Where Are the Pictures?

By Ann Sweeney

Open a typical help function integrated into most software programs and notice what is often mysteriously missing: visual content, pictures, illustrations, icons and symbols. This is somewhat surprising because more and more of technical writing production time is dedicated to producing online documents that include visuals (Harrison 1), especially now that the technology to create and deliver high quality visual material readily exists. When it appears as though readers of technical communication in general, and readers of online documentation and help systems specifically, are an average cross-culture sample of the reading and technology-using public, then it should stand to reason that they would also be people who are used to combining text and visual content in order to process information (Qiuye 12). Where are there so few pictures in help documentation?

Just the pictures, please

A reader gravitating towards looking at pictures before reading the text is a common phenomenon.  Reinforced by Western reading pedagogy, the “habit” starts with using pictures as storytelling platforms, ultimately graduating to visuals that function as reinforcements to meaning and detail (Search 629). Although it seems to be most prevalent with American and European readers, this need to look at the pictures is not specifically cultural (Qiuye 8). Human communication and processing of information is based on visual thinking, in other words, communication started with communicating information symbolically, and in visual terms: gestures, diagrams, signs. Cognitively, people looking at a photograph will interpret a set of symbols, the individual and multiple parts of the picture, to come up with meaning and information that is visually “heavier” than words.  The strength of visual communication is in the speed and extent of human interpretation (Harrison 16), but there too lies its weakness. When meaning is left to interpretation, exactly what is meant to be communicated can be confused, misinterpreted, even completely missed.

Verbal-visual integration

In technical documents, the main purpose for using visuals is to literally help the reader visualize the information that they glean from the written text (Qiuye 2000, 6).  Ideally, visuals in technical communication do not take the place of text, but repeat the information given by the text, reinforcing meaning and clarifying any abstractions. Visuals are intended to make the written text more accessible and to “even the playing field” for readers of differing skill levels and learning styles (Harrison 2). Just as in other content formats, visuals attract attention first, and are interpreted by readers as a more alluring and immediate informative content, capturing readers’ attention even before they begin to process textual information (Search 1993, 631). Visuals can even make a point with more compelling force than written text (Qiuye, 3). In fact, readers interpret words as symbols, and even more so when the vocabulary is relatively simple and the sentence length is short, as in online help language. By making help language ultra-simplistic and not reinforcing content with visual referents, writers of online help systems are actually making their products less attractive, less functional, and potentially less used by those who need them (Harrison, 16).

Words are also pictures

One way in which technical communicators are adding visual elements to help systems that are presently void of obvious visual tools and content is through the use of graphics which guide and emphasize, and by making text into symbols that carry more meaning than the literal word definition or potential connotation(s).  By bolding action-related words, or by recreating how a word will look in the format in which it is or will be used, a writer is asking readers to use the same interpretive skills they use when looking at pictures (Qiuye, 4; Harrison, 16).  A word becomes a symbol. However, excluding textual content over text to be used symbolically is not reliable until there are cross-cultural meaning “norms” for such words, and in terms of technology-related meaning, those “norms” are not yet consistent, or do not yet exist (Qiuye, 4).

The trend right now for incorporating visuals into traditionally text-based content in online technical communication appears to be that of an even placement of words and visuals. Because one of the pitfalls of an information delivery system that is based on visuals is that of subjective interpretation, chances are that text will always carry the primary information, while visuals will act as content and meaning reinforcement (Search, 635). This makes sense in technical writing and communication where information tends to be specific and exact.  While many software systems would greatly benefit from adding and incorporating pictures, screen captures, illustrations and diagrams, help functions based on communicating via symbols will probably not be seen in the near future (Search, 636).



Harrison, C. “Visual social semiotics: Understanding how still images make meaning.” Technical communication online: Applied research.

Qiuye, W. 2000. “A cross-cultural comparison of the use of graphics in scientific and technical communication.” Technical communication online: Applied research 47 no. 4. http://www.techcomm-online.org/issues/v47n4/full/0425.html

Search, P. 1993. “Computer graphics: Changing the language of visual communication.” Technical communication 40 no. 4.