Creating Consistent Content in Remote Teams

21 May
May 21, 2013

Here’s what I learned about remote content production.

I’ve worked with Envato for four years and done the most challenging, inspiring work in my entire career—all while being remote. I’m the biggest proponent of remote work and collaborating on remote teams that you’ll find. I believe it’s a viable and growing way to get work done, by the best people for the job, anywhere.

But 18 months ago, when a Tuts+ manager approached me to discuss this new product idea she had, I was skeptical. I thought I’d finally found the project we couldn’t accomplish outside the office.

The idea was to produce sophisticated video courses for Tuts+ Premium. These courses would not just merely be screencasts. They’d have the highest production standards, tackle complex ideas, and teach in-depth skills in creative and technical topics. They’d include on-camera teaching, motion graphics, eventually interactive quizzes, responsive Q&As with instructors, even projects and code challenges. [pullquote align="right"]I was asked to develop a third option with the new Tuts+ Premium team.[/pullquote]

And since our team is located in 5 time zones, we’d do it all remotely, with instructors located all over the world.

It’s a challenge that hadn’t really been accomplished well in the on-line education field before. Many services go one of two ways, either they take responsibility for the quality of the product and do it all in house—build a studio, maintain equipment and experts, hire instructors or fly them out, etc. Lynda flies in some excellent instructors to their recording studios and their quality shows it. Other services hire and maintain instructors in-house. Alternatively, they would crowd-source the content, allow anyone to submit, but not maintain too much control over the quality or teaching. Uneven quality, but lots of it.

I was asked to develop a third option with the new Tuts+ Premium team. Hire the best instructors, wherever they are, let them teach in their own environment, and still demand the very best from them. And produce a lot of it.

So we did. And after a lot of experimenting and improvement, I’m pretty proud of how it’s turned out. Here’s what I learned about remote content production along the way.

Rockstars not wanted.

When it comes to the tricky intersection of on-line learning, the right people are usually not the “rockstars.” You can’t simply find the biggest name, the best expert on a particular topic and hire them to make a course. You don’t just hire the flashiest screencaster, the most inspiring teacher, or the smartest guy in the room. Honestly, the smartest guy in the room more often than not is not focused on teaching others.

[pullquote align="left"] love + curiosity + hunger = passion.[/pullquote]

Trust me, the results are not pretty.

What you need to do is hire talent with a more moderate mix of all these traits with one added perk that binds it all together—passion. And when I say passion, I mean: love + curiosity + hunger = passion. The passionate practitioner with a strong YouTube channel of tips and an engaged audience will inevitably create a better course than the distinguished author who only records his conference presentations.

It’s not a cliche. When you’re on your fifth take of a video because you can’t get the audio just right, when you’re investing hours in the source files so students can follow along, when you’re revising your videos because the Producer caught an issue you missed…it’s your love and interest in what you’re teaching that makes you deliver on it and not let your students down.

The expert who’s already made it? Who loves the field but doesn’t particularly like teaching? They’ve quit after the second take.

You need expertise, but don’t just hire the experts. Hire the curious and the invested.

Support budget is not optional.

The biggest technical issue, of course, is audio and video. We don’t have a single studio, so each instructor is recording on individual equipment, in unique settings. Even in a controlled environment, each piece of equipment has it’s own feel and warmth. All the technical guidelines and training in the world won’t help if the equipment is sub-par.

When we started, we were hesitant with budgeting for equipment. We left equipment up to the instructor without any recommendations or guidelines. This lead to a lot of poor initial videos, and a lot of wasted time and money in post-processing. Every instructor produced different quality. I had one tenacious instructor, determined to get clean audio on a sub-par mic, shut herself in a home closet during each recording session to cut down on echo. Endless frustration for want of the right equipment and knowledge.

So now, every regular instructor we work with gets reimbursed for the purchase of a handful of recommended microphones and software, as necessary. Each instructor gets a test video and a coaching session with our production guy, who helps them with everything from software set up to the placement and tilt of flat surfaces near the mic.

Sometimes, that means we buy a high end microphone for a guy who produces one course then disappears. That’s perfectly OK if it means that one course is going to match the tone and quality of the 100+ other courses when we release it.

