Screen-Cap Tips for Beginners

If you’re starting out in technical writing, here are some things to consider when adding screen-caps to user manuals and training guides.

1. Screen-caps should have data in the fields, to help people understand the window. If you want to show the window as it is when first opened, which is mostly empty, add a second screen-cap at the end of the section showing an example. The example needs to be valid – something that could actually work, not random selections.

2. As much as you can, use the same example throughout to help people follow the work-flow.

3. If you need names, use either common stand-ins like John Doe or made-up names. Do not use names of fellow employees, world leaders or celebrities.

4. If you need images, either buy something from an image supplier or take a picture yourself. Do not use images without permission from their owners, even if it’s a picture of a standard work of art (such as the Mona Lisa) or a building.

5. Do not use images of people unless absolutely necessary, and at all times use an image from an image supplier. Do not use company employees or your family.

6. 1024×768 is a horrible resolution for work, but better resolutions often create screen-caps in which small details cannot be read, so you may have to live with it.

7. It’s all right to highlight areas of a screen-cap or add screen-caps that show only parts of the window to help the user see what you’re talking about. But if you’re highlighting, make sure the colour is friendly (not red), works well with the UI itself (does not blend or clash too much) and is not jarringly bright.

8. Remember to edit real-life details like your IP or the names and details of real people.

9. If the window contains an error that you expect will be fixed before the version is out, like a spelling mistake, correct it in the screen-cap. If you think it won’t be fixed, leave it wrong in the screen-cap – no need to draw people’s attention to a mistake .

10. Put a thin border around a screen-cap, especially if your GUI is light-coloured. This helps distinguish the screen-cap from the page’s background.

11. Always add a caption, but don’t count on people reading it: important information must be in the main document text, even if you also put it in the caption.

12. Number the captions so that you can refer to them by number rather than a vague description or a placement (“below”).

13. If you’re writing about a website or an in-browser application, cut out as much of the browser as you can. The Favourites bar, your Google Mail and your choice of news-sites should not be visible.

14. Don’t leave an image floating on the page, because any change to the text will place the image in the wrong place. I thought this one was obvious, but today I went over a document where all the images were in the wrong place because the font size was changed.

One final note: if your application is partly transparent, be careful what you place behind it when you take your screen caps.

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