Death by screenshots: Should we include them in online help?

August 2015

Earnsy Liu, TechCommNZ member and GDID student, looks for evidence (not just opinions) to help you manage the daily conundrums we face in our profession. If you have a question for Earnsy to tackle, please email

‘Screenshots can be like crack. You don't need it, it can kill you, but you want it bad’ (MattBNH, 2009, para. 4). Screenshots can kill? Let’s hope not, but we can’t tell for sure because there’s a dearth of research.

Where’s the evidence?

Although there’s been research, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the last ten years. The most recent journal article on screenshot research seems to be from 2004 (Gellevij and van der Meij), and that was a summary of previous findings.

There are plenty of articles on screenshots, but none of them cite research:

  • User experience architect Mike Hughes (2009) shares his objections to them, but talks himself round by the end of his article.
  • Software engineering manager and information architect Paul Malasky (2009) discusses their pros and cons, and when they should be used.
  • Writers explain when they use them (Johnson, 2009; CyberText Newsletter, 2010; Ellison, 2004).
  • Experts offer guidelines on using them (Lee, 2009; Jones 2009).

While the opinions are interesting and probably based on years of experience, this What’s the evidence? column is hungry for current research.

Information design lecturer Cindy Staudt has looked. User experience expert Carol Barnum has had a quick look. Linguistics lecturer Michael Meng tells us ‘the empirical literature investigating [the effectiveness of screenshots] is still rather scarce’ (Meng, 2013). In fact, his evidence review only mentions articles between 1993 and 2004, and he doesn’t know of any recent research (personal communication, March 12, 2015).


So while there’s no recent evidence we need screenshots, neither is there any reason to believe they can kill. And the opening comment was referring to an overdependence on screenshots rather than literal death-by-screenshots.

What does the lack of research suggest? That we don’t care about evidence, that we value experience and opinions more than research, that we find research too difficult? Whatever it is, it’s a shame there’ve been no contemporary studies. Technology is changing so rapidly, as is our relationship with it, that what was true previously may no longer apply today. A re-look at when and how to use screenshots would be helpful. Any takers?


Thanks very much to Cindy Staudt for her invaluable input and help with articles. Thanks too, to Emma Harding for hunting high and low for evidence, and to Emily Cotlier for reviewing the final article.


CyberText Newsletter (2010, February 11). Should I put screen shots in online help? Retrieved from

Ellison, M. (2004, December). Seven golden rules of online help design. ISTC Communicator, (Winter)32-34. Retrieved from

Gellevij, M. & van der Meij, H. (2004). Empirical proof for presenting screen captures in software documentation. Technical Communication, 51(2), 224-238. Retrieved from CMME database.

Hughes, M. (2009, October 7). Screen shots in documentation. Retrieved from The Humane Experience:

Lee, M. (2009, November). So what’s up with screen captures? Intercom, 31-34. Retrieved from

Jones, A. (2009, May). Strategies for efficiently creating screen captures. Presented at the 2009 STC Summit, Atlanta, Georgia. Retrieved from

Malasky, P. (2009, July 23). Do screen captures still make sense? Retrieved from The Content Wrangler:

Martin-Johnson, M. (2009, May 27). Putting screenshots in online help. Retrieved from

MattBNH (2009, October 07). Re: Screen shots in documentation. [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from

Meng, M. (2013, November). How helpful are screenshots? A review of empirical evidence and directions for future research. Abstract for presentation at the 2013 European Academic Colloquium. Retrieved from Tekom Europe: