Saturday, October 16, 2010

A picture is worth a thousand words

We are all familiar with the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words", but is it always true? As technical authors should we be using more images or shying away from their use? 

In a previous life (well it seems that long ago!), part of my remit was to oversee the localisation of a company's software and documentation. The documentation to be translated included the legacy user guide that had been widely distributed throughout the UK and included abundant numbers of screen shots. It was only as the cost of localising each image became apparent that I realised the error of our ways. Yes having a screen shot of every page of a wizard did make the document complete...but did the cost outweigh any usefulness, after all even the most naive of users can find the Finish button! I ultimately paid the price for my errors as it soon became my job to retake the screen shots in Spanish, German, French, etc. Since this experience I have always been more sparing in my use of screen shots, constantly weighing the benefit against potential cost, I still firmly believe they have their place, just not on every page!

When a picture doesn't tell a thousand words
Recently National Express underestimated the need for words when they were found guilty by the Advertising Standards Agency for misleading passengers travelling from Stansted Airport to London (BBC News Report). To help non-English speaking passengers, National Express had adopted a purely pictorial approach to passing on their message, unfortunately for them, the message was deemed to be misleading.
Likewise product instructions often come in the form of an expanded illustration of product X, or a series of picture clues (think flat pack furniture) giving step by step instructions on how to use or build product Y. The success of these instructions is questionable, as demonstrated by a survey by Userview which suggested 45% of those questioned had encountered poor flat pack instructions.

Technical writing and pictures
As technical authors should we be embracing the use of imagery, or sticking to our more traditional words? Personally I would suggest a mixture of both is the right way to go. My recent experience suggests technical authoring has moved away from the monster guides full of screen shots, but that doesn't mean all imagery has gone. Instead careful use of selected annotated screen shots helps to generate a clear message. Additionally, I am a keen advocate of using flash card pictorial instructions as a method of documenting key tasks carried out by users who often have neither the inclination nor the time to trawl through a weighty user guide.

In conclusion...
As with everything we do, careful consideration, clarity and testing are all essential when embracing the tools available to us to pass our message on.

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