Use a screen recorder to create better documentation

Some of us learn much better by example. Using a screen recorder to produce training videos can make your help desk available "on demand!"

Like most of you, I rely on TechRepublic for an overview of tools and tips that will make my job easier. While the tool I'm going to recommend today has been discussed on TR before, I think it's worth highlighting again, mostly because it has been so useful to me lately. I am nothing if not self-involved.

A big part of the work that I do for our help desk involves developing documentation. This can be an arduous process, as you probably know. Noting down every step of a procedure—even one you know by heart—can be time consuming, and stopping to take illustrative screen shots can make the process run even longer. Well, no more doing things the hard way, thanks to a new tool in my support kit.

It all started with a project for our organizational web site. We conduct some training sessions for teachers and principals as part of the promotion of our research work. In an effort to make sure that training will be available to as many people as possible, we decided to distribute our presentation materials online in the form of a streaming video.

We've never had the need for a lot of multimedia production in the past and we don't have video recording equipment on hand, so recording the real seminar wasn't an option. I had heard of a software utility called Camtasia that could plug into PowerPoint and record presentations with an accompanying audio track. We purchased a software license for Camtasia and used a USB headset to record one of our researchers narrating our presentation for educators, and the software rendered the screen recording into Shockwave video that was easy to attach to our site. Problem solved.

Since using Camtasia with PowerPoint was so easy, I decided to see what other uses we might have for the program. It turns out that the recording tools in Camtasia work just as easily for recording procedures in Windows applications and menus. I realized that I had just discovered the tool that would make my documentation production workflow much less painful.

Now, when I have to document something for my users that might be a little difficult, I can easily create and narrate a video demonstrating the process. That video then goes on our intranet. A video demonstrating how to use our VPN client to connect their off-campus computers to our network should keep me from having to directly support anyone's home machine.

Even for those cases where a demo video might be overkill, Camtasia has proven to be useful. If I need to develop a "flat" documentation of a procedure, I can use Camtasia to record myself working through the steps. Then, I grab individual frames out of the recorded video and paste them into my procedural file.

Good documentation makes the job of computer support that much easier. Camtasia has made producing documentation easier for me.

Since I also have a love of open source and free tools, I want to point out that you can experiment with screen recording without having to resort to licensing Camtasia. There's a project for Windows called CamStudio that offers a lot of the same features. I won't be trading in Camtasia because it offers more video encoding options and its PowerPoint plug-in makes it easier to use if you plan to record a lot of presentations.

Whichever application you choose, though, you can't go wrong by adding a screen recorder to your software tool kit.

For previous discussions of screen recording and Camtasia on TR look here and here.