RE: Screen captures

Subject: RE: Screen captures
From: jimmy -at- breck-mckye -dot- com
To: <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2013 10:16:25 +0000

But in reality, learning what users *want* isn't all that helpful.; users will always 'want' more, for the same reasons that they will always say 'yes' to the question, 'would feature X be useful?'. But that doesn't make for good software or good documentation, because users aren't equipped to visualize the implementations or consequences - which is why software designed by focus group typically fails.

What we _do_ have is solid information about what sorts of interfaces users fail to traverse. If we can build heuristics for recognizing 'pain points' in our applications, then work from there to think about how our documentation can ameliorate these issues, then I think we have a strong framework to work from.

As for academia, I don't think that's going to provide much. HCI researchers are scientists, and that means their studies focus on small, discrete trials where only a small number of variables are altered. 'With screenshots vs without screenies' doesn't fit that model, because such an experiment would be subject to innumerable variables, and that means it's just not likely to become a research item.

Besides, even if research _did_ prove that one method was better, I still don't think that provide a definitive answer to the question. Manuals have value beyond the help they provide users they communicate the brand, show a unified aesthetic, speak to users' aspirations and identities (look at Apple product manuals) and have to be economic to produce and maintain. To achieve these aims, a tech writer has to think about layout, appearance, maintainability and neatness - and that affects choices about screenies and screenshot styles just as much as anything else.

To suggest that there's a single rule for style of output diminishes the tech writer's discretion and does our profession a disservice.

On 2013-02-14 23:34, Mike Starr wrote:

I've been following this discussion with interest but what about the
users? Has there been any research or surveys to try to assess whether
users want them/don't want them, love them/hate them?

Best Regards,

Mike
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On 2013-02-14 11:07 am, Janoff, Steven wrote:
The issue of whether screen captures are effective or not does not
appear to be a simple one. I don't feel that it can be dismissed with
anecdotal evidence one way or the other.

The academics studying this at the doctoral level -- not just
doctoral students but established scholars -- have not been able to
offer conclusive proof either way, unless I'm just missing a
particular study (I've only scanned their results).

Admonitions such as "It depends" or "Know your audience" don't
address the larger issue.

This is a cognitive issue, remember. I believe images and text are
processed in different areas of the brain. The question becomes
whether an image can enhance text-based learning at all, and if so,
under what circumstances and, for screen caps, what kind of screen cap
-- but you also have to establish how you're going to measure the
outcome. What determines whether a screen cap is an effective aid or
not? Can screen caps sometimes hinder learning, as has already been
suggested? Are they neutral in some contexts?

I don't see how any of us can offer a conclusive decision based on
our experience if the academics can't. To me it's just guesswork.

There's a need for more research in this area. Until that happens,
to me this falls into the same category as trying to decide a style
point when there is no guideline in the established style authorities
(CMOS, AP, MMOS, GPO, etc.).

Also, the research that has been done is somewhat dated. How do you
account for the increased sophistication of today's users in UI
operation versus those of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s? It's possible
that mental models are not static but evolve. I mean that in two
ways. My mental model of a particular software app evolves as I use
it and become familiar with it. And our collective mental model about
certain kinds of UI's evolve as technology evolves. So, for example,
teenagers can master the current crop of digital devices with ease,
while many of us Baby Boomers long for the days when a TV had two
knobs: ON-OFF/VOLUME and CHANNEL.

I think any of us are hard-pressed to say "Get rid of all screen
shots" or "Use lots of screen shots" or even "Use some screen shots"
with any authority. Which is a shame, because this is our field,
after all.

Steve
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References:
Screen captures: From: Anonymous
RE: Screen captures: From: Janoff, Steven
RE: Screen captures: From: Mike Starr

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