Tips for Creating Great Screencast Recordings
As a UX team, we're always trying to improve the work we do to support our customers. Video has been a big part of that from the beginning: Peldi wrote his tips at the end of 2008!
Video is a resource we provide in Tech Support and in our regular release announcements. Screencasting technique is one thing we continually improve, so when Leon and I were recently asked to create online courses on Skillshare and Udemy, we took the opportunity to go a little deeper into expanding our recording knowledge so we could deliver higher quality video.
Here's an example of a video we recently produced, with help from Skillshare.
In this article, I'll share tips for getting the best out of your screencasts. Many of the tips are aimed at those looking to record multi-video courses on a Mac, but you can apply most of the advice to shorter recordings and on Windows. I've gathered these pointers from articles over the years, as well as from the great support team at Skillshare.
Screencasting for courses with multiple lessons was something that was new to me. We typically do short recordings for intro videos, demos, and tutorials. They're typically a single video and are relatively short. Often times they're designed to be digestible in under a few minutes. A class was a different kind of challenge, as its goals are to teach a new user a lot over the course of many different videos organized around building up skills they need to produce the desired outcome—create a product's user interface deliverable.
I got a lot of good advice from the team at Skillshare about how to approach the task, most of which I applied in the recordings. If you're interested in screencasting for online courses, they offer a free class, "Teach a Skillshare Class: Screencasting." It's very useful if your goal is to record an online course for their platform.
Now, on to the tips!
Organizing your Content
1) Start with an outline and break it down into smaller pieces.
The first task at the outset is to describe what the product is. I defined who my audience is, and what I expect them to get out of the course. This started as a discussion about product development and trying to understand how the video could frame the course in terms of real needs. This turned into the course description, which became the mission for the video.
Here's the description I used for the course.
Learn how to successfully create wireframes for early stage product design with interaction designer Michael Angeles, as he shows how to use Balsamiq Mockups to design interfaces with product teams. Balsamiq runs on the desktop or in a web app, and also as a plugin for Google Drive, Confluence and JIRA.
In this 51 minute class, you'll see how concept selection can be tackled with low-fidelity wireframes, learn to create rough sketches to explore ideas, and then transform them into interaction design solutions that can be refined quickly, and polished for presentation. The class is perfect for product managers, developers, and those new to designing with wireframes. No prior knowledge or experience with interface design is required. By the end, you'll be able to present wireframes for a finished product idea and demonstrate a clickable prototype.
After nailing down this summary, I started with Skillshare's template, breaking down what I wanted to teach in the course into these main sections: Intro, Key Concepts, Project, Summary. Sections can have multiple units or videos.
The idea is to start with the broad sections that you want to cover, and then work from that to define what you'll show in each section. My outline consisted of an introductory lesson at the beginning, a short summary at the end, and in the middle were 2 large sections for what I intended to teach. As I worked on an outline, I made guesses at how long it would take to cover a part. I was able to see where I could break the topics up into smaller videos from this, and broke parts up when my guesstimate was longer than 7 minutes.
I then added more detailed notes to my outline about key things I wanted to show and say, and in some cases, intro/summary messages that I thought would help. More on that in the tips.
As with designing a product, organizing in the planning phase also provided a very good opportunity to see what could be eliminated and edited down.
2) Introduce the topic and set expectations.
Tell the audience a few key things about the video.
- Who is the course designed for? For example, talk about roles, types of needs of the person who will learn from this instruction, etc.
- What can viewers expect to learn? If this is for a course, talk about what skills they'll acquire, what types of things they'll be able to create (show examples!).
- How long will the course take?
3) Do a short intro in each section.
If this is a multi-video course, a sentence or two to introduce each video is helpful. You can use a title slide along with a little overview of the topic, feature, procedure, etc. that you plan to show.
4) Add transitions at the end of each unit.
Transitions are short summaries to remind what was covered and introduce what's next. This was a great tip from Skillshare and it's something you may not notice when you take online courses, but it really helps to cement what the watcher just viewed into their mind, and give them a sense of continuity through the process.
For the wireframing course, I was trying to establish a process or way of thinking about discrete tasks, and how to get from one task to the next.
5) Vary the video content.
This was another great Skillshare tip. Their teacher's outline suggests using different types of video styles throughout your recordings for a course. Anything you can do to mix it up makes it feel more engaging.
For instance, you can show some video where you're directly talking to the camera. Other times, you'll talk over demos. You can also change the pace now and then. You could go slow after a section when the pace has been very packed with information. Where a natural break or change in topic occurs can be a good place to insert a pace-change.
6) Don't rush through the screen recordings.
The one regret that I have is that I may have covered too much and went too fast in parts of my course. If you find that you're having to rush to complete recordings, reduce what you're going to cover, or break it up into even more smaller pieces so you can take your time. If people are using your video to learn something completely new, they'll want you to go slow enough for them to see what you're doing and then try on their own.
1) Choosing screen recording software.
We use a few different tools for recording the screen on our Macs. The simplest tool is Quicktime, but editing is limited with that tool, so you won't be able to easily add titles, transitions, and do complex editing. We tend to use Screenflow ($99) because it gives us some easy to use editing tools for these needs.
2) Set up your screen.
What screen resolution do you plan to record? For HD video, you want to record at a 16:9 aspect ratio. Aspect ratio is the proportion of width to height. Making sure your video is recorded at the right HD aspect ratio will prevent having pillar boxes, the black bars that are shown on the sides of video if it doesn't fit into an HD-proportioned video player.
