Visual Storytelling Guides: A New Deliverable in Technical Communication?

When I read books to my little girls (ages 5 and 7), the pictures combined with story provide a captivating experience. I’ve often thought that if I wanted to create documentation that people actually read, maybe I should integrate these two same elements: picture and story.

I’m not entirely sure what a product would look like that integrates these two elements, because technical writing usually lacks both visuals and story. It usually consists of dry technical procedures written in a list, meant to be read in any order, and stripped down to its most minimalistic expression.

So perhaps what I’m envisioning is a different kind of deliverable, rather than a remake of an existing deliverable. I’ve grown accustomed to creating the following standard deliverables:

  • Webhelp (HTML)
  • How-to Guide (PDF)
  • Quick Reference Guide (PDF)
  • Video Tutorial (flash)

Now there’s one more to add to this list: visual storytelling guide. This guide doesn’t compete with the other standards we maintain. We still write the traditional online help file. We still create quick reference guides and videos. But with the visual storytelling guide, we let our hair down a bit more and not worry so much about the economy of information as we unravel story after story coupled with strong images and possibly video.

The visual story begins with a character. In most cases, you would create a user persona based on user research. You then give this user/character a name and context. Then give the character a problem (a scenario). The character would then attempt to solve the problem, and in so doing, the reader learns how to perform various tasks.

Harry Miller is probably the best example of someone who is already doing visual storytelling. His visual stories about using Microsoft Outlook replace the dry documentation that people otherwise might not read. Check out this series of video storytelling episodes complete with actors, scenes, and dialogue.

See the difference? Visual storytelling is a new kind of deliverable.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Avi Solomon

    Miller’s Visio series is brilliant too:

    And Will Eisner was a pioneer in using storytelling for technical instruction:

    Here’s an inspiring collection of Eisner’s work for Preventive Maintenance Monthly

  • Bill Kerschbaum

    Thanks for sharing this. I think visual storytelling could be a compelling option in certain situations or for certain users. I’d imagine the trick is creating a story that doesn’t make the viewer impatient, but also doesn’t skimp on the essentials of a story.

    Makes me wonder, then, what the primary purpose of visual storytelling is, and what are the core principles behind it? For example, would it serve marketing purposes? Is it directed toward casual users only? Is it intended mostly to give the company a human face?

    • Harry

      I try to use stories in cases where customers might need an emotional push to try something new, or that sounds complicated in text, that can help them use the product better. Best practices are a good area – if you follow the link to the original article, the best practices look difficult to implement. But in the video format, it looks reasonable, and the experience of the hero might move viewers to try it themselves.

      A big part of making it look reasonable is removing detail, and as other commenters point out, that means people probably can’t simply watch the series and then implement the entire new workflow. But that wasn’t the goal of the series – the goal was to create something people would watch, that would give them the incentive to overcome their resistence to trying unfamiliar features.

      As Tom states in his article, this doesn’t replace other forms of content. Instead, it gives people insight into what features they should look for and the terms they should use to get more detailed help.

  • Marilyn Canna

    Not only is this not on You Tube, so I had to download a Microsoft application, but I also found the video not too helpful. That’s because unless I was memorizing the steps that Harry was learning I could not learn a new Outlook filing process because the visuals were too small and/or indistinct to follow.

    • William Chinda

      While the points Tom makes in his point are certainly valid, I have to agree with Marilyn’s assessment on the usefulness of the video. While (mildly) entertaining, the introduction doesn’t connect with the instructional content.

      Not to mention the lazy video editing. It doesn’t take much effort to zoom in on the relevant screen areas.

  • Larry Kunz

    This reminds me of a nice little video I saw, more than a year ago, on how to build a dirt sifter.

    In other words, Tom, I don’t think this approach is particularly new. But it is a good one to have in our tech comm toolboxes. Stories are always a good way to engage readers, and sometimes it’s a lot easier to show something visually than it is to describe it in words.

  • Scott Skibell


    Great example of using storytelling in training. This is very much a real world example and happens in break rooms everyday.

    I think these types of videos would be great for soft skills training. Imagine laying out a scenario, and demonstrating different outcomes. It would make for great edutainment. For technical, how-to training, it may get in the way and take too much time. I like where they’re going though.

