Creating Better UX Research Videos

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
July 8, 2013

Sometimes, simply presenting UX research findings isn’t enough. Which do you think would be more interesting and impactful? A researcher’s saying:

  • “Most of the participants had difficulty finding the Check Out button.”
  • “Most of the participants had difficulty finding the Check Out button,” then playing a video showing five participants struggling to find the Check Out button and making sarcastic remarks about the Web site.

Video clips of participants facing problems and expressing their opinions are far more impactful and interesting than a researcher’s simply presenting findings. They help create empathy for users, make their problems more understandable, keep those problems in the forefront of stakeholders’ minds, and get them to take users’ problems more seriously.

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While presenting video clips is very effective, creating them can be very time consuming—and usually happens at a time when you are already busy analyzing data and creating deliverables under tight deadlines. However, if you’re well prepared, editing video clips can be a quick process that produces compelling videos. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, editing video clips can suck up precious time and produce boring videos that no one wants to sit through. Following the tips that I provide in this column will help you to create better research videos in less time.

Preparing for Editing

Just walking into the editing room without a plan is a recipe for disaster. When you’re already under a tight deadline, the last thing you want to do is to waste precious time editing video clips.

Mark Potential Clips as You Take Notes

As you take notes during your research sessions, use some type of simple notation to mark good quotations, examples, and problems that might work well in a video. For example, when a participant says something really profound, I write down as much as I can and put a Q or GQ—meaning quotation or good quotation—to the left of my note. When I see a good example of a problem or behavior, I write GE for good example.

If you have the luxury of having a second person act as note-taker, you can have that person log events using your logging software. Tools such as Morae Observer let you log events with various codes to indicate quotations, errors, or other items of interest. Each event gets logged at a particular point in the recording, making it easy to jump to that part of the recording when editing.

Do Your Analysis First

Analyze your findings first. As you type up your notes or simply look through your handwritten notes, highlight items that you might want to capture in video clips. As you note problems and issues, decide which ones are most important to show in your video.

Decide What You Want to Show

You’ll rarely have time to create video clips covering everything, and your audience won’t want to watch too many clips, so you’ll have to choose the best clips to show. The following types of things usually work well in video clips.


Occasionally, you’ll get a great quotation that seems to sum up an issue perfectly. Hearing something directly from participants is far more powerful than your trying to paraphrase it.

Issues That Are Difficult to Explain in Words

Some things are simply easier to show than to try to explain. If showing a video clip would help others to understand an issue better, create a video clip.

Controversial Issues

When an issue is controversial, sensitive, or you’re concerned that your audience won’t believe your data, it helps to have video as a backup. It’s hard to argue with something after seeing several participants experiencing the same problem. It also helps you to avoid their blaming the messenger.

Very Common Problems

Short clips of many participants experiencing the same problem or expressing the same opinion are very convincing.

Overall Opinions

Often at the end of a usability test session, you’ll ask participants for their overall opinions. When you summarize such opinions, they usually sound very generic. For example, “Most people liked the application.” It’s always more interesting for an audience to hear the participants’ opinions in their own words.

List the Video Clips to Create

List the video clips that you want to create, what you want to show in each clip, and which participant recordings to use. Put them in order by priority, so you focus on the most important clips first.

Set a time limit and keep track of the time you’ve spent editing video. This always seems to take more time than you think it will. Often, you’ll start editing and find that hours have passed before you realize it. Stop when you reach your time limit, and use only the video clips that you’ve created up to that point.

Editing Video Clips

Armed with a plan, you’re ready to enter the editing room and begin creating your video.

Find the Video Segments That You Need

The hardest and most time consuming part of editing is digging through hours of video to find the segments that you want to include. If you used logging software such as Morae Observer, it’s easy to find exact locations using the markers that you logged. But if you took handwritten notes, you’ll have to do a lot of watching and jumping around in the videos to find what you need.

It’s usually much easier to find things in videos of usability test sessions than in those for field studies. Because usability testing is normally structured by tasks that the participants perform and questions that the moderator asks in the same order during each session, you can find things by looking at the screens that the participants are viewing and knowing approximately when each task occurs.

Field studies are so unstructured and unpredictable that it’s much more difficult to find specific video segments. You can try to time-code your handwritten notes by noting the approximate time of each quotation or example, but that can be difficult to do. Often, it’s best just to use a location in your notes to narrow things down to the approximate segment, then listen from that point on to locate what you’re looking for.

Establish the Context

Set up the task or situation at the beginning of the video clip, so your audience will know what they’re seeing. Although you may explain each clip before you play it during your presentation, those who watch later won’t have that context. So the clip itself should make it clear what you’re showing.

Include the moderator’s question at the beginning of each video clip. For example, “How would you find out how to get to that restaurant?” Then show several participants trying to perform the task. But include the moderator’s question only at the beginning of the clip. It’s annoying to hear it repeated for each subsequent participant.

Start with the Best Video Segments

Put the best segments at the beginning of your videos. Your audience will pay most attention to the first part of each video clip. If your video starts strong, they’ll be more likely to keep watching. If they stop watching the video before it’s finished, at least they’ll have seen the most important parts.

