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Screenshots in Online Documentation

Topics: Software Documentation

When do screenshots make sense in online help or online documentation? We describe the advantages and disadvantages of screenshots in your technical documentation. Online documentation for software provides information about the features and functions of the application. The aim is to enable users to productively work with the software as quickly as possible. The online documentation serves an always available reference, especially as context-sensitive online help. Including screenshots can support you in making the documentation as clear and comprehensible as possible, since screenshots help visualize the processes, especially for complex step-by-step procedures, and illustrate the actions on the user interface in the documentation. However, screenshots are not necessarily suitable for all forms of online documentation. To what extent screenshots are reasonable depends on various factors, for example whether the documentation is translated into many languages and where it is displayed. Nevertheless, screenshots are seen as an asset for online documentation.

Screenshots illustrate difficult step by step procedures

If you describe a software where actions on the user interface follow complex processes that are very difficult to describe in instructions, screenshots provide helpful input. For example, when users have to draw something in a CT chest image and the software reacts with different lines, then a screenshot provides a quick and easy help. For simple actions that can be described easily, like entering texts into certain text fields, or pressing buttons, a screenshot is unnecessary.

Introducing the User Interface

If you introduce the main user interface in your software documentation, you should use screenshots that help the users to familiarize themselves with the user interface. If you add numbers to the main components and describe their meaning, then the screenshot is not confusing. Even if the application is opened at the same time, the user can immediately differentiate the screenshot in the documentation from the real user interface.

The online documentation is translated into many languages

If your software documentation is translated into many different languages, you should consider whether you actually need all screenshots. You have to create and update the screenshots not only in the source language, but also in all target languages, which is very time consuming. You will need to have a plan or workflow for creating the screenshots in the target languages as well as for the quality assurance. Maybe you also integrate the translator in the workflow to check the translation of the user interface.  

The user interface is configurable

If you are writing documentation for a software that is highly configurable, screenshots do not make much sense. The individual users configure the user interface according to their needs, like adding or removing certain tools or fields. In this case screenshots get confusing, as you cannot ensure that all screenshots are always up-to-date or applicable.

Conclusion: Screenshots in online documentation help increase the comprehensibility of certain texts, but only if words alone are not sufficient. However, you also need to consider the costs and effort in case your online help is translated in several different languages, as the screenshots have to be created in every language and integrated into the documentation.