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  • Writer's pictureNouran Smogluk

Best Practices For Creating and Optimizing Visuals in Your Help Documentation


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“A picture is worth a thousand words.”


Customers nowadays expect instant answers to their questions, and technical writers have to deliver information in a way that isn’t only informative but that’s also engaging and accessible. 


That’s why visuals can drastically improve how easily your customers understand the information you want to convey. 


Why you should use visuals in technical documentation


Visuals are one of the most powerful and underutilized tools in documentation. 


Airbnb is one famous example of a company that actively chose not to have a single image in its help center. 


It’s easy to get hung up on the challenges:


  • Visuals take more work, increasing the average time it takes to produce an article. 

  • SaaS and tech companies, in particular, tend to have rapidly changing products, so documentation gets out of date much faster. 

  • Visuals are also not the most accessible option for people with vision impairments or sensitivity to screens. 


But there are strong and very compelling reasons for using visuals anyway.


The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. That means visuals can have a massive, immediate impact on comprehension. 


They can also aid retention. When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if an image is paired with the same information, people retain 65% of what they learn after three days.


Technical documentation is meant to be a resource for your customers or users. If there’s something you can do to present that information in a way that’s more helpful for your customers, you ought to give it a try.


Five best practices for great visuals in help documentation


The only challenge is designing efficient processes that help you balance the workload in creating and maintaining visuals with their impact on your audience. 


Visuals impact how we process information:


  • Cognitively, by drawing our attention to particular pieces of information that impact comprehension and retention most. 

  • Emotionally, by engaging our imagination and stimulating the creative thinking part of the brain. This influences how strongly we relate to the information that’s being shared. 


The best practices for using visuals in technical or help documentation come down to using them sparingly to great effect. 


Picking the right type of visual 


There are many different types of visuals:


  • Diagrams, like flowcharts or network diagrams, are typically used to illustrate relationships, processes, or structures. Think of troubleshooting flowcharts that can help a customer diagnose and solve an issue they’re facing.

  • Screenshots capture the image of a screen or app at a specific point in time. They often highlight parts of the software interface so customers know where to find the information they want.

  • Infographics summarize data or information using a combination of text, images, and graphics to convey complex concepts succinctly. They’re very common in hardware product manuals, where they display the key features and functionalities of the product in one simple image. 

  • Tables and charts organize and present data in a structured format. They make it significantly easier to compare and interpret information. Tables are very common in e-commerce to compare similar products and highlight their differences. 

  • Gifs are short, animated image files that loop continuously. They’re great for conveying a sequence of steps that are hard to capture in a single image.

  • Videos are the magnum opus of visuals in technical documentation. Not only do they have moving images, but they also have accompanying audio, making them the best choice for complex topics. They’re also typically much more engaging than the other options. 


Each of these has their own advantages and disadvantages. 

Type

Pros

Cons

Diagrams

  • Facilitate understanding of relationships and dependencies.

  • Can simplify and streamline complex concepts.

  • Can become cluttered and confusing if not well-designed.

Screenshots

  • Provide concrete visual examples of what users should expect to see.

  • Aid in troubleshooting by visually highlighting specific elements or issues.

  • Additional editing may be required to highlight relevant areas or remove sensitive information.

  • Can become outdated if software interfaces change frequently.

  • May not effectively convey dynamic or interactive elements.

Infographics

  • Condense large amounts of information into a visually appealing format.

  • Engage and captivate the audience with compelling visuals.

  • Highly shareable via social media

  • Require careful design and planning to communicate the intended message effectively.

  • Can be challenging to balance aesthetics with information.

Tables and charts

  • Provide a systematic and organized presentation of data.

  • Facilitate quick comparison and analysis of information.

  • May be overwhelming if too much data is presented at once.

  • Inaccessible and can be hard to read on small screens.

Gifs

  • Provide a dynamic and interactive demonstration of actions or processes.

  • Better at conveying a sequence of steps.

  • Can be distracting when overused.

  • Not very accessible and can easily be too small or too fast for people to follow.

  • Doesn’t allow customers the same level of control a video does. 

Videos

  • Offer a multi-sensory experience that engages auditory and visual learners.

  • Can convey complex information more effectively than text or static visuals alone.

