Tech Write Tips

March 28, 2006

Best Practice: Screen Portraits

Filed under: Best Practice,HTMLHelp — AndyR @ 12:37 pm

It seems that the post about screen portrait generated quite a bit of interest. So I thought I would provide some more "How to" details.

Stage 1portrait1.gif

  1. Bring the screen shot into your paint package. I use PaintShop Pro
  2. Ensure that the screen is configured in such a way that all the general features are available, so it depicts the required functionality.
  3. Also Ensure that it is good aspect, so the resulting portrait will fit your help topic. This can be adjust at the end but not as easily.

Stage 2portrait2.gif

  1. Provided your paint package supports layers, and most of the do, start adding rectangles to mask over the key parts of the screen.
  2. A feature in PaintShop Pro is to tmake a layer semi-transparent, as you can see, I make my rectangles transparent so I can still see the screen shot behind them. This makes for easier laying out.

Stage 3portrait3.gif

  1. Start to add in the key details of the dialog, ensure that anything that is referenced in the help is included.
  2. What you are looking at doing is replicating the visual signature of the image.
  3. In the same way that we recognise words by their overall shape rather than each letter, the same is true with how we recognise software screens.
  4. For example you could probably recognise a Font selector dialog from across the room.
  5. You can probably make your portraits more styalised than you will first imagine. Practice makes perfect.

Stage 4portrait4.gif

  1. Turn off the original background image in the paint package so you can only see the portrait.
  2. You can add some bells and whistles like rounding the containing area to match the rounding in windows.
  3. There you have it, your finished portrait.
  4. I estimate you can knock these out in about 3-4 minutes once you have a sample layout completed.

Next post about this we will focus in more detail about the colours, positioning and visual clues to make your portraits sing.


  1. Thanks, Andy.

    Comment by benpal — March 28, 2006 @ 12:57 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks. Laying out the semi-trans rectangles sure will speed things up.

    Comment by Andrew — March 28, 2006 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

  3. Great job. Like I’ve said before, sheer genius

    Comment by CharlesJet — March 31, 2006 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  4. Great ideas–about how long does this take, on an average screen shot?

    Also, what are you feelings on callouts?

    Comment by Stacia — May 8, 2006 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

  5. Seems to take me about 15 minutes to knock these up, and as we don’t have many to do (by our screen shot policy) it doesn’t infact too much. Actually it frees me up to include more shots.

    As for callouts, could you expand on this. I wouldn’t want to do much annotation as this adds to the maintenance. One of the driving factors for screen portraits is to seperate the fast changing visual and textual content from the image. Then you can doa a search and replace to update it.

    On that basis, as long as the callouts were text searchable they could be included.

    thanks for the comment.

    Comment by techwritetips — May 8, 2006 @ 3:56 pm | Reply

  6. Comment recieved from SteveS: When I first showed them to my user group they didn’t like them. They wanted to see the text boxes, frames, labels etc. So I copied the background into a layer at the top of the stack with it’s transparency set to 5%. If you look you can see the detail, but can’t read it or make out whats going on. The users like it, and I like the fact the portrait stands up to minor interface changes without having to do the screen shot thing from scratch.

    Comment by techwritetips — July 5, 2006 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  7. Follow up recieved from SteveS on how he uses portraits:
    I first heard of the portraits through a posting, think it was in the Flare forum (although it could have been on the HATT yahoo group), pointing to your blogs etc. Took a while to work out what was going on but now, like you say, can knock a simple one out in 5 minutes.

    I’m going a step further in that I take a screenshot of the entire screen and apply all the transformations, explanation text (callouts), masks, etc in a single photoshop file. When I need an image, I just turn off the layers I don’t want, collapse the layers, crop and export the new image. Works great.

    I also include all the differrent tab pages where they occur, lining them up in photoshop is a pain, but the end result is I can recreate the effect of clicking tabs in something like powerpoint – click an image and it changes to the next as if I clicked the tab. Because of the client server nature of our app this means I can demonstrate the product without worrying about database connectivity.

    Comment by techwritetips — July 5, 2006 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  8. […] Further to our discussions about screen portraits (our cell shaded alternative to screen shots) Another case for the importance of screen portraits is the fact that Vista Super Tooltips enable you to include images in the popup pane. […]

    Pingback by Tech Write Tips » Screen Portrait Mini’s — July 8, 2006 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

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