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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About smartauthoring

Technical Author/Writer based in the UK
This entry was posted in Robohelp, Tech Comms and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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