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Visual Storytelling Guides: A New Deliverable in Technical Communication?

by Tom Johnson on Oct 12, 2011 •
categories: technical-writing

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.
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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.