Cut Out Unnecessary Extras

Participants rarely do things quickly and succinctly, and few people speak in perfect sound bites. It’s okay to cut out unimportant parts of a task, dead air, and ums and ahs to create a more concise video. Just be sure that your edits don’t misrepresent what participants did and said. For example, cutting out the boring middle of a task might make a task seem quicker and easier than it actually was. To avoid misleading your audience, you can draw attention to the fact that some time has elapsed by adding a white flash or an obvious dissolve as a transition between the edited segments. If you want to convey how long something actually took, without showing it, you can add an onscreen caption showing how much time has passed—for example, 37 seconds later.

Make the Clips Just Long Enough

Video clips should be no longer than necessary to get a point across. Three minutes is a good guideline for the maximum length of a video clip, but you shouldn’t stick to an arbitrary time limit. I once had a client who insisted that clips be no longer than 30 seconds. The most useful insights ended up on the cutting room floor because none of the participants were able to express anything meaningful in only 30 seconds.

More important than a time limit is how well a video flows, maintains interest, makes sense, and gets points across. Once your editing is finished, preview each edited video clip to see how well it flows. Does the order of participants work? Is anything repetitive? Is there anything unnecessary that you could cut? Get feedback from another project team member to help judge the video’s effectiveness, then make adjustments.

Video clips last only as long as you decide to continue playing them during a presentation. You can show the first minute or two, then stop the video if necessary, depending on audience interest. If you always put the best part of the video first, they’ll already have seen the most important part. Those who want to watch the full video can watch it later, on their own time.

Avoid Misrepresentation

With the wrong edits, it’s all too easy to misrepresent your findings. For example, even if you report that most participants had positive opinions about an application, if you show only videos of participants giving negative opinions, those may stand out so powerfully that you leave your audience with the impression that the application failed. So be careful to ensure that your video clips accurately represent participants’ overall behaviors and opinions.

Decide Whether to Show the Participants

During each session, if you recorded both the screen and the participant’s face, you can decide whether to use the picture-in-picture feature to show the participant’s face in a small window on top of the video of the screen. Seeing participants’ faces provides additional context about their emotions and reactions. It’s especially helpful when participants are simply talking about a user interface rather than performing actions.

When you need to protect participant privacy, you might not want to use the picture-in-picture feature. For example, if the participants are your client’s employees, they might not want to be so obviously identifiable in a video that could be available for anyone in their company to see.

Be Careful of Audio Levels

Some participants speak very softly, while others speak very loudly. Viewers might turn up the volume to hear a soft-talker only to be blown away by the loud-talker who comes up next. To avoid this, use the features in your editing software that let you normalize audio levels across all participants in the same video clip, raising or lowering the volume to keep it consistent throughout.

Don’t Get Too Fancy

You should aim to create interesting and even entertaining videos, but you’re not going for an academy award. No one expects UX research videos to be fancy, so don’t waste time with titles, transitions, or effects. In fact, getting too fancy can backfire. I was once on a project on which the team decided to create a very fancy video of their UX research. They spent an incredible amount of time editing the video, and it looked impressive, but it was poorly received by the clients because it was obvious that the team had spent too much time and money on it. They felt, but didn’t say, “This is what you decided to spend your time on? No wonder you’re so expensive.”

Get Help, If Necessary

If you’re too busy analyzing data and creating your deliverable, consider whether to have someone else edit the video clips for you. Video editing is a great job for a dependable intern or less busy coworker.

However, you must be extremely careful about who you give this job to. Sometimes, I think the adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” must have been coined by a researcher who gave the task of video editing to an intern. I’ve known too many people who have had to go back and re-edit videos or even start over from scratch after seeing the results of having someone else try to edit their videos.

No one can read your mind. So, if you do get help from someone else, make sure it’s someone who you can trust, and provide very specific instructions about what you want. Provide the following information to guide your video editor:

  • a list of the clips to create in priority order—that is, with the most important clips listed first. If your helper runs out of time, at least he’ll have completed the most important clips first.
  • overall themes, problems, or types of comments that you want to show in the clips
  • participant video files to use
  • approximate locations in each participant’s video file at which to find the segments to use in the clip. If you haven’t recorded actual time codes, you can provide quotations, actions, or screens for your helper to look for.

Finishing Your Video Clips

Once you finish your video clips, preview them one more time to ensure that they flow well and convey what you intend. Make any final edits, if necessary.

Render your final video clips in a common format that your audience will be able to play. Some common output formats that most people can play include AVI, WMV, and MP4.

Lastly, add links to your presentation that you can click to open up and play the video clips. Follow the same best practices as for links on Web sites. Make the links visible, clearly indicate that they will play a video, and ensure that they clearly state the topic of the video clip, so people can decide whether to watch them.

Showing Your Video Clips

Remember, you don’t have to show all of your video clips during your presentation. Playing too many clips can become tedious. People who want to see more can always watch additional clips later, on their own. Watch the reactions of your audience as you play a clip to determine whether they’re still interested and feeling entertained or have become bored.


Following these tips will help you to create more interesting and impactful video clips. Most people enjoy watching good videos, and some look forward to them as the highlight of UX research presentations. Getting people to look forward to your presentations, to pay attention, and to take away vivid memories of your findings is always a good thing. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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