Text, Images, Or Videos In Technical Communication?
Your company doesn’t just want to sell high-quality products. As a technical writer, you also want to provide product-related help documents that are informative and helpful for users.
There are a lot of tools for this task: text editors, graphics, and video programs. But how do you decide when text, images, or video is the right choice for your product instructions?
In this blog article, I ask 15 questions to help you choose the optimal media.
1. Is The Use Of Images Or Videos Prohibited By Law?
Most legal regulations do not make any statements about the use of videos and images. However, there are possible conflicts with applicable laws, so using these media can be problematic.
In some countries, printed instructions must be supplied with certain products. In such cases, videos cannot be used as the primary medium, and images are not necessarily the best solution either.
In American product safety laws, there is an obligation to point out possible risks associated with the use of the product. A violation of this warning obligation (due to insufficient, unclear, or incomplete warnings) could lead to strict liability and compensation obligations on the part of the manufacturer if a defective product caused the damage.
There are also safety guidelines in the European Union that require clear instructions for use. For example, the Low Voltage Directive 2014/35/EU Provides such instructions and safety information and labeling should be clear, prominent, and understandable.
You will be held liable if buyers are not sufficiently warned as a manufacturer.
Images alone are often insufficient for clear instructions and warnings; sometimes, instructions with text need to be printed out.
Photos deteriorate quickly, especially when you print them in black and white. It would help if you used text when required to do so by law. Use images and videos for support only.
2. Do Users Have Internet Access?
To play videos, a fast internet connection is usually required. Consumers do not always have Internet access when looking for specific product information.
Explainer videos on YouTube are only searched for and viewed when consumers have internet access. In this case, the need for information is less urgent than if – just as an example – a train gets stuck in the tunnel. Then, of course, offline information would be desirable! It is best to provide text (supported by illustrations) if the content is available offline.
3. Is The Content Updated Regularly?
Video documentation is not so well suited for products that are constantly being revised, updated, or further developed. Adjusting videos repeatedly can be cumbersome and expensive, and text and images are easier to update. Use text in combination with illustrations if you expect the user interface or product design to change often.
4. Can Images Illustrate, Replace, Or Add Meaning To The Text?
In user assistance, photos, illustrations, tables, screenshots, diagrams, and schematics are used to give the target audience a general overview of the devices, parts, and components.
The installation of a product can be explained very easily with illustrations. The illustrations adorn the text or even make it superfluous.
Technical specifications or data are easier to read in tabular form. A table can also replace the text in some cases.
A software manual is easier to understand with screenshots.
The more pictures you include, the fewer words you need. But images cannot always fully replace text. Warnings, for example, are often challenging to visualize visually, which can lead to dangerous situations.
Use images only if they can illustrate, replace, or make the text easier to understand.
5. Can Images Or Video Reduce Localization Costs?
The main reason for using visual media should be easier for users to understand. Sometimes this decision is also made for reasons of cost. IKEA often supplies installation manuals with almost no text, and this saves money on translation costs because IKEA delivers to 28 different countries (with 17 other languages).
It might take a couple of hours to produce some images for a global audience, but translating a long text into 17 different languages would be much more expensive. If you sell your products globally, consider illustrations or videos without text, which could significantly reduce localization costs.
6. What Is The Localization Process For User Assistance?
Again, this can be a costly decision, but we have to be realistic. Even if technical communication is changing rapidly, not much money is invested in this area.
Limit the localization process to images and videos before starting your support.
Do you need the text in your illustrations? Do you ship to 28 countries?
It is well known that translating images can be expensive.
There are professional tools that can export text in images for translation, for example, Snagit. However, you should avoid translating all Illustrator files into 28 different languages.
A rule of thumb is that text alone is more accessible to translate than images with embedded text.
Don’t use visual documentation if you don’t have a budget for localization or if the additional expense isn’t worth it.
When looking for valuable tools for the localization process, they also export data such as the text in images, variables, metadata, table of contents, and the text in image layers for translation.
7. Do You Have Sufficient Resources To Create Images And Videos?
Creating videos and images requires more skills than writing technical instructions.
Many technical writers can create excellent text tutorials, but they are not necessarily experienced image designers or video experts.
A poorly made image or video will most likely miss its purpose.
Photos can be a cheap alternative to illustrations. However, photos are often not that informative because they contain too much information. Inserted arrows don’t make a photo much clearer either.
Anyone who wants to create high-quality visual documentation should learn the skills necessary to create visual media that is clear and helpful. Great helpful visual communication tools don’t require any professional experience.
This allows technical writers to incorporate visual elements without much learning curve.
8. Do I Have To Demonstrate Something?
Information about processes for learning a specific task should show the individual steps of the task flow.
Research results show that a demonstration of process flows in the process documentation improves learning outcomes.
Videos can supplement process information with demonstrations of critical functions and workflows.
To determine if a demonstration is needed, you should start with a process description (including photos if necessary). If you come across procedures that are too difficult to explain with text alone, then a video can be helpful.
9. Do I Have To Show Movement?
In the field of user assistance, movement often plays a significant role.
For example, it is helpful to show mouse movement when working with the Photoshop Polygonal Lasso, turning a hard-to-reach valve tool, threading a sewing machine, or picking a lock.
Movement is difficult to explain with text or photos alone.
Use video when you want to show movement.
10. Do I Have To Show A Specific Condition?
It is also challenging to explain a condition with pictures, photos, or text alone.
The visual cues from LED lights, identifying engine noise, indicating when the cement has reached the right consistency, or testing if a pudding is ‘jiggly’ enough are all excellent examples of a ‘condition.’
Videos help explain what something should look like and what state should be achieved.
11. Do I Have To Show A Power Effect?
How forces work and are applied with photos or text.
If you’re trying to show how much force to use when tightening bolts with a wrench, how to “finger tight” an assembly, or how hard to pull on an iMac panel to get it loose, these are all good examples.
Video is ideal when you need to show power actions.
12. How Many People Do I Want To Reach?
The only thing people like better than pictures are moving pictures.
Learning videos are very popular.
If you searched “how to” on YouTube, you would get 439 million hits! A YouTube tutorial on folding a t-shirt has been viewed nearly 9 million times!
Someone is 75% more likely to watch a video than read a text. Video tutorials are watched; the text is omitted.
If you want to reach as many people as possible, you should choose videos.
13. Does My User Need Precise Information?
Videos can be frustrating when just looking for a particular piece of information.
Nobody wants to watch a 20-minute video if they are only looking for a very specific screw in the component. It is easier to search for the term in the PDF manual with CTRL+F or scroll through the chapters in the printout.
Searching a video for a specific term is more complex than searching text or images.
You can make videos easier to read by adding captions or subtitles and making the text searchable.
Do not use videos when very specific information is required. Text works better in these cases.
14. What Is My Budget?
Money! Professionally made videos and images can be expensive. When images and videos are created by amateurs, the quality can be inferior.
An amateur video can also be acceptable depending on the target group (e.g., internal or external users) and your commitment.
Most software products can be explained well with inexpensive screen casting videos.
15. How Important Is It That Users Remember The Information?
Some users need quick, one-time information; others need to learn something that they need to use repeatedly over the long term.
Carefully crafted videos are more efficient and effective media for education and training, and the content learned is remembered later.
Videos are the right learning tool when users memorize information and reproduce it later.