Abstracts

How Helpful are Screenshots? A Review of Empirical Evidence and Directions for Future Research

Michael Meng, University of Applied Sciences Merseburg, Germany

Screenshots are the most important means of visualization in software documentation, such as manuals, tutorials, training materials, and online help systems. As van der Meij & Gellevij (1998) have shown on the basis of a sample of 100 software manuals, about 76% of the pages in their sample contained one or more screenshots. Decisions regarding the usage of screenshots thus belong to the basic decisions at the beginning of each software documentation project. However, these decisions often turn into a challenge. On the one hand, using screenshots in software documentation significantly increases overall costs, due to the time and resources required to prepare systems for screen capturing, the efforts to keep screenshots up to date once a product has been released, and the costs to localize screenshots into different languages. On the other hand, there seem to be good reasons why sceenshots should still be used, despite these costs: Screenshots seem to make text more legible, possibly increasing reading motivation. They might be helpful in locating important screen elements, and support the verification of screens states, thereby reducing errors. From a research perspective, the crucial question is whether there is any empirical evidence to corroborate these claims. Do screenshots indeed support effective learning and task execution?

Despite the importance of sceenshots for software documentation, the empirical literature investigating their effectiveness is still rather scarce. Sweller & Chandler (1994) were able to show that screenshots can increase learning outcomes. Interestingly, effects only showed up in scenarios that were sufficiently complex. If the task or learning domain was rather easy, no effects showed up. Results on the effectiveness of screenshots for task execution seem to be less clear. Van der Meij (1998) reported experimental results suggesting that manuals containing screenshots speeded up execution of tasks up to 30%. However, other studies found either no effects (Gellevij et al., 1999) or even negative effects (Nowaczyk & James, 1993). A closer inspection of test designs and materials reveals another aspect that is important besides task complexity: To be effective, screenshots have to serve a specific function, and their design needs to support this function efficiently. For example, the screenshots used by van der Meij (1998) primarily supported the quick location of important screen elements during task execution, and their design was tuned to this function by using a cueing technique. Other functions screenshots can serve effectively when being optimized in design include mental model development (Gellevij et al., 2002) and verification of screen states (Gellevij & van der Meij, 2004). Positive effects of screenshots on motivation have not been demonstrated so far (see van der Meij & Gellevij, 2002).

In sum, screenshots can make learning and task execution more effective when used to locate important screen elements, verify screen states or support mental model development. However, for effects to show up, screenshot design needs to support that function, and task complexity needs to be sufficiently high. If what screenshots show can be figured out by users without significant effort anyway, screenshots can be a burden rather than of help. Future studies should go into three directions: On the one hand, independent replications are needed, using a clear and simple design. Furthermore, studies are needed to more closely investigate the effect of design decisions, e. g. regarding specific cueing techniques that can be used or the coverage that screenshots should have. Finally, studies should target the effect of screenshots on special user groups, such as senior users or expert users. 

Motivating the User

Tytti Suojanen, University of Tampere, Finland
Rhetoric has long been one of the corner stones of technical communication teaching and research. A general recommendation is that information products should be persuasive and they should genuinely take into consideration the user’s knowledge level, information needs and context of use. However, opposite ideas have also been presented, according to which technical documents are purely instrumental and there is no need to include arguments or user motivation (e.g., Moore 1997). This paper first takes a look at the motivation of users at a theoretical level and its significance as a part of user instructions: for example, research has shown that users consider instructions with motivation more interesting and friendlier than instructions that do not have motivation (e.g., Loorbach, Steehouder & Taal 2006). Second, the paper will examine different types of textual means with which users can be motivated: the materials used for this study comprise 132 Finnish user instructions for household appliances within a 50 year period. Motivation was studied from this material based on Keller’s (1983) ARCS Model of Motivational Design. On the one hand, the study examines motivation strategies that appeal to relevance, that is, means with which the aims and usefulness of the instructions are argued. On the other hand, the study looks at strategies that build on the user’s confidence, namely, means that aim to empower the user. Finally, the paper considers the changes that have taken place over time in the use of these motivation strategies.