  • Require significantly more time and resources to produce compared to other types of visuals.

  • May have accessibility issues for users with hearing or visual impairments.

  • Can be challenging to update or revise once published.


The best advice is to select the visual that requires the least effort while still achieving your desired outcome for your audience. 


It doesn’t make sense to create videos for everything (unless you have the time for it!) if, in many cases, a screenshot would suffice. Even if you have an amazing tool for video creation, remember to think about the maintenance effort as well. 


Using visuals in the right areas


When you start working on your content and documentation strategy, it’s good to start with a few ground rules about how you approach the articles you’re preparing.


It’s important to prioritize visuals in areas where they can provide the most value and clarity to your audience.


  • Do you have any complex or abstract concepts that would benefit from being represented visually? If you find yourself having to write five paragraphs to explain a concept, maybe you should think about adding a visual. 

  • Are there areas where they would help users troubleshoot problems or perform a task more efficiently? This is where you can look at your incoming tickets and see how often your support team has to explain something to a customer.


You can always create a visual quickly, publish it in an article, and see if it helps your customers. For example, Help Center Analytics can help you track the helpfulness rate before and after the change. 


You could even test it in responses to tickets and see if you can get live feedback from customers that way. 


Following universal design principles


Design principles give you some guidance on how visuals should look. 


You’re aiming for:


  • Consistency in style and format. Consistent visuals help users navigate the content more easily and establish a sense of familiarity and coherence. Use standardized symbols, colors, and formatting conventions.

  • Clear and uncluttered visuals. Use concise labels and minimalistic design elements to convey information efficiently and avoid overwhelming your audience. Visuals should convey the most important information in a snapshot.

  • Branding elements. You’ll probably want to align visuals in your technical documentation with your brand and product. 

  • Accessibility. Can a customer follow the written explanation without the visual? Accessibility is a much bigger issue if visuals start replacing text.


Using tools that make it easy


Long gone are the days when you had to take step-by-step screenshots of every step you wanted to illustrate to incorporate in a video. Nowadays, there are a huge number of tools that can help you create visuals quickly and easily.


These are just a few examples to show you the options:


  • Scribe can help you create step-by-step guides in minutes.

  • Iorad can transform a screen recording into a narrated video.

  • Loom can record your screen on a desktop or mobile. 

  • AppScreens offers a way to capture screenshots on mobile. 

  • Floik lets you choose between a wide variety of formats and can, for example, localize these automatically for you. 


And there are many more. 


A tool can transform the experience of creating and updating visuals from something that would take weeks to something that takes just a couple of hours. That’s why finding something with a feature set that does what you need is absolutely worth it. 


Developing a process for maintenance


Help documentation should garner trust from your customers. 


In an ideal world, they read the help article, which solves their problem, and they exit your help center feeling satisfied with the support quality. The next time they encounter an issue or have a question, you want them to be happy to recheck the help center. 


Out-of-date visuals are a sure-fire way to ruin that. 


Because visuals grab attention and your customers are more likely to look at the images before they read the text, it will be frustrating if they make them lose time. That means you need a good maintenance process when incorporating visuals.


  • Update your documentation with every product release. Making this a regular part of your process is the easiest way to ensure at least the biggest releases are always handled properly.

  • Implement a regular help center audit. Auditing is a great way to catch out-of-date content regularly, especially if you always first audit the most important articles.

  • Maintain an overview of which visuals you have where. You might do this in a spreadsheet or visualize it in a tool like Miro. Maintaining an overview of which articles have visuals and when they’ve last been updated will make it much easier to keep track of changes. 


Help documentation that has an impact


Integrating visuals thoughtfully throughout technical documentation can greatly impact how your customers engage with it. You’ll hopefully see that in your analytics as well. 


Creating and managing impactful help documentation can be daunting without the right tools and resources. 


That's where Swifteq comes in. 


Swifteq offers a comprehensive suite of tools specifically designed to streamline the process of managing and improving your Zendesk help center. 



 



Written by Nouran Smogluk

Nouran is a passionate people manager who believes that work should be a place where people grow, develop, and thrive. She writes for Supported Content and also blogs about a variety of topics, including remote work, leadership, and creating great customer experiences.


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