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At what point am I offering too many screenshots? I am working a redesign of my company's help guides - these guides are mostly centered around our hosted mail services. How to set up Outlook, set up a smartphone, things of that nature. The basic problem I'm looking to solve:

"Develop a 'how to' guide that communicates a technical process clearly so that readers of any experience levels can follow and understand."

I've scratched together a very rough layout concept of the basic elements that may appear on a given page. A potential solution I see, is offering broader screenshots that capture multiple clicks in one image. But, I'm worried in my hope to make things simple I have instead made them confusing/distracting.

I'm staring at my wire-frame and the visual portion (granted, I used red ink) appears very demanding.

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Can you do these as online videos ? I don't think these require much input apart from someone speaking clearly and zooming in when you need to see something small. – PhillipW Feb 16 '13 at 22:30
"How to" guides are somewhat the antithesis of UX. ;) – DA01 Feb 16 '13 at 22:57
@PhillipW: you can't take videos away with you on paper. Pretty hard to follow a video when sat at a greasy machine in a workshop where no computers (even laptops) dare travel... I personally also hate instructional videos because they are hard to page back and forth in. – Marjan Venema Feb 17 '13 at 11:51
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I guess I am really lucky to have the services of an excellent technical writer to handle all the documentation for the manuals. The process she follows is as follows:

  1. Provide a high level screenshot
  2. Provide annotations on the screenshot using numbers or callouts
  3. Provide a table which specifies what annotation or call out does.

The thing to note here is if she does this only when the interactions are like form submissions or uploads are data updates i.e. they tie in with the same screen. However if an user interaction leads to a different screen then a screenshot is provided of the screen.

I also recommend reading this article about how to write User manuals which has this to say about screenshots:

  • Provide step-by-step sequences in the correct order.
  • Follow the timing and sequencing of the actual operations .
  • Provide visual stepping stones (e.g. Step 1, Step 2 etc.)
  • Avoid lengthy paragraphs.
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In Technical Communication, Volume 51, Number 2, May 2004, Gellivej and van der Meij present evidence for the effectiveness of screen captures in four scenarios, and I summarize their findings as follows:

  • Switching attention - no significant effect
  • Developing a mental model of the program - strong effect on accuracy
  • Identifying and locating window elements and objects - no sigificant effect on accuracy; significant effect on speed.
  • Verifying screen states - significant effects for speed and accuracy

Given that earlier studies by others had equivocal results, the study by Gellivej and van der Meij suggests that screen captures are effective when applied with specific purpose. They contrast genre-based approaches to the function-based approach based on their four proposed functions of screen captures in technical documentation.

They conclude: "...when screen captures support specific functions, the user benefits. Indeed, adopting a function-based design approach for screen captures in software manuals yields a triple profit. Users learn more, make fewer mistakes, and learn in a shorter time frame."

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