Documenting busy screens

Subject: Documenting busy screens
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 1996 13:48:47 -0500

Robert Tennant asked what to do with busy screens.
Rhetorical question one: if the screens are really that
busy, shouldn't you be proposing a user-interface overhaul?
"Anything really difficult to document is probably
difficult to use; you can't solve usability problems with
clever docs."

Serious question: Do you have access to decent image
editing software? If so, use an "abstracting approach":
abstracting preserves or highlights the important points,
and removes or downplays the ones that just get in the way
at this point. For example, present the entire screenshot
but grey out the unimportant parts (anything you're not
talking about on a given page or in a specific section) and
leave the important ones. This way, the image preserves
important information (the position of a menu or button
within the overall screen) and hides irrelevant information
(the details of things you're not describing just yet)
sufficiently that viewers can't see the busy-ness.

There are lots of variants on this approach. For example,
if there are many menus, crop the screen shot to show just
the one unrolled menu that you're discussing. You might
also be able to structure your approach based on the
typical path a user will take through the screen to perform
specific tasks or categories of tasks. Then the images you
present would show what the user sees at each stage of the
task. Of course, this assumes that there are typical paths
and that you know what these are. Rhetorical question two:
What does the audience analysis info. tell you? Also refer
to rhetorical question number 1: if there _is_ no common
path through the screens, then the interface designer is
falling into the trap of presenting all the controls at
once rather than organizing them for efficient use.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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