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Thanks, Ryan. I agree that there is a lot of room for professional discretion, and as I was writing, I couldn't help but think of how often necessity has required me to depart from minimalist ideals. For most of the things I have documented, at best I have been able to incorporate just a couple of Carroll's principles.
I also have to admit that sometimes I just want to be a user-monkey myself, so in those cases I would appreciate your documentation. "Just tell me exactly what to do!" And I would add that writing good documentation for user-monkeys is no small feat! For that types of things I've been documenting for the majority of my career, however, users have needed to become experts to use systems correctly and effectively.
Having said that, I have to add that I am deeply opposed to including screen shots of each dialog in a wizard or anything else that is equally banal. Along these lines, if I've documented a procedure correctly and described the outcome, I do not support including screen captures of what could be described as "congratulatory" screens. As a rule, if the user can figure out a screen by looking at it for just a few seconds, then I do not document it. On the other hand, if a screen is crammed full of cryptic fields, graphs, and hidden functionality, then a screen capture with callouts can be very helpful.
I look forward to a world in which consumer oriented applications are intuitive enough and contain enough direction within themselves so as to not require additional documentation. As a writer, then, I would be collaborating in GUI design rather than writing comprehensive end-user materials.
From: Ryan Pollack [mailto:ryan -at- clicksecurity -dot- com]
Sent: Monday, February 11, 2013 9:04 AM
To: Porrello, Leonard
Cc: Erika Yanovich; Techwr-l
Subject: Re: Screen captures
Hm, interesting. Your comments about full screenshots with callouts are well-taken. I like to think that I use those kinds, but it never hurts to have a reminder of what really helps.
It seems we may differ on a more fundamental level: to user-monkey or not user-monkey? :-) As you said, there is room for both approaches. I certainly agree with that. You write that you prefer teaching users to be self-directed. But for the situation I'm in at my company, I think of my goal as supporting users who forget, or wonder, how to do something, or what some function call is, or what some term means, or users who wonder whether they can do something in our environment.
More generally, I guess my goal is to support the people who don't want, or have, the time to become an expert in our product. And I think that even experts will forget how to do things from time to time (they may just know what to look for more quickly than a novice.)
I've never expressed it like that, and I"m not sure how I arrived at that philosophy, but those words feel accurate to me. Thanks for helping me formulate it :-)
To everyone else who is submitting research: keep it coming ...
On Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 9:58 AM, Porrello, Leonard <lporrello -at- illumina -dot- com<mailto:lporrello -at- illumina -dot- com>> wrote:
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.
From: techwr-l-bounces+lporrello=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com<mailto:illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com> [mailto:techwr-l-bounces+lporrello<mailto:techwr-l-bounces%2Blporrello>=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com<mailto:illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>] On Behalf Of Ryan Pollack
Sent: Monday, February 11, 2013 7:31 AM
To: Erika Yanovich
Subject: Re: Screen captures
As others have said, "it depends". Screenshots are like anything else (tables, bulleted lists, videos, paragraphs, etc); they are a tool you can use in order to bring about understanding in your readers. Here are some reasons why I find screenshots very useful:
- Instead of "Select blah>>blah>>blah", a screenshot helps users follow
a path visually instead of mentally translating steps into actions. This
saves effort and time on their part.
- The above goes doubly true if you have a dialog box with, say, 15
options and the user has to act on one or two. Without a screenshot, the
user has to spend a few seconds scanning the dialog box and trying to find
the option you wrote down, following the menu tree you set out as they go.
With a screenshot, you can highlight the necessary option, saving them this
- People don't read; they skim. People's eyes go straight to
screenshots, which can save a lot of reading time, thus getting the user
back into the software quicker and helping them feel better about the docs.
- If a user is switching back & forth between the help and the software,
a screenshot helps users keep their place in the column of text, so they
can quickly return to the docs where they left off. It's much harder to
find your place in a wall of text.
- Screenshots generally add color to a document, making it more pleasing
to the eye (if your UX person has done their job ;-)
- Screenshots make the doc look less intimidating by breaking up, or
obviating, large chunks of text. The less intimidating a doc looks, the
more likely someone will be to read it, and the better they will feel about
Of course screenshots have drawbacks:
- They generally take multiple steps to generate (open your software
program, get it into a proper state for taking a relevant screenshot, take
screenshot, possibly annotate it, save it, insert into document, etc.
- They are larger in size than text, which can affect storage space on
disk, download times if you are doing online help, or file sizes if you are
delivering a PDF.
- They are larger in dimension than a block of text, increasing
scrolling in online help and page count if you are delivering a printed
- They are not searchable, although if you are doing online help or
adding captions, you can associate text w/screenshots in order to work
around this. Keep in mind that not only can users not search, *you* can't
-- which makes it harder to determine what portions of your documentation
need to change when a new feature comes around.
- They are binary, so if you use a source code control system, changes
to them cannot be merged or tracked.
- They can be a pain for localization departments, who have to recreate
your setup in order to translate the screenshot.
As with anything else, these are all just my opinions. In many situations, I think the benefits of screenshots outweigh the drawbacks. I have topics in my help system that are literally just a title and a screenshot :-)
On Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 12:08 AM, Erika Yanovich <ERIKA_y -at- rad -dot- com<mailto:ERIKA_y -at- rad -dot- com>> wrote:
> Users like to be reassured they got to the right screen after passing
> through several other ones. I don't give screen captures of the
> passing-through ones where the user just clicks something to get to
> another screen, just of the final screen, where the actual work is done.
Senior Technical Writer | Click Security
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