    I’m also concerned about the cost factor. I can see where a large company like Microsoft could invest in this but these days, most training departments would have a hard time justifying the man hours required to produce this.

    • Harry

      I agree, soft skills are probably the best area for storytelling. About the different endings – I’ve seen training where they show a situation on video, then the viewer clicks one of several links saying what they think the best response would be. All responses go to different outcome videos. I’m trying to think of a good way to implement a test of this, just using the web, but haven’t made progress so far.

      About the cost – this was all produced using the same tools and people we use for regular documentation videos. No outsourcing, no hired actors, no new production people. Admittedly, that’s still pretty significant: a video camera, one video light, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, Camtasia, and a Microsoft cafeteria :-). Plus the great stroke of luck that some Office writers and managers have acting backgrounds! We did nine shooting sessions, each two to four hours long, and I spent probably 30 hours editing over the course of two months in between other writing duties. We had two people in the production crew, me and my manager, plus the actors, and that was it! Fortunately we were at a slow period in the writing/product cycle, after most content was done for the last version and before major writing could start for the next version.

  • Michael ‘MC’ Carter

    Great food for thought Tom. I love the use of online video for training, and we use it extensively on our Academy program (we teach marketing). I think the ideal mix is to blend story-based methods, with cut-to-the-chase pragmatic instructional approaches, and to always cater for the “speed readers”. I have installed software on my computer than allows me to speed up online videos, because I always feel like I want them to go much faster — the “get on with it” feeling in the midst of a busy day. For example, we have found for our business’ own internal documentation of ‘how to’ processes that whilst video/screencast tools like Jing/Screenr/Camtasia/ScreenFlow are amazing, the lack of “let me skip ahead to the part I want” means we also mix that with the series of screenshots and text (*loving* ScreenSteps software for creating that documentation). So … back to your post’s point about use of story … perhaps a comic-strip-like approach would achieve both the story telling objective, and the “let people skip ahead faster” approach? Kind of like sharing the storyboard of the video plus the full script? Your thoughts?

  • Mark Baker

    Hi Tom,

    I wonder how you would rank the “visual” and “storytelling” elements of this relative to each other. Audiences clearly split on videos, as some of the other comments here demonstrate. I am personally of the camp that finds videos tedious. This makes me wonder if we can get more universality by focusing on the storytelling element than on the visual element.

    There can be no debate about the power or the universality of storytelling. Some prefer books; some would rather watch TV; but everyone loves a good story. Might we not get more bang for our increasingly limited buck if we focused more on introducing storytelling into our written content, rather on on the obviously divisive media of video?

    In other words, and supposing we lack the resources to do both, could we capture the video crowd through storytelling in text, without turning off those who are impatient with videos?

    • Harry

      I’m interested in this too, Mark, but I wonder if it could work. My quick thoughts are that often what people find tedious about videos is 1) they can’t skim to get just the information they need super quickly, and 2) presenters in videos usually waste a lot of time explaining things unnecessarily and even going off track completely, but you can’t tell where the useful information is going to be so you’re captive, or you quit without learning what you need.

      Storytelling in text would seem to have the same drawbacks – that is, they’re stuck in the story if they want the information. Plus, it usually takes longer to describe things in text than to show it in video, so it would have to be an even better story than the video script. :-)

      I’m not saying at all that it shouldn’t be done, these are just thoughts off the top of my head. For the right type of content, it might be just the thing to motivate people. I think the strength of books over video is that books get you inside the heads of the characters where you can share their thoughts, whereas video just shows their actions. What kind of content would benefit from knowing the thoughts of the user character? Perhaps “getting started” material and advanced skills that solve higher-level problems users might not normally encounter?

  • Lamanai

    I agree that storytelling is pretty powerful and maybe it is still a bit underestimated on business level. Some people in the area may think it is just wasting of time and resources. Well, it shows up it is NOT! We have just published our first product video based on a simple story line, so if you want to check it, here it is: (in a few days, I will publish an article with the knowledge I would love to share about this topic and will be happy if you are interested. Thanks for a nice post!

  • Harry

    Thanks for the mention, Tom! I’ll let you know the response to the series after we get some data – whether it was helpful to people and if they liked the story format.

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