The Value of Adding Images to Technical
It’s cliché, but true—a picture does
paint a thousand words. This is an important message to remember when
writing any sort of
user documentation, such as an
installation guide or an instruction
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A document that makes judicious use of
images and diagrams will be much easier to understand than one that is
composed entirely of text descriptions.
I observed this first-hand years ago,
when a junior programmer at one company was asked to update the software
installation manual for their machine controllers. One of the first
things he did was to strip away all the screen capture images, reducing
the entire document to plain text.
“These images are just silly!” he said.
“They take up space, and they’re just not necessary. I trust that anyone
who reads this document will be smart enough to figure it out.”
This turned out to be a huge mistake.
The technicians who had to use the
manual had a difficult time making sense of its instructions. They had
to repeatedly ask for clarification, and one of them told me that the
pure text descriptions were just too cumbersome to follow.
They were fearful of using these
instructions at all, knowing that a single misstep could lock the
controllers into an irrecoverable state. It was a ugly situation all
The problem was that this programmer
didn’t try to make things easy for the users. For one thing, he failed
to consider that some technicians were
not native English speakers, and that
they might struggle with the wording. More importantly though, this
programmer expected too much from his audience. He wanted to reduce
these instructions to their bare essentials, thinking that would be
adequate. He failed to consider that even an intelligent, otherwise
careful reader might be tempted to jump over instructions, or would
gloss over some critical detail. This is a common pitfall when time is
short, and when the users are confronted with pages and pages of bland
A few carefully chosen images, with
suitable captions, can go a long way toward preventing that. When I saw
that the junior programmer was stripping away all the screen capture
images, I cautioned him against that. “These images may not be strictly
necessary,” I said, “but they help clarify a lot of details. For one
thing, they show the user exactly which button to push, or which window
to select. This makes the instructions much easier to understand, and
reduces the likelihood of a human error.” To this day, I wish that he
had heeded my warning.
Were the users intelligent enough to
understand the manual, as he claimed? Certainly—but intelligence is no
guarantee against human error.
Could the images have been construed as
talking down to the user? Perhaps—but in my experience,
sophisticated users seldom respond that
way. Rather, most of them seem to understand the value that these images
bring to the table. Perhaps it’s because most of them know what it’s
like to be frazzled and pressed for time, and how easily important
details can be lost in the text.
So remember—a picture paints a thousand
words, and a single screen capture can be worth more than a dozen pages
of text. It’s a lesson that’s worth learning.
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