Screenshots in help: yes or no?

When quoting for documentation solutions I am frequently asked to advise on the use of screenshots, and judging by the response to a recent post on the Software User Assistance Group LinkedIn page, I am not the only one! So is there a definitive answer?

The vote of no

Personally I am not a big fan of using screenshots, primarily because they add to the overhead of maintaining the documentation as developers have a habit of  tweaking the user interface. One little tweak can cause an enormous amount of work for the author. In addition, whilst discussing the cost of screenshots, you should always minimize their usage if you documents are to be localized. Unless someone knows a better solution, screenshots have to be replaced manually in translated documents.

Then there is the question of readability. Screenshots inserted into step-by-step instructions disrupt the flow and cause the instructions to grow into several pages of detail. As an author, I want my readers to be reading their instructions and then carrying out the action in the software I am describing…consequently the screenshot is the software and they don’t need a picture (or do they…see below).  For this reason, I always ask the development team to give screens sensible names, so as I can refer to them in the documentation. For example, ‘the Enter Server Name screen will be displayed. Complete the requested information before selecting Continue‘.

The vote for yes

I have previously blogged about using images instead of words for instructional materials – and it is an approach I love for quick start guides, although as National Express travel discovered caution is required!

In addition to eye catching quick guides, I find value in adding screenshots to documentation only when the item under discussion is not immediately obvious, for example when describing the layout of the software, I will use a labelled screeenshot to identify the key areas of functionality.

The discussion on LinkedIn highlighted the use of pop-ups to show screenshots as a ‘hidden extra’. Again I shudder at the overhead thought, but equally can see the value of these. I have previously used Adobe Captivate tutorials as a method of driving home a particularly complex protocol.

Conclusion
In conclusion, there is no easy answer that fits all. As has been the case for the last 10 years, I will continue to advise my clients on a project-by-project basis on the need to use screenshots. My approach is to consider the end user  and client’s requirements, before designing a cost-effective documentation solution that fulfils the needs of the user whilst promoting the service of the client. If the end user is happy with the support they receive from the documentation, many other opportunities will arise for both my client and me.

I would however be interested to hear the thoughts of others – does anyone have a compelling case for either the Yes or No vote?

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Re-branding Robohelp Webhelp

Recently I was involved in the re-branding of a series of webhelp files generated using Robohelp.  The process was greatly helped by the fact the author responsible for setting up the files in the first place (I’m afraid I cannot take the credit!) had taken a few simple steps, namely used style sheets, skins and templates. The following article describes how these simple tools made for an easier transition period.

Style Sheets

We are all familiar with the use of style sheets to ensure the consistency of the documents we produce, but what happens when I company undergoes a re-brand? Style sheets can simplify the process of adopting a new corporate font. A quick edit of the CSS and the changes instantly ripple through the entire help file – job one complete!

Skins

Webhelp skins are an easy method of applying your corporate colours to your online help offering. Within Robohelp, the skin editor is a simple to use (if a bit clunky) tool that empowers the author. Through editing the skin we were quickly able to change the corporate colour and update the company logo that had been cunningly added in place of the PoweredByRobohelp logo. Job two complete!

Templates (Master Pages)

I have long been an avid user of templates (or master pages as they have now become) in Robohelp. They save a lot of editing time by ensuring the layout of each page within the help is consistent. Additionally, through adding repeated content to either the header or the footer (e.g. copyright information), you have a simple method of updating this information across the entire help file. In this instance the copyright and company name where included in the footer, meaning that this information could be updated in one easy step – change the template and watch the modification ripple through the help file! Job three complete.

And finally…

So after 30 minutes of work all I needed to do was use the Find and Replace functionality in Robohelp to remove any mentions of the old company name and manually replace the company logo on the home page…job done in 4 easy steps!

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What social media does for me

As a follow up to my own post on social networking (along with others from Gordon McLean and DMN Guys), whilst I was lazing on a Northumberland beach I “penned” a list of the benefits social networking brings to me.

1. Cyber-colleagues. No longer do I feel isolated as a sole author, I have a network of knowledgeable colleagues.

2. New trends and developments in the authoring world are constantly brought to my attention.

3. I have access to an extensive knowledge base…I doubt there is an issue that can arise with the authoring tools I use that cannot be answered via the social network.

4. Event announcements are made loud and clear, ensuring I don’t miss a trick.

5. I gain exposure and build a reputation for my authoring skills and business.

6. Networking made simple, and from the comfort of my office. Via my contacts I have access to an enormous array of potential clients.

7. As a sole author it can be frustrating when there isn’t an avenue down which to express your ideas and thoughts. Social networking opens up the opportunity to shout loud and clear.

8. Work and collaboration opportunities can be developed.

9. Participation in discussions that matter to me.

10. Introduction to new tools that can benefit the running of my business.

As always I’d be interested to know your thoughts and how you feel you benefit (or otherwise) from social media.

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Social Networking is Work (sometimes)!

A few days ago I posed the question on Twitter “Social networking a valuable tool for keeping pace with developments in the world of tech comms or just another time filler?” and was quickly shot down in flames by a fellow technical writer Gordon McClean with the response “”another”? Social networking has been about in various forms for 10 years. If you aren’t using it, how else do you keep pace?”,which was quickly followed an excellent article by Gordon entitled “Being Social“.

