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New Roman vs. Arial: Choosing a Typeface for Online Documentation
the Difference? Paper vs. Online Documentation
Browse Sequencing in Online Help Systems
In Every Issue
Letter from the Editor
Meet the Staff
Times New Roman vs. Arial: Choosing a Typeface for Online Documentation
by Ryan Walters
Picture this: a
computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and you, scanning what seems to be
endless text that may as well go on forever. As you are reading you find
yourself squinting to see some words that are difficult to read. About the
time you reach the middle of the text you realize that you are not reading
as quickly as you could. You decide that you need to increase the text
size, but now there is a constant click of your mouse as you have to
scroll twice as quickly to keep up with your reading.
Could all of this have
been avoided? Yes, and the answer is a simple solution that can be done
quickly and easily during or after the document has been created.
This answer lies in the
typeface the author uses. Although there are hundreds of typefaces
available, there are only a select few that are used for reading on a
computer. Choosing the right typeface for reading on a computer is
important, because it will affect the way your readers perceive your page;
as serious and formal, or friendly and casual. But most important is whether
or not the reader can read the information.
A quick history lesson
shows that Verdana was the typeface shipped with Internet Explorer 3, which
was released in August of 1996. At this time online help for various
software programs was becoming readily available.
Verdana is a san serif
typeface (sans serif typefaces do not have the small lines at the ends of
each character and because of this each letter may have a different width)
and was the Internet typeface of choice for several years because of its
exceptional on-screen readability. Even though Verdana is a common Internet
typeface eventually the two most commonly used paper-based typefaces, Times
New Roman and Arial, began taking over online documentation (Bernard et al.
In their study, Bernard
et al. focused on the readability and legibility of varying 10- and 12-point
sizes of both Times and Arial on computer monitors. Interesting results
included that there were no legibility issues with either of the typefaces
at the two sizes. Also, both sizes of the Arial typeface were read slower in
all conditions, but the 12-point Arial typeface was the preferred typeface
in all conditions. Finally, all participants stated that the 12-point size
was more legible, for both typefaces, in all conditions. Conclusions from
post-trial interviews found that sans serif typefaces as a whole have better
perceived readability, and readers would like to see all websites convert
Another study, done by
Kingery and Furuta (1997), had participants skim online newspaper headlines
comparing four typefaces, which included Times New Roman, Arial, Book
Antiqua, and Century Gothic. Of the four, the two that were most often
preferred were Times and Arial.
When a comparison
between the two was made, Arial edged out Times as the favorite with regards
to readability and legibility. Participants were noted as saying that the
serifs caused the reader to focus more on separate words of the headline
instead of the title as a whole.
Both of these studies
support that Times and Arial are the most commonly used Internet typefaces,
but that is where the similarities end. Based on these studies, Arial is
more readable and legible while doing on-screen reading, even though readers
were not able to read as quickly. As reading on a computer is becoming more
and more common, the choice of typeface has become crucial, and Arial seems
to be the user’s preferred typeface. When designing any online
documentation, ideally typeface should be the least of your concerns, but as
it is seen here there are aspects that make some typefaces better than
Bernard, M., B.
Chaparro, M. Mills, and C. Halcomb. 2003. Comparing the effects of text
size and format on the readability of computer-displayed Times New Roman and
Arial text. International Journal of Human Computer Studies 59:
Kingery, D. and R.
Furuta. 1997. Skimming electronic newspaper headlines: a study of typeface,
point size, screen resolution, and monitor size. Information Processing
and Management 33 (5): 685-696.
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What's the Difference? Paper vs. Online Documentation
by Gretchen Herrick
appear in a variety of forms. When you buy a computer product, hardware or
software, it almost always comes with one or more manuals. In addition to
the paper manual many times products will come with an online version of
the documentation. With two forms of documentation one might ask what the
difference between the two is, and which one is better.
First, one of the most
common forms of paper documentation is a manual. Manuals describe how to
install and operate the product. Online documentation is usually displayed
on the screen instead of on a piece of paper. One of the most common forms
of online documentation is a help system. Most online help systems have the
documentation embedded into the product. One example of an online help
system is Microsoft’s Office Word. While typing a document in Word if a user
wanted to figure out how to set a style to the first paragraph of their
document, the user would click on Help, and type setting style in the
Another popular form of
online documentation is online tutorials. Online tutorial documentation
teaches a user how to use the product. Online documentation is not perfect
and some complaints computer users have is that the documentation is hard to
make out, but with advances in online documentation it is becoming easier
for users to access the specific information.
