Making good how-to content is incredibly difficult, and I hate it.
If you’re crafting a pure explanation — say, explaining what makes a car go — your job is not to make sure your audience groks every little detail of what all the thousands of individual pieces do. Your job is to illuminate some basic principles to form a complete thought. You go only as deep as you need to, and you can use all the metaphors and generalizations you like. It’s a delight.
If your subject is “How to fix your car,” on the other hand, you’ve set out to cover every step involved in fixing every possible problem (at least if you’re being thorough). Skip a crucial step, and your guide is potentially useless to your audience. When you’re teaching something in person, your audience will let you know when you missed something. When you’re making how-to content — articles, video, comics — it’s on you to cover just about everything somebody might need.
So, I hate making how-to stuff, and I respect people who take on such a daring mission with good intentions. Which is all a long preamble to congratulating Howcast on their launch today.
The new site, run by ex-Googlers, is basically a warehouse of short how-to videos. As the site’s “What is Howcast” video explains, anybody can start a “Wiki guide,” which “members of the Howcast network” may turn into short video pieces. Techcrunch’s post sheds a little more light:
Audience members can also look at upcoming scripts and improve them or write their own in a guided wiki portion of the site that follows the Howcast script template (introduction, instructions, tips, end with a fact). The script is then approved by Howcast, a voiceover is recorded, and Howcast farms out the production to young film school students and graduates. They get $50 for each video plus a 50/50 rev-share from any advertising. Anyone can also upload their own instructional videos to the site without going through this process.
I’ve only sampled a few videos so far, but I see some features I like. Online video is a logical choice for how-to because it lends itself to thorough demonstrations, but it’s also frustratingly linear. When you need to backtrack for a second to check something, it’s much more of a pain to rewind than to scan up a page of text and diagrams. Howcast has done a good job addressing this. Every video comes with a text-and-picture summary, a transcript, a list of tools and supplies you’ll need, and marker points for where each step appears in the video. Not bad.
Nice Web-1.0 name too. Here’s what the page looked like way back in 1999.