RE: Using screenshots in Online Help

Subject: RE: Using screenshots in Online Help
From: "Mary Deaton" <mmdeaton -at- spamcop -dot- net>
To: "'Martha J Davidson'" <editrix -at- nemasys -dot- com>, "'TECHWR-L'" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Aug 2003 14:32:55 -0700

Martha and Anitha,

The reasons for caution in graphics in online Help are a bit more
complex that suggested in your discussion. There is research and
usability data developed over the years that strongly suggests users
have two reactions to screenshots of a dialog box in online Help - they
are confused about whether it is a real dialog box or not and they are
stopped from reading further in the topic when the artwork requires
scrolling vertically or horizontally.

If you look at some of the Help systems that have won awards, or those
that come from companies that do usability research on Help, you see
very little use of full screenshots in Help. You may see small graphics
or pieces of a screenshot, but seldom the entire thing.

You often see a shortcut link to open the dialog box, however. This may
solve the problem of someone browsing Help and finding instructions
about using a dialog and not knowing how to get there.

What you describe in your experience, Martha, sounds like a problem
caused not by leaving out screenshots, but by poor hypertext design or
poor procedural writing.

I do not have a copy of PaintShop Pro on my computer, but I do have
Visio, the most recent. As I look at the Help, however, I am not seeing
any procedural topic that is about a dialog box that does not start with
the instructions about how to open the dialog box from the menu.

The key to effective hypertext design is always giving the user a clear
"sense of place." Writing or links should always convey to the user
where they are and where else they ought to go. When using hypertext to
document a software product, it is critical to assume that the reader of
one topic has never read any other topic in Help.

It is your responsibility as the writer to make sure the topic the
reader is in provides clear instructions on how to do the task the topic
discusses. Putting a screenshot in the topic without also telling the
reader how to open the dialog box is not sufficient. Just because you
can see the dialog box does not mean you know how to open it.

Mary Deaton

-----Original Message-----
From: bounce-techwr-l-131345 -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
[mailto:bounce-techwr-l-131345 -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com] On Behalf Of Martha J
Sent: Monday, August 18, 2003 11:51 AM
Subject: Re: Using screenshots in Online Help

At 02:54 PM 8/18/2003 +0530, Anitha R wrote:
>How many of you include screenshots in your Online Help files?

I include screenshots in both procedural topics and dialog box reference


>The argument being
>that, when the application is readily available to the user at his
>desktop, why should we provide snapshots of the application.

I have heard this argument many times, and I believe it only applies
the user is looking at the topic directly related to what is displayed
the screen at that exact moment. Otherwise, if the user found that topic
clicking a link from another topic or from the index or search function,

without a screenshot, there might not be enough context to understand
rest of the topic.

This has happened to me many times. I am a casual user of graphics
like Paint Shop Pro and Visio and often am not sure how to do X, Y, or
When I find myself in that situation, I consult the help, and more times

than I can count I end up at a topic that describes exactly the end
of what I need, but without instructions how to get there or a picture
might help me figure that out.

In earlier days of help development an alternate argument for omitting
screenshots was the necessity to keep help files small. I believe that
more and more memory and disk space for the applications themselves,
is an artificial requirement that can prevent users from finding
information they might otherwise be able to figure out.


Martha Jane {Kolman | Davidson}

Re: Using screenshots in Online Help: From: Martha J Davidson

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