Analyses and Tests — A Scientific Approach to Comprehensible Operating Instructions

Sylvia Fischer, Aschaffenburg University of Applied Sciences, Germany

This paper deals with analyses and tests that are required to make sure that the product users understand the operating instructions correctly and operate the product safely. This scientific approach is mainly based on an analysis of the product including aspects such as the product functions, product design, and product language. In many cases, these non-verbal semantic and communicative aspects are not tested for optimum usability and (self-explanatory) comprehensibility by the manufacturer. As a consequence, they might cause the product users to misunderstand or fail to understand the operating instructions. For this reason, the objective of the product analysis is to shed light on the product deficiencies which the instruction manual has to compensate for in order to ensure safe and proper product use despite the product deficiencies.

Further analyses include the audience analysis, risk analysis, problem analysis, etc., which are also needed to make sure that the instruction manual provides the product users with the required quantity and quality of information on how to use the product safely, effectively, and efficiently. It is absolutely imperative that the results of all the analyses performed be used to improve the operating instructions.

However, it is not enough to conduct comprehensive analyses. In addition, comprehensibility tests have to be carried out in order to obtain scientific evidence of the safe usability of the product. Since all test methods currently available offer both advantages and disadvantages and are not capable of detecting all potentially critical deficiencies in the product and the manual efficiently, the bachelor’s program “Communication and Documentation” (K&D) at Aschaffenburg University of Applied Sciences has embarked on carrying out research on optimum test designs for examining instruction manuals. A combination of various test methods allows to compensate for the drawbacks of the individual tests and ensures a higher level of comprehensibility, usability, and thus safety of the operating instructions. K&D’s signature test design combines a usability test with a self-paced reading test, an eye-tracking test, and an interview. This comprehensive test design is able to prove whether the instruction manual both compensates for all product deficiencies and provides comprehensible operating instructions or not. Of course, the results of the tests have to be implemented into the instruction manual, too.

To sum up, the innovative idea of this scientific approach is to carry out a product analysis that is based on the theory of product language or semantics and aimed at identifying potential product deficiencies and to combine several tests that are able to show whether the instruction manual compensates for these deficiencies or not.This paper deals with analyses and tests that are required to make sure that the product users understand the operating instructions correctly and operate the product safely. This scientific approach is mainly based on an analysis of the product including aspects such as the product functions, product design, and product language. In many cases, these non-verbal semantic and communicative aspects are not tested for optimum usability and (self-explanatory) comprehensibility by the manufacturer. As a consequence, they might cause the product users to misunderstand or fail to understand the operating instructions. For this reason, the objective of the product analysis is to shed light on the product deficiencies which the instruction manual has to compensate for in order to ensure safe and proper product use despite the product deficiencies.

Further analyses include the audience analysis, risk analysis, problem analysis, etc., which are also needed to make sure that the instruction manual provides the product users with the required quantity and quality of information on how to use the product safely, effectively, and efficiently. It is absolutely imperative that the results of all the analyses performed be used to improve the operating instructions. However, it is not enough to conduct comprehensive analyses. In addition, comprehensibility tests have to be carried out in order to obtain scientific evidence of the safe usability of the product. Since all test methods currently available offer both advantages and disadvantages and are not capable of detecting all potentially critical deficiencies in the product and the manual efficiently, the bachelor’s program “Communication and Documentation” (K&D) at Aschaffenburg University of Applied Sciences has embarked on carrying out research on optimum test designs for examining instruction manuals. A combination of various test methods allows to compensate for the drawbacks of the individual tests and ensures a higher level of comprehensibility, usability, and thus safety of the operating instructions. K&D’s signature test design combines a usability test with a self-paced reading test, an eye-tracking test, and an interview. This comprehensive test design is able to prove whether the instruction manual both compensates for all product deficiencies and provides comprehensible operating instructions or not. Of course, the results of the tests have to be implemented into the instruction manual, too.

To sum up, the innovative idea of this scientific approach is to carry out a product analysis that is based on the theory of product language or semantics and aimed at identifying potential product deficiencies and to combine several tests that are able to show whether the instruction manual compensates for these deficiencies or not.