Which of the forms of
documentation is better? Both forms of documentation sound really similar
because they describe how to operate a product, and provide help to the
user. However one seems to be easier to use and is more popular than the
other. Current trends point toward online documentation. In fact many
products that you buy today come with a quick start guide and the manual can
be found online. Reasons why online documentation has become more popular
include: online documentation is more convenient. It does not require the
user to store a manual, and look for it every time they need help. Also,
Collier (1998) states, “online documentation is more usable, you don’t have
to flip any pages, or even worse flip back and forth to a table of contents”
Paper and online are not
the only two forms of documentation. One form that is fairly new and growing
is multimedia documentation. Baldasare (1994) defines multimedia
documentation by stating, “Multimedia documentation is user information that
includes text, graphic art, and any combination of time based media of
sound, and animation, and video delivered by computer and providing users
with opportunities for interaction”(107). Multimedia documentation sounds
similar to online documentation but one thing that distinguishes it from
online is that it includes various forms of media, not just text or graphics
on a screen. They also are typically livelier than online documents.
With so many forms of
documentation writers must decide what form to use when analyzing the
product’s audience. There are advantages and disadvantages to each form. It
might be said that paper documentation is dated and that online and
multimedia documentation are slowly gaining popularity because they are more
lively and easier to use.
Baldasare, J., M.T.
Dumbra, and B.C. Trevaskis. 1994. Creating Easy-to-Use Documentation for
Paper, Online, and Multimedia. STC Proceedings. Society for Technical
Collier, K.E. 1998.
Using Hardcopy Documentation in the Transition to Online Documentation. STC
Proceedings. Society for Technical Communication, http://www.stc.org
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Where are the Pictures?
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 2003), 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 2000). Why are there
so few pictures in help documentation?
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 1993, 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 2000,
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, and
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 2003, 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.
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 2003, 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 2000, 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
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
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 (Qiuye2000, 4;
Harrison 2003, 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 2000, 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 1993, 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 1993, 636).
Harrison, C. 2003.
Visual social semiotics: Understanding how still images make meaning.
Technical Communication Online: Applied Research 50(1).
Qiuye, W. 2000. A cross-cultural comparison of the
use of graphics in scientific and technical communication. Technical
communication Online: Applied Research 47(4).
1993. Computer graphics: Changing the language of visual communication.
Technical Communication 40(4).
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Browse Sequencing in Online Help Systems
by Kevin Sanderfoot
We have all been lost
at one time or another in the maze that sometimes constitutes online help
and documentation. Unfortunately, most of us do not know we are lost until
it is too late and we are beyond finding our way. It is not uncommon to
enter an online help document seeking answers to specific questions, only
to leave frustrated and asking even more basic questions (Andrisani et al.
As paper documentation
continues to give way to online equivalents as the primary source for
presenting instruction and user assistance, the concept of browse sequencing
should be considered in document design. The purpose of a browse sequence is
to lead users through help documents in a sequential order arranged by the
writer of the document (Farkas and Gibbs 1994).
Browse sequences, much
like the orientation of printed documentation—where step A precedes step B
and step C follows B—are often omitted from help systems. One survey found
that only one-third of help systems contained browse sequences (Elley 1998).
While the omission of browse sequencing from online help allows greater
freedom on the part of the user, it also presents the potential for
confusion if the user accesses help topics in a different order than the
help system’s author intended.
The navigation from one
help topic to the next may cause confusion among some software users because
there are multiple ways for accessing information in online documents (e.g.,
a contents page, index, or full-text search) (Elley 1998).
Despite numerous avenues
for retrieving data, three situations contribute to users becoming lost or
disoriented: 1) they do not know where to go next, 2) they know where to go
but not how to get there, or 3) they do not know where they are in relation
to the overall document (Andrisani et al. 2001). One way of helping users
navigate successfully through help documents is organizing information in a
way that is similar to that of a printed book. Online help authors should
consider the book analogy (Andrisani et al. 2001). Browse sequencing works
in a similar way. “The role of a browse sequence is to provide the
equivalent of sequentially reading a book” (Farkas and Gibbs 1994, 266).
Various design options
are available for help authors who wish to incorporate browse sequencing in
their documents. Two examples are single segment and multiple segments.
Single segment is the simplest method for establishing a sequence. This
long, single sequence contains most, if not all, topics found in the help
system. A variation to this is multiple segments. Here the user is presented
with multiple segments, each containing similar or grouped topics (Farkas
and Gibbs 1994).
Should my help system
contain a browse sequence?
Browse sequences can
provide a valuable service to users. Sequences present information and help
topics in an organized, logical manner that reduces opportunities for the
user to become lost in the document. With that said, there are two reasons
typically given by help authors for not using a browse sequence: 1) users
don’t use the browse sequence to its full potential, and 2) browse sequences
are difficult to design for large and complex systems (Farkas and Gibbs
users and the size and complexity of the help system are the best ways to
determine if a browse sequence should be incorporated in a project.