Clear, Specific Coaching…

One thing I came to learn very quickly working with new instructors: there are many varying personal definitions of “High quality audio and video.” Everyone you work with will agree that, yes, of course only “high quality” video will do. But what does that mean? What level of lighting is ideal for on-camera introductions? What audio levels are acceptable? What motion graphics are allowed?

You could write long briefs about clear audio and even lighting, but what guidelines really need are two things: model videos which give clear examples of expectations and technical specifics with clear directions. Then minute we changed our process, from a general instructor brief to a manual with demo videos and technical specs, our time spent on test videos was cut in half. Add coaching to equipment set up and video production? You cut it down even more.

…with Feedback, Early and Often.

[pullquote align="right"]We only have one rule: show me whatever you have done, as soon as it’s done, even if it’s not “done.”[/pullquote]

One of Envato’s company values is allowing people to work in the way that’s best for them. (Our CEO is famously quoted as saying he doesn’t care if we work with underwear on our heads, as long as it gets results.) So we like to encourage our instructors to produce courses in ways that are best for them. Some instructors record their screencasts on the fly; others record the audio according to a tight script. Some guys produce the introduction last, some deliver everything out of order, others do videos chronologically.

We only have one rule: show me whatever you have done, as soon as it’s done, even if it’s not “done.” Outlines, finished videos, rough cuts, source files, what-have-you, our instructors share and get feedback while they’re producing it.

credit: kalexanderson@flickr

credit: kalexanderson@flickr

This was a hard lesson learned after too many courses were finally shared, all at once, the day before the final deadline. When you’re only first seeing issues after 2+ hours of video is all done, it’s incredibly difficult to make the best possible improvements. No matter how much an instructor swears they’re open to revision, no one wants to find out there’s an error that repeats in every one of 24+ videos. We’d get courses done, but revisions-after-the-fact were never as good as they could be.

So now our courses include a lot more conversation, between instructors, producers, video guys, etc. along every step of the process. It actually creates less work for the instructors because they’re able to catch issues early on and, generally, once the first few videos work out kinks, the whole course comes together quickly and with minimal uncertainty and great results.

Love it or Get Out

By May of 2012, I was getting disheartened. I’d invest months in coaching instructors, polishing their outlines, cheerleading their progress, only to have courses that looked great on paper blow out when it came time to deliver the videos. During one month in 2012, had three of my five courses planned for the month blow up and get cancelled at the last minute. It was a nightmare, but in a team debrief, a colleague pointed out: “It’s for the best. Better than publishing half-assed content.” She was right.

Working with remote content creators means a kind of shared faith: you have to have faith in their abilities, and they have to have faith in what the team is trying to achieve. If you don’t feel excited and passionate about a course after the first couple videos, it doesn’t bode well for an awesome project

Love what your team is doing, fix it, or kill it. And then move on.

Miscellany

I’ve gone on at length on the lessons we learned that could be applied to any remote team project, but if you’re particularly interested in Tuts+ Premium videos, here’s a few extra tips we learned:

  • One instructor/creator. More than one instructor or creator of videos per project just drastically multiplies the problems of consistency.
  • Early on, there was a lot of hobbled courses nursed along by the idea that, with the right video guy, we could “fix” it in the post-production. You can’t fix bad content after the fact.
  • Theory is only good if your hands are getting dirty. We’ve tested more traditional, theory-only courses, but our members overwhelmingly prefer theoretical knowledge sprinkled in with firm, practical techniques and projects.
  • Stick with what you’re good at. We occasionally had instructors try to stretch, teach a course that was outside their comfort zone, usually with sub-par results. Viewers can tell when someone is teaching something they just learned.
  • Also, support your creators. Give them time to learn, and promote their authority. What’s the number one thing we’ve done to increase instructor satisfaction? Mention their name in the course description. Give them a bio, link them. Support your creators.

photo credits: kalexanderson on Flickr

1 reply
  1. Japh says:

    Thanks for sharing, Amanda! Sounds like it’s been a very growing experience.

    Reply

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