Technical Communication and the Information Challenge: ECQA Certification on Different Levels

Frieda Steurs, University of Leuven, Belgium

In the globalized knowledge and information societies, specialized language has become a pre-requisite of any kind of efficient and effective communication, management and interoperability of technical systems and methodologies. Terminology and terminology management build an integral, high quality and quality assuring part of the end products, services and tools in the fields of: Information & communication, Classification & categorization, Translation & localization.

The new job profile "Certified Terminology Manager - Basic" combines and bundles the various competences of professionals active in these areas. The job role CTM contains six major units:

1. Understanding Terminology Management
2. Terminology Management Skills
3. Business Process & Management Skills
4. Team Working & Communication Skills
5. Application Scenarios
6. Standards & Legal Issues

In the presentation, we will focus on the assetsof this programme, and on the importance of terminology for the professional world.

Practitioners’ Perspectives of the Technical Communication Field in Ireland

Yvonne Cleary, School of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication, University of Limerick, Ireland

Technical communication is a relatively new occupational field  in the Republic of Ireland , which has grown in response to the location of software and hardware companies in the country. Because it is also a new area of academic study, with just one academic programme in technical communication in Ireland, no research to date has examined the Irish technical communication context. This study seeks to begin addressing this research gap by examining practitioners’ perspectives of technical communication in Ireland, specifically exploring four key themes which emerge from the literature on communities of practice and professionalisation: practice, education and training, status and value, and professional and community structures. The study also acknowledges the impact of technology, on technical communication specifically, and on professional work generally.

The data gathered in the study are largely qualitative, in line with the exploratory nature of the approach.

The study’s findings indicate that Irish technical communicators exhibit traits of communities of practice (such as joint enterprise and shared repertoires). They also identify with their job title and practice. A key finding is that many Irish technical communicators, especially freelancers and lone writers, have a keen appetite for community involvement.

This enthusiasm notwithstanding, many barriers impede professionalization specifically, and community development more generally, not least the low visibility of the role in Ireland, limited evidence of professionalising activity, and the potential for career stagnation.

Technical Documentation as Part of Student Project Work

Cristian Dragomirescu, Voichita Ghenghea and Elisabeth Lazarou, Technical University of Bucharest, Romania

Due to the flood of information the knowledge gap between professionals and the rest of society is expanding and one has to take seriously into account the risk that domain-specific knowledge is often not efficiently understood by non-specialists/laymen. Experts have to improve text intelligibility by all means in a society based on technology and on division of labour where knowledge transfer is becoming increasingly important.
With respect to the changing profile of the engineer, whose area of activity is situated at the interface between production and consumption, and the fact that engineers in leadership positions are also responsible for the quality of information and knowledge transfer (e.g. in the form of instructional texts), the authors of the present paper believe that teaching specialized languages at technical universities is meant to develop a new objective in the foreign language curricula. Engineering students should be made aware of their responsibility towards ensuring the effectiveness of knowledge transfer among laymen/endusers as well as among specialists; therefore, a curricula update, made possible by the inclusion in the curriculum of two new course offers, entitled  Technical Writing and Technical Documentation at the University „Politehnica” of Bucharest (Faculty of Engineering in Foreign Languages, German Department), might be according to the authors a timely requirement for technical universities in Romania if we envisage a revised profile of the engineering qualification in the global labour market.
These assumptions are documented by the description of projects with students of the German Department that show the benefits on the one hand of making use of teaching the two courses mentioned above, on the other hand of the collaborative interdisciplinary work between academic staff, namely a language teacher and a specialist teaching subject courses, which is nowadays a must. To this purpose two engineering Bachelor-theses have been selected; they contain each at least one chapter dealing with technical documents, more precisely with a) the evaluation of instructions for use for electrical appliances and b) the design of a booklet for construction design of a medical appliance. The two approaches dealing with nonspecialist vs. specialist documentation are analysed and compared according to a pattern mainly from the point of view of text intelligibility. A special attention is payed to the interdisciplinary work of the two teachers, who used to be advisers of the students.

The results are a good proof of the importance of an interdisciplinary approach when dealing  with technical documentation for engineering students, since they can rely on their prior specialised knowledge in order to understand the subject matter and at the same time their benefit from the new courses Technical Writing and Technical Documentation, which we hope to be introduced in the near future into the curricula to be used in Romanian technical universities.