Abacus Updates

5 Tips for Making DIY Product Videos

A few lessons I learned creating a recent set of Abacus product demonstration videos.

Here’s the thing about making videos of your software: if your company has a great Product & Engineering team, the hardest part has been done for you. The user interaction already looks great and feels smooth to the viewer. It needs relatively little to be showcased well.

Knowing that Abacus was indeed a visually elegant, user-friendly solution, I set out a few weeks ago to create a suite of videos that showed it off to the world. What followed was a period of trial and error. I had never made product videos before, so figuring out how to put them together involved a learning curve that was, at times, frustrating. Ultimately, though, I’m happy with the way they came out.

If you’re thinking about making your own DIY product videos, here are a few tips and tricks I learned along the way:

Write product videos to showcase value

Abacus is a multi-faceted piece of software built to accommodate many diverse approaches to expense reporting. There’s no one angle from which to start in on the product, so members of our Sales and Marketing teams helped me get a sense of the features people most frequently want to see.

Requests in hand, I spent time writing exactly what needed to be said about each feature. I wanted to be precise in how I blended their values and use cases with a snapshot of how they worked. That way, viewers could get familiar with the reason and purpose of a feature quickly, while seeing with their own eyes how easily the product met that use case.

This video demonstrates how Auto-Approval works, but also includes a value statement about why Admins don’t need to waste time reviewing insignificant expenses.

The equipment you have is fine, with one exception

As long as you have some baseline skills and software, your video will look fine with a smartphone camera and your computer’s pre-loaded tools. The screenshot videos in this post come from my Mac’s default QuickTime screen capture, which doesn’t have great resolution, but gets the job done.

For live action, skip the SLRs and just grab the nearest mobile phone. Film director Steven Soderbergh actually prefers to use smartphones because they’re portable, they keep everything in focus, and they can shoot in 4K—and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. The video below was shot on an iPhone XS, and while the stabilization and lighting weren’t great, we were able to get the whole shoot done in about 20 minutes with minimal hassle.

Pro Tip: Colleagues make the best on-screen talent. It makes the video a team endeavor and they need less coaching than someone unfamiliar with the product. Lauren Sarfati here is our Demand Gen Manager, and the input from her and our Visual Designer Annie Dailey was invaluable in getting these shots.

There is, however, one piece of equipment you can’t skimp on: microphones.

Nothing gives away low production value like bad audio. Unfortunately, the microphonic components on your computer, phone, and headphones have not kept up with their visual counterparts. We tried to record voiceover using different phones’ and laptops’ stock audio inputs, but all of it sounded the way photos used to look on your old Razr flip phone.

Do yourself a favor and get a good mic—and while you’re at it, an interface that lets you control your recording levels. Lastly, you need a pop filter. Any decent mic will boom out on plosives. U.S. obscenity law prohibits me from showing you what we rigged up as a makeshift pop filter, but suffice to say that our coffee filter paper-clipped inside a pasta strainer drew some looks in the office.

Learn to use real video editing software

I’m not saying iMovie isn’t “real,” but it is very limited. It was more than serviceable for our team videos, but these product videos needed more complex fades, effects, footage splicing, and timing.

Since our team uses Adobe Creative Cloud, I bit the bullet and learned Premiere Pro. YouTube was an endlessly helpful resource, and with just a little bit of orientation, the software began to reveal itself. I haven’t remotely scratched the surface of Premiere’s capabilities, but it was only by upgrading editing software that I was able to blend in the mobile and desktop footage you see here.

Work to make the product visually intelligible

One area I would love to improve on next time is making the product usage a little easier to follow.

In the video below, I’m demonstrating Export Builder, which is a feature that vastly simplifies a formerly complex workflow. Unfortunately, the untrained eye might see 30 seconds of interaction with Export Builder and still be confused. There’s a lot of clicking and copy to read in not a lot of time.

Pro tip: Screen-capture the smallest window possible so your video can display copy and graphics as large as possible.

We ultimately resolved to keep the videos short rather than make them as understandable as they could be, which would have resulted in a longer, slower tour of the product. I’m open to any suggestions on how to improve the intelligibility of these demo videos (comment below!) but ultimately, choosing between brevity and explication felt like an immutable tradeoff.

Don’t publish your rough drafts

Like any skill, video editing improves with practice. I started this project with the editing skills of a rank amateur and ended, valiantly, as a rank amateur much more confident in his ability.

One of the best things to happen in between seemed, at the time, like a setback. I had finished five of these videos when our Product team announced that they were about to deploy a long-awaited redesign of the Expense Policy page. This was a positive change that was going to make Abacus more scalable and user-friendly, but to me, all it meant was having to redo what I thought I’d finished.

The new Expense Policy page forced me to redo everything from the 0:20 mark on.

Until I actually made the new videos. Once I dug in, it was clear the new output was better than the old. I was much better at planning out user flows, creating the screenshots, matching the voiceover, and stitching the footage together. Unbeknownst to me, my first videos were actually rough drafts that served to improve the final products—hopefully to be eclipsed in turn by future videos.

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