Now, my reason for posing the question initially was two-fold: firstly I felt as though I had recently spent a lot of time reading blogs, twitter posts, etc and secondly I got thinking about how I keep apace of developments in the quick moving field of technical comms. For instance, as a consequence of posts on twitter this week I have signed up for both an Adobe and Microsoft webinar…events that may well have passed me by in I wasn’t networking from my laptop.

As a freelancer, although time is money, I am lucky to define my own IT policy on accessing the outside world. If I want to spend 9-9.15am every morning catching up on events in my cyber network, that is my issue. However, in the past I have been (un)fortunate enough to work with organisations that have a very “black and white” Internet policy, which prohibits employees spending time on sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, etc…in fact if you escape the boundaries of the company intranet, questions are asked!

So in this situation how do you keep abreast of current thinking? I always thought (naively perhaps) that I was at a disadvantage as a sole trader as all the ideas and progression had to come from…however discussions of late are beginning to make me think otherwise.

In brief, for me, social networking for my work is imperative…I’d still be stuck in 2005 (when I ventured out on my own) if it wasn’t for my colleagues on the Internet…but is it the same for everyone? How do you value social networking in your daily work – where do you think you’d be without it? After all 2005 wasn’t so bad…although looking back Robohelp and Word (the main tools of my day) were a bit clunky!

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Cloud Computing and the freelance technical author

Previously I had only touched on the uses of cloud computing having used Windows Live Mesh and Google Docs to share files with clients, however I didn’t have an appreciation of the potential of the cloud. All this changed when I attended the ebusiness Club Cloud Computing Conference in Nottingham…suddenly my eyes were opened! 

Cloud Computing

So, as a freelance technical author, how do I think cloud computing can help me and my business? The following sections describe some of the concepts discussed at the conference, and how I hope to apply them to my business.

Website

Approximately 80% of my new business comes to me through my website, consequently I am always keen to improve the visibility of my site. For my existing website (www.smartauthoring.co.uk) I use a combination of Google Adwords and SEO, but with a small budget the effectiveness is limited.

At the cloud computing conference the concept of creating a website on a blogging platform was introduced. Blogs are naturally search engine friendly because of their text-rich content, combine that with the frequent updates and hopefully you have a success on your hands!

So here I am, in WordPress.com creating a new Smartauthoring website. The intention is to compare the effectiveness of the two sites over a period of time. The WordPress hosted site will be constantly updated with blogs and tweets from twitter, whilst the original site will retain its static status with the occasional update when I remember! Effectiveness is difficult parameter to measure, so maybe I will have to be content with looking at visits and positioning in a Google search on a key search term such as “Technical Author”.

All that needs to happen now is for me to have a constant stream of blog ideas!

File Storage

Only hours after leaving the cloud computing conference the hard drive in my laptop died…it seemed like an omen! Thankfully, the content of my HD had been backed up to an external drive the night before, and my attendance at the meeting meant that nothing had changed, consequently the only hardship was completing a restore. I am however now looking at cloud based back up options, such as Dropbox, that automatically synchronize with my HD as I work.

In addition to backing up information, cloud computing offers freelancers such as myself the perfect solution for transferring files to the client, and to this end I have successfully used both Windows Live Mesh and Google Docs in the past. The big issue that makes many nervous though remains the security of the information held in the cloud. As far back as 2008 analysts were raising the risk issue (Gartner report) associated with cloud computing. The current advice seems to be choose a reputable provider and interrogate their security policy vigorously.

Email

When it came to the subject of email the talk of the conference seemed to surround gmail. As I only ever access my email from my laptop (I work at home 95% of the time), I am yet to convince myself of the benefits, however I can see that for users who are travelling more, using a range of devices to access their mail, a cloud based email application will be a God send.

Telephony

Since setting up my business 5 years ago I have worried that not having a land line telephone may have a detrimental affect on my company’s credibility. However, the cost of installation and line rental have to date made it an unfeasible option.

The development of VoIP however sheds a whole new light on the subject. Providers such as Skype allow the rental of a local number without the need for infrastructure changes…suddenly my computer or mobile phone can double up as my telephone. Obviously there remains a cost associated with the rental of a number, and this still has to be weighed against the benefits a “land line” number will bring. As yet the jury remains out.

Applications

The area of cloud computing where the biggest mind shift is to occur, is that of applications. It is predicted that in the years to come, the purchasing of licensed copies of software will be gone, and instead we will rent and use applications from within the cloud. Already Microsoft (Office 365) and Google (Google Docs) offer software in this manner…and in time it is expected that more will follow suit.

The benefit to users of using software in this way is that you always have access to the latest version and features, whilst the disadvantage is that the versions are usually feature-lite and you need internet access. The benefit to the software houses is the reduced risk of pirate copies of software circulating, and the reduced support burden of multiple versions of software.

I remain to be convinced, although the presentations made from the cloud (using Google Docs and Prezi) were impressive…and certainly resolved the problem of lost or forgotten flash drives when turning up to meetings.

However, ultimately the decision may be removed from my hands, as in the words of one of the presenters “cloud computing is coming, like it or not”!

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WordPress…it’s all new to me!

I am trying to get to grips with WordPress for the first time having heard of its power at a conference yesterday…so far it is not going that well!!

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