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This seemed like a pretty pivotal paper at the time:
"APPLYING MINIMAL MANUAL PRINCIPLES FOR DOCUMENTATION OF GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACES," RONALD H. NOWACZYK & E. CHRISTOPHER JAMES, J. TECHNICAL WRITING AND COMMUNICATION, Vol. 23(4) 379-388, 1993
Hans van der Meij, John Carroll's collaborator on some early minimalist papers (and books?), did some later work on screen captures and I think he also mentored the doctoral student who specialized in this (at University of Twente), Mark Gellevij.
I haven't had time to read a danged thing so don't ask me. :)
The sense I had gotten at the time is that nobody really had conclusive proof one way or the other, but if some enterprising soul actually has the time and desire to read these sources, he/she/you might find a good argument one way or the other.
Anecdotally, I sometimes find screen captures helpful when I'm stuck, but I just don't know if overall they're good or bad.
One thing I remember thinking is that the early work was done in the 90's and that seems a bit dated. Users have become more sophisticated. That may or may not sway the results. But I'd also be wary of the research done in the 2000's although that certainly seems more relevant.
And when you have one or two people specializing in these studies and nobody else (U. of Twente seems a hotbed for this, likely because of van der Meij), it seems insufficient to me.
Anyway... at least some research has been done, so that's a good thing.
If anybody reads this stuff, let us know how it goes and what you conclude. Thanks. I'm just a freaking librarian on these matters. :)
From: On Behalf Of Porrello, Leonard
Sent: Monday, February 11, 2013 7:58 AM
To: Ryan Pollack; Erika Yanovich
Subject: RE: Screen captures
Your theory is excellent, Ryan, and can probably be considered as part of the folklore of tech writing, but the research that I have seen doesn't bear out what your assertions. Instead, what the little research that has been done has found is that the only screen captures that notably help a user are those that are of a full screen AND which include call-outs. Otherwise, in timed performance, users of documentation with full screen captures (for the types of tasked being performed in the test--this is a big caveat) fared little better than users of documentation without screen captures. Users of documentation with only partial screen captures actually fared worse. Granted this and the additional cost that including screen captures adds in non-regulated environments, the argument from ROI for not including "too many" screen captures is pretty strong.
Apart from the empirical research, there is the matter of better or worse theories. While the theory you present is compelling, I find John Carroll's minimalist theory much more compelling. The aim of Carroll's approach, in short, is to facilitate users in becoming self-directed learners.
Having said all of that, I would argue that there is room for both approaches. If you don't mind the additional overhead of adding copious screen captures and only want user-monkeys who just follow the bread-crumbs through a procedure, then including lots of full-screen captures isn't a problem. If you want your users to become self-directed users, screen captures aren't generally necessary.
PS, I seem to have misplaced the studies I had read several years ago. However, Steve Janoff is the one who shared them with me and he may still have them. As I recall, they were done by a PhD candidate in Sweden.
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