[IMGCAP(1)]Over the years, I’ve had to create a lot of user documentation—much of it dealing with how to use an application. When doing so, my primary approach is to use a lot of screen grabs, or even possibly video. I’m basically a visual person—I’d rather have someone show me how to do something rather than tell me. Spending a few minutes browsing through YouTube videos tells me I’m far from being alone in preferring this approach.

While I greatly appreciate a video showing how to do something, I’ve found that a printed step-by-step series of screen grabs with narration tends to be easier for a novice user to follow. The reason is simple; the person being trained is already using the computer to perform the task. In most cases, it’s easier to go down a printed document with step-by-step screens and instructions than to try and switch back-and-forth between a video showing how to perform the task and the application the task is being performed in.

There are scores of tools and applications to perform screen grabs. Some are free others require purchase. The PrtScn key on your Windows keyboard will grab whatever is currently being displayed on the screen and attach it to the Clipboard where you can paste it into a paint program like Microsoft Paint or Google’s Picasa. This is a pretty basic approach, but with a bit of fiddling works pretty well. What it doesn’t do is let you define exactly what area of the screen is going to be captured. You can edit the capture in the graphic program and save it in a format to use in a document (I generally use the .PNG format), but you can’t capture an entire scrolling Window or just part of the Window, though you can crop the capture, again using a graphics or paint application.

A better way is to use a screen grabber application that sits in the background and is activated when you press the PrtScn function key. One I’ve used with good success is Greenshot (www.getgreenshot.org), an open source application. Greenshot lets you grab just portions of a screen, or even captures an entire long screen, scrolling down from the top to the bottom. What it doesn’t do is let you perform edits on the screen. To do that, you’ll need to load the captured screen file into a graphic or paint program. If you don’t mind this approach, Greenshot is free (though donations are welcomed by the developer).

For use in how-to documentation, just capturing a screen generally isn’t enough. You need to be able to highlight specific areas with a call-out, arrow or other graphic that calls attention to the place the user has to look on the application’s display to find and/or enter information. For the past several decades, I’ve used an application called SnagIt from a company named TechSmith. When I first ran across it at a COMDEX show in the early ’90s, it was “shareware”—you paid on the honor system. These days, it costs $49 for either the Windows or Mac version. That fee gets you two licenses, so you can install SnagIt on two machines. They can even be a Windows machine and a Mac, if you have both.

As with Greenshot, SnagIt can capture entire displayed windows, parts of windows that you specify with the cursor, or scroll through an entire lengthy screen, and save the capture in one of a variety of formats. That’s where the similarity ends. Unlike Greenshot or simply doing a PrtScn, the captured screen file is immediately opened in the SnagIt Editor. And that’s where the real value of SnagIt is, at least in my opinion. The Editor lets you crop and resize or resample the resolution of a screen. You can add arrows to point out where a data entry field or radio button is, place a call-out (a balloon with words in it) anywhere on the captured screen, draw circles around areas that you want to draw attention to, gray out or blur areas on the screen you don’t want to be readable, and much more. The Editor is easy to use, and Techsmith has a large number of videos on its site that walk you through using specific functions. I use the SnagIt Editor frequently, often times on files created with applications other than SnagIt, or even on photographs to point something out.

SnagIt also has limited video capture functionality. You can do a short video showing a run-through on how to perform a function, though I usually prefer the step-by-step printed screen grab approach.

But there are times when I want to capture a process rather than a series of screens. Or need to record a Webex. When I’m in this situation, I use another TechSmith application called Camtasia. Camtasia, priced at $299, is a lot more expensive than SnagIt, but offers a lot of features that make editing the captured video easier. I have other video capture and image editing software on my computer, including applications from CyberLink and Adobe. But the two TechSmith applications I’m talking about here are often the ones I turn to first.

I think the SnagIt Editor alone is well-worth the $49 fee, but you don’t need to take my word for it. TechSmith offers free 30-day trials of SnagIt and Camtasia, so you can try either or both yourselves. And if you have your own favorites, the comment box below is a good way to share them with the rest of us. 

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