Are Videos the same as Writing Stuff Down?

Posted by bob on March 14, 2019


If you record a video of something, does that rise to the standard of Write Stuff Down or Document or Die?

Like many complex questions, the answer to this one is definitely YES—and also NO. Let’s explore both aspects.

I have recently enjoyed the benefit of several folks who shared detailed videos showing how they had repaired various items. Sometimes these are videos of a work environment, and sometimes the people are simply capturing what they do for fun or self-education.

I learned how to do some home plumbing repairs by watching videos on YouTube. I was able to duplicate most of the steps in my own repair. Yes, there were some minor differences in the problems presented by the particular installation, but overall I would have to say that the videos were extremely helpful in preparing to do the work. (It did not hurt that I had previously collected the various tools and parts I would need before starting the project.)

In An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems, I describe a situation where two engineering teams were struggling with clearly communicating a failure that one team had seen and that the other team was unable to reproduce. The team which could reproduce the failure finally sent an extremely short video demonstrating the steps they took when starting up the system and showing the failure. The second team immediately recognized the source of the miscommunication: they had been told that the problem existing at output “A” but the video clearly showed that the first team was connecting to output “B”. Once they understood the (very minor) naming error, the second team was able to quickly reproduce and debug the failure. This is a good example of where video can quickly communicate concepts or even wording mistakes that would otherwise go unnoticed.

The NO to using video to Write Stuff Down exists mostly when it is your ONLY method of documenting something. For example, if you are selling a complex consumer electronics product, a video might be helpful to teach and explain unpacking or initial setup. But videos should never be assumed to completely replace clear user manuals or other written documents.

A significant weakness of relying on video-only documentation is that it always requires some technological support to view. Online videos which cannot be easily downloaded require that the streaming source and general internet connectivity are all working at the time and place where you wish to view them. YouTube is certainly quite reliable, but not all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are equally dependable. Some YouTube channels are heavily infested with advertising in addition to the content you are seeking. This is in contrast to books or printed datasheets or application notes, which can be read pretty much anywhere there is some light.

One of the biggest weaknesses plaguing video is an inability to have a complete index to the content, embedded within or even stored external to the video. This means that if you want to see only the section where the presenter talks about carburetors (during a complete engine teardown and repair video) then you might be forced to sit through hours of unnecessary material. Likewise, some critical piece of information about carburetors might be buried within a different section of the presentation. Text documents allow you to search and scan to find the information you are seeking.  While it is possible to manually create such indexes, it seems that most presenters do not do this.

On the other hand, videos inherently allow a clever form of internal self-correction. One of my favorite creators on YouTube is Dave Jones, of EEVBlog. I have noticed that occasionally, Dave will make a verbal statement that he later feels was inaccurate, misleading, or perhaps simply dyslexic. If he accidentally stated in the audio track that a given component was a 1N4841 and then later realizes that he meant 1N4148, he might add a text overlay (caption) within the video, writing, “I meant to say 1N4148.”  This is an extremely effective means to fix an otherwise excellent presentation, without needing to completely re-record or edit using out-of-sequence material.

Just as an annotated photograph can be far more powerful than a plain image, adding annotations within video can make them incredibly more useful than simply displaying a direct-from-camera video capture.  Dave Jones demonstrated this skill in his amazing EEVBlog 1109. I am confident that it took a lot of extra time and effort to complete that video, but the result is truly spectacular.

One additional benefit of video is the ability to convey emotion or to motivate an audience.

In summary, video is certainly one form of documentation. Please take advantage of this marvelous technological tool where it is useful and appropriate. But be sure that you don’t become overly reliant on only using video (or audio). Humans previously used dramatic presentations (like plays or oral recitations) to convey important stories. Writing and reading allow us to transmit concepts and histories across great distances and time.

Here is a question: would you rather receive a Bill-of-Materials (BoM) as a 3 hour audio book or as a detailed spreadsheet?  Yes, the spreadsheet requires slightly more technology to view, but a printed version can be used anywhere.

Now get back out there, and go make something awesome.