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Embracing the New Vernacular Instead of Pursuing the Holy Grail of Single Sourcing

by Tom Johnson on Nov 22, 2007
categories: technical-writing

Help should be like having a friend sitting beside youFor a long time, I looked at help authoring tools in terms of their single sourcing ability -- creating the source material in the tool, and then outputting to online help, print, and other targets. However, I've given up on the ideal, at least for now. I'm convinced that the new vernacular, as a SXSW podcast called it, is audio and video.

If faced with a decision between learning via written instructions or audiovisual screen demos, which would you prefer? In most situations, I prefer the audiovisual. When learning software, most users want someone to show them how, to sit beside them and walk me through the steps in a lively, dynamic way.

If audiovisual is the new vernacular (look at the proliferation of online videos, podcasts, gaming, webinars, etc.), why are we wasting so much time trying to single source between online help and printed manuals, confining ourselves to the written medium? Instead, the following deliverables might yield better user results:

  • A 1-2 page Quick Start Guide that gets the user up and running with the core tasks in the application.
  • 5-10 short screen demos that show the user how to perform the tasks.
  • A comprehensive online help that the user can search to find further information in the instant he or she needs it.

For too long I've minimized the importance of the audiovisual. Captivate -- the industry standard tool for creating screen demos -- is actually a relatively simple application. Mastering it and integrating audiovisual into user help will take it to the next level.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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