chapters and call-outs should be added when editing your video

Usually there will be an overall team editing process with a team to get your videos ready. You may want to use a Trello board for this part to keep track of your progress.

Post-production process

After you’ve made your video and edited it, there are still more steps you can take to make it even better.

Sarah says that captioning your videos will make them more accessible to audiences who may not be able hear the audio. The video script you prepared earlier should help with this part, since you have done most of the hard work already.

When posting your video, link to additional resources like other guides and documentation.

Sharing your video

Consider the purpose of your video and whether you want to build a community around it. This will define where you decide to ultimately share your video.

Ultimately, you can share the video with your users on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook or LinkedIn. You can also use a professional video-hosting service such as Wistia or Vimeo.

Budget considerations will need to be taken into account when choosing a platform, and remember that video hosting takes up a lot of bandwidth.

Analytics and review

Make sure you get a return on the time you’ve invested by looking at the analytics for your videos after you’ve launched them into the wild. Choose software that gives you the depth of insight you need.

The reach of your video includes videos, plays vs impression, Google Analytics metrics, and whether users have clicked on your call-to-action

Image caption: The reach of your video includes videos, plays vs impression, Google Analytics metrics, and whether users have clicked on your call-to-action

Sarah’s quickfire tips:

  • Regularly check your video’s performance, either weekly, fortnightly, or monthly.
  • Use metrics such as reach, engagement and return.
  • Interact with customer support to find out how well your videos are working in terms of ticket-deflection or if there has been a change in interactions.
  • Revisit your reasons for making the video such as reducing support costs or improving product adoption.

Final remarks

It’s important to remember that it will take roughly two production hours for every one minute of video you record – and that’s a lot! Although a video documentation strategy is more than worth it, you’ll need to be in it for the long-haul.

“I’ve only ever retired a handful of videos in my five years,” says Sarah, in reference to how videos can stand the test of time.

Follow Sarah on twitter @sarahleyh and watch her full talk on YouTube. One of the best parts of Sarah’s talk was the slides (with excellent transitions) so here’s a link to Sarah’s speakerdeck if you want to review them.

Our knowledge base software KnowledgeOwl enables technical writers to publish outstanding documentation. Sign up for a free trial. 

Photo credits: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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