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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 

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"). 

Starts with a Picture

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:

Label the Picture

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).

Link the U-PIP's to Your Document

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:

Example 1: A Pain in My Foot

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.

Example 2: Photo Correcting Software

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.

Example 3: A Course on Writing User Documentation

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.

Bottom Line

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.


Barry Millman, Ph.D., has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering (1966, Carnegie Institute of Technology) and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Psychology (Human Information Processing, University of Calgary).  He has been a consultant for over 25 years, an instructor, course developer, and award-winning speaker.  For the past seven years he has been researching and creating resources to help organizations create great User Documents. 

Visit: http://www.greatuserdocs.com/ for resources to help you create the User Documents that your Product needs and your Users deserve.

Visit http://www.greatuserdocs.com/ReadingRoom.htm for more articles like this one.

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