What’s best for instructions — words or videos?

Emily Cotlier | January 31, 2019

‘I got this software and all the instructions were in a 90-minute video. I had to sit and watch the whole thing. I was so furious!’

That’s a surprising statement — especially when we often hear that software users prefer video instructions. When we heard a user say the opposite, we decided to do some research to find out what’s best for instructions: words or videos.

Often, the audience for instructions is users who:

So, for this blog post, we decided to focus on written and video instructions that are meant to stand alone. We didn’t consider workbooks that support in-person training, or videos that support an elearning course.

We found lots of conflicting opinions about writing versus video instructions. Read on to find out more about when we think video works best and when written instructions are more effective.

Video substitutes for a person or training session

Users appreciate video instructions that are:

Videos are helpful for tasks with a physical or visual element: graphic design, sewing, auto repair, and medical procedures. For example, this study from 2017 showed that patients learned to use asthma inhalers better from videos than from written instructions. They learned as well as if they’d received an in-person training session from a nurse.

That shows the key benefit of video. With its use of visuals, voice, and recorded action, it’s as close as a user can get to being shown a process in person.

The catch is that it takes time and resources to develop quality videos. And lots of tasks are not a good match for video. Tasks that don’t have a strong visual element, like many software and administration tasks, lead to dull videos. If a task presents many choices and options, it’s difficult to guide your user through them.

Writing supports an independent user and long-term learning

We asked our user who was angry about video documentation why they didn’t like it. They said they wanted instructions for the task they were doing, instead of being trapped in a 90-minute video. They also wanted to work onscreen while they referred to instructions.

Working and consulting documentation at the same time is difficult on a device. Image by CLS Research Office, CC A-SA.

Written instructions are a good solution for tasks like this. Written instructions have a greater range of benefits, especially for resource-challenged creators.

When users consult written documentation, it works. Software programmers, speaking for themselves, prefer books and written instructions. And research demonstrates that students learn as well, or better, from books than from screen and video content.

How to get the most out of your written instructions

To get the most benefit from written instructions:

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