A common video resolution is 720p (1,280px wide × 720px tall). I created a template file to re-use when starting each video. Now to make things easier, you can set your computer display resolution.
On a Mac you'll go to System Preferences > Display. You want to select the "Scaled" option. You can choose any of the 16:9 options that you see. I record our video at 1280 x 720 and set my display resolution to match so that the graphics are sharp. On my 13" Macbook retina screen, I choose the closest scaled option of 1280 x 800px This means that the bottom 80px of my recording may be cropped, so that's something to be aware of as you're recording.
3) Create a template.
Once I have my display set, I create a new document in my Screenflow software and set the size of the recording to 1280x720px. I save that to use as a template. Later I can set the defaults for elements I'll re-use, like callouts.
4) Prepare your desktop.
Turn off notifications. On a Mac, you can CMD click the Notifications icon in the upper right of your menubar.
Clear off your desktop of files and icons that can be a distraction and pick a neutral desktop wallpaper. Alternatively, you can use a utility like Backdrop for the Mac that will hide the content of your desktop.
If you have a crazy menubar, you may want to turn off some of the icons to remove distractions there. I use a utility called Bartender to just hide them under a hidden menubar.
5) Use titles, text captions, and callouts.
Title Screens are useful not only to introduce a video, but as text elements to introduce parts of a multi-part video series.
Captions are useful when we want to re-iterate what's happening on the screen. This can a good idea for new users who aren't familiar with terminology you may be using, or if you just want to point out something of particular importance that you may be doing in your screencast. In our course, I also use this opportunity to show things like alternative ways of performing the task, like keyboard shortcuts or where to find the action in an alternate menu.
6) To be consistent with visual elements, create a style guide.
Create a style guide for yourself. We tend to go light on internal documentation, so a single page in a wiki that defines how we will use text elements, graphics, and transitions will goes a long way in ensuring some consistency in our presentation. We created a style guide for the following.
For each type of graphic you'll use (titles, captions, and callouts) define the font, font weight, text color, background color and opacity, and position on the screen. For transitions, when changing from one clip to the next, we simply define the timing and easing we want the software to use when we add a transition.
Audio Recording Tips
1) Get clean audio in.
Consider using a decent dynamic microphone. I used a Rode Podcaster USB Dynamic microphone ($230), and recorded directly into Screenflow for the course units, and into Logic Pro for the Intro video. iPhone headphones also work pretty well if you can't buy a USB mic. Just be sure to use a clip to isolate the mic so that it won't create noise by rubbing against your shirt.
2) Reduce noise.
A boom arm with a pop screen really works well to reduce noise, and anything you can do to remove background noise from the original recording will save you pain later. Ideally you can put a sign on the door when you're recording to reduce environmental noise, and turn off notifications on your phone, for instance. I use a Microphone Suspension Boom Scissor Arm Stand that attaches to my desk, and attach a Dragonpad pop filter to that. Runs about $25 for both.
The boom arm helps to reduce noise that your mic might pick up from vibrations like tapping the table, for instance. It also makes the mic highly positionable.
I position the microphone slightly at an angle below my mouth and talk outward to help reduce plosive sounds, which are already reduced by having the pop filter. Words starting with P and B sounds tend to pop and spike in your audio recording, which can be very loud to a listener, so the pop filter keeps them controlled.
3) Record screen first, record voiceovers second.
This helps to get fewer "ums" and "uhs." They can be very difficult to remove afterwards, so get good audio in. Record the screencast, watch the video once, do a voiceover recording in one take, starting over in parts when needed and edit.
4) Warm up your voice.
I learned this after hearing my voice and hating it. Voiceover tutorials talk about this a lot. I'll spare you the Googling and just tell you what I do.
Drink water before voiceover recordings to avoid dry mouth sounds. Warm up your voice, lips and tongue before voiceover recordings by making faces to stretch out your mouth and utter a few "la la la la la's" out loud. You'll feel like a fool, but believe me, both things help.
5) Clean up your audio.
Ideally you're recording in a noise-free environment and isolating your mic from noise using gear like a boom stand. Background noise can be unavoidable, whether it's because you're recording in a city with street noise, or because you're recording at home like me and the sound of a computer fan or refrigerator kicks in. You can't prevent all that noise, so you might have to use some noise reduction, but aim for a clean background, and if you use background noise reduction, use it carefully. "Ducking" and the coming and going of noise can be a distraction.
In the past, I've surrounded my mic inside a box to create a quick and dirty isolation shield to prevent noise. You can buy these as well. Search for "microphone acoustic enclosure" or "microphone isolation shield" if you want to go that route.
If your voice recordings sound really dry and clean, it can also help to add some slight reverb, which will make your vocal recording sound like it's coming from inside a room where sound typically lingers slightly as it reflects in a room.
In Screenflow I just select the audio inspector, check the Effect checkbox and add a little "Plate" reverb. For recording in Logic Pro X, I like the Library presets for Voice > Natural Vocal. I adjust the Plate Reverb send until it sounds natural without being over the top.
Screencast recording can be a time consuming task if you do them often, but to us video demonstration is invaluable for classes, tutorials, and even in our case for feature announcements. Seeing and showing is usually better than simply telling, so we try to do both.
We'll keep trying to improve how we do this to help our customers. Maybe this set of tips will help if anyone in our community is thinking about doing the same or looking for ways to improve their own screencasting technique. If you have tips you'd like to share, please add them to our comments below!