Designing and situating a browse sequence within a help system may not
always be easy, but it is worth the effort if it increases usability and
Andrisani, D., A.V. Gaal,
D. Gillette, and S. Steward. 2001. Making the most of interactivity online.
Technical Communication 48(3): 309-323.
Elley, F. 1998. The
state of navigation. STC Proceedings. Society for Technical Communication,
Farkas, D.K., and B.R.
Gibbs. 1994. The browse sequence in online help. STC Proceedings. EServer TC
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Letter from the Editor
This issue marks the return of Techniques as a printed newsletter. Over
the past few semesters, publication switched to a solely online format.
Most of the content in this issue (Times New Roman vs. Arial: Choosing
a Typeface for Online Documentation by Ryan Walters, What’s the
Difference? Paper vs. Online Documentation by Gretchen Herrick,
Where Are the Pictures? by Ann Sweeney, and Browse Sequencing in
Online Help Systems by Kevin Sanderfoot) came from the Spring 2005
online edition. To read other articles from that edition or previous ones,
We welcome letters from our readers. Send comments, questions or concerns
to our faculty advisors.
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Minnesota State Mankato’s technical communication program recently
welcomed a new member to the faculty this semester. Gretchen Haas comes to
the program from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, where she spent
the last six years working at the Office of Information technology and
teaching as a graduate instructor in the Department of Rhetoric while she
completed her doctorate in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical
Mlady Receives STC Scholarship
Grace Mlady won the STC-Twin Cities undergraduate scholarship for the
2005-2006 academic year. Grace became the first Minnesota State Mankato
student to receive an STC scholarship from the Twin Cities chapter after
winning the competition with her submission of a multimedia presentation
titled Using Yahoo! Maps – an Online Help System. For information
about scholarship opportunities, check out the bulletin board on page 6.
The Minnesota State Mankato STC website has been updated and now features
a jobs and internship page. Any employers that have potential openings for
Minnesota State Mankato students are encouraged to contact us with
The website also features archived issues of Techniques, as well as
resources and links to technical communication related information.
New STC Officers
Nominations for chapter officers took place during the September 22
meeting. The officers include: Kevin Sanderfoot – President, Andrew
Robertson – Vice President, Gretchen Herrick – Secretary, Arlandis Jones –
Treasurer, and Denise Ware – Event Coordinator. All five are graduate
students in the technical communication program at Minnesota State Mankato.
By the Numbers:
Enrollment in Technical
Communication at Minnesota State Mankato
Enrollment in the technical communication program at Minnesota State
Mankato is fairly even between undergraduate and graduate students.
Department numbers for Fall 2005 show 42 students enrolled in undergraduate
major, minor, and certificate programs and 37 students enrolled in graduate
degree and certificate programs.
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The Twin Cities chapter of the STC meets once a month, September
through June. For information about dates, location and programs, visit
the STC-Twin Cities website (http://www.stctc.org).
Every year, STC and STC-Twin Cities offer scholarships to undergraduate
and graduate students pursuing careers in technical communication.
Interested students may obtain applications, instructions and deadline
information on the web at http://www.stc.org and
ACM SIGDOC (Association for
Computer Machinery – Special Interest Group on the
Design of Communications) offers a $500 scholarship for undergraduate
students studying for careers in communication design. SIGDOC also
sponsers a competition for graduate students. For more information, visit
Minnesota State Mankato STC student chapter holds meetings on the second
and fourth Thursday each month in Centennial Student Union on the
Minnesota State University, Mankato campus. Meetings start at 5:00 P.M.
and generally last thirty to forty-five minutes. For exact dates and room
locations, visit the Minnesota State Mankato STC website.
Minnesota State Mankato student chapter also holds field trips and other
technical communication related events throughout the year. Information
and dates for upcoming events can be found on the chapter website.
Feel free to
contact Minnesota State Mankato student chapter officers or Techniques
staff with any questions or comments about the items listed.
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Meet the Staff
Kevin Sanderfoot plans to finish his master’s degree
in technical communication in Spring 2006. In the mean time, he works as a
graduate assistant in the English department at Minnesota State Mankato
and serves as contributor, copy editor and graphics and layout editor for
Before coming to Minnesota State Mankato, Kevin
attended the University of Minnesota where he received his Bachelor of Arts
degree in journalism. Although he misses the hustle and bustle, and even the
traffic, in Minneapolis, Kevin enjoys living in the Mankato area. When not
working or studying, he can often be found biking around the Southern
Upon the completion of his graduate studies, Kevin
hopes to find employment as a technical writer in the computer industry. He
also hopes to move someplace where it doesn’t snow as much.
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