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Great Technical Writing: Improve Your Readers' Access With A Visual Index

People are visual creatures. They look at your product, and see, for example, a button or display. They want to find out about that control or indicator. A Visual Index is a simple but powerful document access tool that enables your Readers to find the information that they want.

This article describes the Visual Index concept and tells how to create one for your document.


A Visual Index is a picture of your product or process with links to the relevant information in the related document. Using a Visual Index, your Readers can look at the picture, and quickly jump to the place in your document that describes the item of interest.

Your document may include several Visual Indexes (the plural of "index' is "indexes" not "indices").


The Visual Index starts with a picture of your product or process. There are various kinds of pictures to use, based on the product type:

* Physical Product (for example, a barbecue or video disk recorder)
Pictures of the product (all relevant views).

* A Procedure or Process: A flowchart of the steps and decisions in the procedure or process.

* Software Product 1: Screenshots of the software.

* Software Product 2: Before and after images of the work that the product does.

* Organization: An organization chart.


Label all the User-Product Interaction Points (U-PIP) on the picture. A U-PIP is anywhere that your User and the product may interact. U-PIP's include controls, displays, and relevant physical features of the product (such as handles, latches, etc.). Provide a meaningful (to your Reader) label (name) for the U-PIP. (Use that same exact label everywhere you refer to that U-PIP.)

Aside: If your product uses sounds to inform the User, then include a table of those sounds, what they mean, and a link into the relevant area of your document (describing the sound).


Up to this point, the Visual Index is just like any well-labeled picture of your product or process. However, when you add links into your document, the well-labeled picture becomes a Visual Index.

The link should be to a section of your document that you believe your reader would most want to reach to get the information about that U-PIP. (This is a fundamental question whenever you create an index: "does my reader want to come to this place in my document for this item?")

Your method of adding links to the picture depends upon the publishing mechanism for the document. If the document is published as:

* A Printed document, then use page numbers for the links;

* An Electronic Document, then use hyperlinks that a Reader can click on to follow. If the document is published as HTML, then the visual index can be an image map.


I have a pain in my foot when I walk. If I go to a website about feet, it would be very efficient for finding out about my pain, if I could see a picture of a foot with various areas where the pain could be. Links from the foot areas to specific web pages would enable me to find the information about my specific foot pain quickly.


Show a picture with the errors that your software can handle, before and after correction. Here the U-PIP's are each of the photo errors.


The Visual Index is a flowchart for creating the User Document. Since the Course is presented in HTML, the Visual Index is made from an image map, with hyperlinks into the sections of the Course relevant to each item in the flowchart.


A Visual Index is a simple concept. But like many simple concepts it is very powerful. Try to include one in your next document. You'll be doing your Reader a great service.


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