Technical Illustrations – Worth the Effort?

Technical illustrations add cost, complexity and time to a technical manual project. Are they worth the effort? Often, but not always. Here’s why.

Illustrations definitely add to the overall attractiveness of most manuals, depending on the illustrations of course. This is usually true but we’ll take a look at when it isn’t. They generally make the manual more inviting to read.

Technical illustrations really pay the rent when they help explain concepts and procedures, or provide the reader with a guide to the layout of equipment and GUI screens. Doing the same thing with words alone can require a lot of text, which may be hard for some readers to follow. For the many people who are primarily visual in the way they like to process information, illustrations are a real bonus.

To be effective, illustrations must be carefully considered and well executed. By counter-example, here are a couple of cases where illustrations don’t really help and may even hinder. Poorly executed illustrations can make the documentation look unprofessional and can be confusing or just not very informative. If your manual has these types of illustrations, you may be better off without them. Many software manuals seem to have a screenshot of every dialogue box, without explaining the fields. This serves no purpose, especially when the fields are entirely self-explanatory.

In most cases though, a manual benefits greatly from the addition of well executed illustrations that integrate with the text. I often create illustrations for certain sections first, then write the content, it makes the process easier and results in clearer explanations.

If your manual doesn’t really need illustrations but you think it makes the manual more engaging and attractive, you are probably right. This is more of a marketing decision than a communications decision. Just make sure that the illustrations are of professional quality.

If you have any questions about illustrations in your technical documentation feel free to contact me for a free consultation.