Telling stories about screens for screens

On making videos about software

Matthew Latkiewicz
Mar 6, 2014 · 7 min read

One of the most challenging aspects of making videos for a software company is that your subject—the software you are trying to sell, market, explain—already exists on a screen. You are making a story about a screen for a screen in other words. It already sounds unappealing.

The issue is at least twofold:

  • Software is not cinematic. It may be useful, delightful, beautiful even, but software doesn’t contain any of the qualities that make for immediately interesting visuals: light, motion, depth, texture. We joke on the video team at Zendesk that the video people at Nike have the easiest job in the world because filming people doing sports in the rain always looks cool. Filming someone using a computer — not so much.
  • Software is not human. It may help humans, but on its own, software has no drama, emotion, motivation. It is hard to make a story out of something that has no motivation. It is like making a video about hammers, except that at least hammers smash stuff, and smashing stuff looks cool.

To deal with these challenges, videomakers—including those of us here at Zendesk—employ a number of techniques for showing software on screen. (Or, rather, showing the software screen on screen. You see how troublesome this gets.) No technique is perfect; each comes with its pros and cons. The question is which technique best fits the story and software at hand.

AND SO: Some techniques for showing software in videos & some thoughts about those techniques

1. Show the software in real-life on the device

Facebook does a nice job showing off their new Paper app by showing it in the hands of normal (if not slightly better looking than the rest of us) Facebook users. It places the software in a real-life context and gives the viewer a sense of how the app might fit into their lives.

Pros: This technique can effectively show the software through the lives of those who use it. It focuses us on the overall experience and ideal use-case of the software rather than on features, features, features. It allows the software to piggy-back on the emotion of the humans using the software.

Cons: People on phones and computers look like people on phones and computers. And screens look like screens. So the visuals can have a lot of sameness—dudes on phones—no matter if they are looking at sonogram images or sending a text. Also, watching people tap away on phones has the tendency to minimize the drama of their lives rather than build off of it (no matter how shallow the depth of field is).

2. Show life through the software

Google has used this technique a few times and it has been really effective I think. Rather than put the camera in the world of a person using their software, they put the camera basically inside the software and show the people through it. In this example, we watch the relationship of a father and daughter away at college through their interactions on Google Hangouts.

Pros: This technique really works when the particular software supports human interaction or activity with emotion in it. And because you only see the human lives through the software, it feels like an enhancement rather than some distraction.

Cons: Requires a platform that can actually support a human story and accurately stand-in for human intention. It’s one thing to watch screen with a chat between a father and daughter; it’s another to watch a CPA enter numbers in Excel.

3. Just show the software and what it does

This strategy is like the first-person shooter version of software videos. Show the software as if the viewer were the one using it, and don’t put anything in between them.

Squarespace shows off their platform’s capabilities in their demo video, using a combination of straight screencast and animation. There’s no human story at all, just the software doing what it does.

And I couldn’t resist also showing iA Writer’s demo video, one of my favorites. In it, the software itself becomes a character, waging war on Microsoft Word and speaking directly to the viewer through its UI.

Pros: This technique works well if your software has strong visual aspects which can be communicated clearly and simply. In the case of Squarespace, the drag-and-drop UI has a simple visual “before and after”: you drag a piece of text across the screen and it lands somewhere else. With iA Writer, the UI itself takes a strong visual position: no clutter, no distractions, no preferences! Showing the UI on its own makes sense.

Cons: Most software UI is not that visually compelling or clear. The intentions of the user get buried under the complexity of the tool, and watching a mouse float around and click on links is about as exciting as mousing around clicking on links.

4. Illustrate the software in a stripped down, simple way

The story and software of Yelp is boiled down and explained in detail by famed software video makers Epipheo. They became known for this style in which the software is radically simplified into somewhat crude animation, taking the focus off the UI and instead heavily explaining what the software is actually for.

Pros: This technique focuses on explaining the software over showing it or providing an emotional attachment to it. By stripping the software down, it tries to get at the idea behind the software. It’s like the video version of an elevator pitch, which is the right fit for software that can’t reasonably go for the heart strings, but which has a value that really hits home when a viewer gets it.

Cons: You can totally feel like you are in an elevator getting pitched by these videos. Explanations are great and all, but they can also be a drag when the people doing the explaining doesn’t understand that you are busy and you were really hoping to just ride the elevator. And while cute illustrations are cute, they don’t necessarily make your software “more fun.”

5. Animate the software UI itself into real life

Because we now have the glory of After-Effects, it has become increasingly possible to combine worlds. We can take the actual software interface and place it in the world of the user but not inside the device! This is the current cool kid of software videos, focusing on both software UI and human stories.

Our pal Adam Lisagor’s production company made this video for accounting software Xero. The software populates the main character’s world so we get a sense of the product, but the character’s attention stays squarely on us.

Pros: This technique manages to show the software without actually leaving the world of the humans and entering the world of the devices (as we saw in the Paper video above). It has recently made its way into narrative storytelling—the BBC show Sherlock and the Netflix series House of Cards use this style of animation to show text messages between characters without having to cut to a close up of the phone. It’s great for products which have a nice UI (obviously).

Cons: Because this style looks cool, it can very easily be chosen for style’s sake. This isn’t a criticism I guess, so much as it is a reminder that making something which looks cool doesn’t necessarily make an effective video.

Programming note: we used this hybrid style here at Zendesk for our demo video:

6. Don’t show the software at all

Lastly, you can choose to not show the software at all. Expedia made this commercial about a family on vacation.

Pros: The focus is squarely on humans and what humans will get out of using the technology. This allows the software to simply align itself with a feeling or idea rather than get bogged down in how it works or what it looks like. In Expedia’s case, they associated their software with “meaningful vacation,” which is something most of us can get behind.

Cons: For the right product and viewing platform, avoiding the software entirely can work because the association you want to make—i.e. meaningful vacation—can be simply told in a video. But not all software has such an emotional/visual association; or the association itself might not really be that powerful. And it’s limited obviously. For a viewer that is comparing software options, for instance, not being able to see the UI isn’t very helpful.

The exciting thing about videomaking for software is that none of these techniques are stable or limited. Our abilities change as the technology and strategies evolve. After Effects gave us a new world of motion graphics, just as screen capture tools made it possible for any software developer to make demo videos. As videomakers trying to make stories about software (screens on screens), we have an obligation to invent whole new ways of doing it, just as we have a responsibility to tell the most interesting/effective stories we can.

All of this will change, of course, when software takes over our brain and we experience all images as memories like in the movie Strange Days. Have you ever jacked in? Have you ever wire tripped?

    Matthew Latkiewicz

    Written by

    Jack of some trades: Run video @zendesk.

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