Choosing a Screencasting Tool

Checklist of key criteria for selecting a tool to create interactive software demos (so-called screencasts). Screencasts are not only used on web sites but increasingly also as standalone tutorials or embedded within online help files and other sorts of software documentation.

Theoretically, you can create interactive software demos (screencasts) with any general-purpose Flash editor. Using dedicated screencasting software, however, is much more efficient. A screencasting tool enables you to record your actions directly while you perform them within the demonstrated application. After the recording, you can add captions and interactive elements with a click of a few buttons. You don’t have to be a Flash expert, and you don’t have to know Action Script.

To create a small screencast, even most low-cost screencasting tools are adequate. However, when it comes to more professional and strategic requirements, there are big differences. For example, not all tools let you translate a screencast into foreign languages, or update an existing screencast when there has been a new release of the demonstrated software. The following checklist can help you not to miss an important requirement when choosing a screencasting program.

Note: You can find a list of tools under Screencasting Tools.

When evaluating tools for screencasting, it’s important to understand that there are two general groups of tools:

The group of frame-based tools creates animations based on a few static images (“frames” or “slides”). A new frame or slide is only created when something new actually took place in the software (when a new window has opened, for example). The mouse cursor isn’t visible in the frames. Movements of the mouse and user inputs are simulated separately by the tool.
The group of full-motion-based tools records a “genuine” movie. These tools generate images at about 30 frames per second, regardless of what’s actually happening on the screen. Usually, the mouse cursor will be visible in all of these frames.

Both groups have specific advantages and disadvantages. Frame-based tools are pushed to their limits when it comes to recording dynamic processes. Example: Imagine that you want to record how you draw a shape in a drawing program with the paintbrush tool. In this case, you’re likely to have just the start (the empty workspace) and the end (the finished shape) in your movie, as most frame-based tools only create a new frame when the mouse button is pressed or released. The images for the steps in between (the dragging operation with the mouse) will be missing and can’t be interpolated later on.

The big advantage of frame-based recordings, however, is that significantly fewer individual images are created. This makes the subsequent post-processing considerably simpler, and even makes it possible to replace individual frames later on without having to record the entire movie all over again. Also, you can subsequently change the cursor paths. This is an advantage that can hardly be underestimated, because it’s rare that a recording turns out to be perfect the first time. While recording a full motion movie, the person guiding the operations must be constantly careful to move the cursor with smooth movements, simultaneously without covering any of the important contents on screen. Thus, the visual impression achieved will noticeably depend on the skills of the person creating the recording.

The trend goes toward combining the best of the two worlds: In the standard case, the recordings are frame-based, but when there’s a drag & drop action (or upon manual request), a full-motion-based recording begins.

Which recording methods are possible? Frame-based recording, full-motion-based recording, or both?
Can you also create demos that are based on imported, static screenshots? This is especially helpful when the software is still under development.
Can you import externally created videos as well? This is important if, in addition to the interaction with the software, you also want to show what’s to be done with some specific hardware.
What objects (such as texts or arrows) can you insert?
Can you create formatting templates and change the design of callouts, arrows, etc.?
How extensive are the animation options?
Can you incorporate interactive buttons and stop points into the demo to prevent the demo from running too quickly for viewers who are slow readers?
Can you add a quiz to test what has been learned?
Can you port the results of a quiz to a learning management system (LMS)?
How precisely and how easily can you control the timing of individual objects?
How well and at what level can you insert and edit audio files?
What output formats are supported?
Can you customize the appearance of the viewer?
Is it possible to add a navigation menu so that viewers can jump from one scene to another?

When a product undergoes changes, all that needs to be done in the case of text-based documentation is to modify the texts and maybe replace some individual images. In the case of multimedia contents, this becomes several times more time-consuming: If the crucial spots can’t be edited later on, you’ll have to recreate entire scenes, including the timing, animation, and interaction. Therefore, in the case of multimedia content, the question of how easily existing content can be changed is even more important than with conventional documentation.

Can you delete or add individual sequences? What happens to the mouse cursor in this case? Is it possible to achieve seamless integration with the preceding scene and with the subsequent scene?
Is it possible to replace individual screenshots?
Is it possible to edit the mouse paths?
Is it possible to make changes later on to the design (for example, to unify the style of callouts)?
Here again, this is important: Is it possible to replace individual screenshots?
Is it possible to replace the audio as well?
Can you export the text contained as a file (preferably in XML), translate it externally, and then reimport it after translation?
Is the software Unicode-compatible, if required?

Finally, of course, it’s also crucial how easy you find it to work with the software. Only if you really feel comfortable with the software will you be able to produce top-quality results.

Is there some good documentation?
Do you need much training, or can you get started immediately?
What’s your personal preference?

Aside from the tool’s set of features, and its performance and usability, you should also take into account the following worst-case scenarios:

What happens if the manufacturer of the tool discontinues the product or ceases operations? Does your tool require a server run by the manufacturer? Does your tool require activation when installed on a new computer? If any of these scenarios occur, could you continue to use the tool for at least a limited amount of time?
How easily can you migrate your source files when you have to (or want to) switch to another tool in the future? Does the tool use open formats to store its data?

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This page was last updated 06/2015


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