Speaking in Pictures

My friend works for a big automobile producer. He described their production lines' user documentation to me - or if I rephrase his words, “pictures-only documentation”. There is zero, or almost zero written explanation about what to do. Instead, everything is presented in clear sequences of photographs or pictures. The benefit of such an approach is magnificent - even poorly-educated workers, with very little training, understand what to do.

Why are pictures more explanatory?

  • Reading is a mentally difficult activity - you have to transform the linear stream of (written) words into sequences of inter-related ideas.

  • A technical description is usually written by an expert who uses special terms which might not be known to everybody.

Just imagine you bought a piece of new furniture in Ikea and the user guide was a carefully written technical document. If that was the case, I'm quite sure I wouldn't be sitting on an Ikea chair, behind an Ikea table, right now.

Bottom line - “speak to users in pictures”. It's clear that pictures work, pictures rule, a single picture is often better than a thousand words. The question is, how to use this wisdom within BI knowledge systems?

One clear field where we can use pictorial (or picture-based) documentation widely is in reports' documentation. Imagine a report in Business Objects or Cognos, a rather complicated one, containing several sheets and each sheet containing several tables, charts, filters or free texts. There are two alternative ways to document it:

  • text only - you take the report and describe its meaning, then you add a description to each separate heading on each separate sheet about the related tables, charts etc...

  • picture-based - you write the same explanations but instead use them as annotations to several screenshots of the report (possibly with blurred or anonymised data on them).


Your report is not so complex - one sheet or charts and tables


However, its “text-only” documentation seems complex and difficult to read...


Documentation with text accompanied by pictures is much more readable.


Each part of report is clearly highlighted.


The report map is interactive.. just click through.


What's so stunningly different about these two alternatives:

  • quick recognition - look at the screenshot of the report - you instantly recognise whether it's the documentation of the report you're interested in or not - with "text-only" it's more difficult to be sure.

  • documentation coverage - a good annotation system can instantly show what is documented on the report and what isn't. The user will know quickly whether the explanation he/she is seeking can be found there and the system admin can see at a glance how complete the documentation is.

  • navigation speed - the user can just click on the report's screenshot and obtain an instant explanation - there's no awkward scrolling down lengthy web pages or laborious browsing through documentation hierarchy.

  • little sensitivity to changes - changes can be made to the report, which aren't propagated into the documentation - e.g. changing a table's name. With text-only documentation this action can get you lost, because the texts of the headings are the only landmarks available to navigate by. However, with annotated screenshots even though you might not realise that "this table was renamed" you're still able to recognise that it's the one you're interested in.

This blog doesn't say much more than "pictures help a lot with understanding, often much more than text-only". I hesitated about writing it for a long time because the message seemed so obvious. However, I've been surprised by how difficult it is to convince BI people that providing picture-based documentation to their business users is a good idea and I changed my mind.

For example, Semanta Company Encyclopaedia provides the above-mentioned annotating features and two of our customers have recently introduced our Business Objects connector. However, they decided to start in the "text-only" style. This is an understandable decision. The preparation of picture-based documentation takes longer and costs more but it also shows clearly that BI still has a lot of opportunities for improving the service they're providing to their business users.