When preparing to write a support document I often look at the essential steps needed to complete a task. Most times the task can be straight forward from beginning to end. Other times the task requires the user to be aware of some additional information that is needed before beginning. The end-user must be made aware of the minimum requirements to complete the task as well as the level of expertise required. In our district this is important.
Our district has thousands of computers and thousands of different configurations. Some computers have Windows XP. Others have Windows 7. Two thirds of the computers are Apple and run some version of the OS X operating system. Software versions vary, and not all teachers or computers are running the most current version of a software. All teachers are provided with a laptop with the same operating system. A third have Windows 7, and two-thirds have Apple with Snow Leopard. Even with the same operating system, not all teachers have the same updates because of one reason or another. You can start to see the challenges we face daily.
In our district, teacher computers are locked down so that applications can only be installed with administrator access. The key person with the administrator password at a campus is often the campus technologist. He or she is the only one that can install software. The teacher is made aware of this before we begin the process. In such cases we direct the teacher to seek the campus technologist to perform the operations needed. In such a case the directions are directed toward the campus technologist.
Most support issues fall within the skill set and access level of teachers. There are circumstances where we try to find alternatives to help teachers accomplish a task where administrator access is required. With the advent of web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies, this provides us greater opportunities to provide support for teachers.
We try to find these alternatives, because most campuses only have one campus technologist. He or she is often very busy and difficult to pin down. When a need arises that most teachers in the district need, we try to help the campus technologist by finding these alternatives. In this way he or she isn’t bogged down with the tedious process of installing applications on each computer.
Before I begin it is important that the user know the software version used in the instructions. This is important because inconsistencies might result during the lesson. We don’t want teachers or campus technologists to waste their time if the lesson does not fit their software version. In these situations we ask teachers to contact us so we can update the support document were needed or create a new support document to address any significant changes between versions.
After we’ve determined the basic requirements we walk through the process step by step. I usually complete the process from beginning to end at least once for simple instructions. For more complex instructions I walk through it one more time. It is usually during the second walk through, that I begin to take screen captures. I often take more screen captures than is necessary because I want to make sure steps are clear.
Knowing how many images to take is often a fine line between offering too much written information or too many images. Less is more. I try to convey as much information in one image. I often set a guide for myself. If I find that I am writing more than three sentences to explain something, then I probably need to add another image. This is not always possible so I try to keep the information brief. I repeat the process of taking images and describing the steps until the task is complete. Wherever necessary I like to let the user know what the expected outcome should look like and variations to the result if they apply.
One thing I like to keep consistent is the size of image captures. I like the user to know that all the images are part of the same process. Taking all images at the same size helps the user understand where each subsequent image relates to the whole. This is helpful when looking at dialogue boxes or pull down menus.
I prefer to capture each image at 1024 by 633 pixels. I chose this dimension because it represents the golden ratio. This size also helps me to capture a fairly large area of the screen and most dialogue boxes fit comfortably within this area. Some applications display two or even three dialogue boxes one on top of the other. This larger view helps the user understand what is going on and what to expect when walking through the steps.
The images are not transferred to Screen Steps in this large size. One of the preference options is to scale captured images. I set the maximum width to 800 pixels. This gives me enough room to adequately add comments or annotations without loosing detail. By scaling images in this manner I am able to capture more detail from the screen and still fit most of it within a lesson.
The final step in the process is more important than the final published format. I review the steps one at a time and make sure that what I have described happens just that way. If I leave out a step I add it. If I feel there are too many steps then I trim a step or two to keep the pace smooth and informative. Most importantly, I check for spelling and grammatical errors. Screen Steps has a built-in spell check. I use this first. As a final editing step I export the lesson as a Word document. I open the document in Word and use it to help me check for grammatical errors.
I take one more step. This might seem like over kill, but I like to take the extra time to make sure it is done right the first time. Apple computers come with the ability to read text. The latest text to speech voice sounds natural. The text voice is Alex. How could I not use it to help edit my final documents? The computer reads all the text without assumptions. This often finds errors that a spell checker or grammar checker cannot. Yes, I used the text to speech to help edit this document.
Finally, I export the lesson to WordPress. In WordPress I clean up a few things and add any links or images. I export a version to PDF and upload that to the server. I go back to WordPress and include a link to this PDF for users.
You can see our support documentation site here.
A final feature is to make an EPUB version available. This will be the topic for my next posting.