Email tip: If you want people to look at a screen shot, you have to tell them what they’re looking at


Some time ago, Ry Jones decided to take something that I wrote and condense it to make it funnier:

Don't embed pictures. ... This isn't Highlights magazine.

Those ellipses are deceptive, because they hide a change of topic! As a result, the two unrelated sentences appeared to be connected to each other.

The comment about Highlights magazine was not a response to "Don't embed pictures." It was a response to a different part of that message. Here's the complete message, or an approximation thereof:

Don't embed pictures. Send a link to your pictures. And when you ask us to look at the pictures which demonstrate the change in in behavior you're talking about, you have to tell us what change we're looking for. This isn't Highlights magazine.

In the original message, the person included two screen shots. The question was something along the lines of, "The first screen shot shows the feature behaving correctly, and the second screen shot shows it behaving incorrectly. Can somebody explain why it isn't working?"

The problem was that the two screen shots were practically identical. It wasn't obvious what the difference was between them. Now sure, to the person asking the question, the difference was as plain as the nose on your face, but to somebody who hasn't spent the last 48 hours of their life staring at this specific screen, the difference is a bit harder to pick out.

One of the regular features of the children's magazine Highlights is a Can you spot the difference? puzzle in which two nearly identical pictures are presented to the reader, who is invited to find the difference between them.

When you're sending screenshots please describe what part of the screenshot the reader should be focusing on. Or even better, circle it. Windows comes with a super-advanced bitmap editing tool to help you with that.

Sometimes, the person asking the question doesn't even include the Before part of the puzzle. All that is provided is the After picture, with the question, "Can somebody explain why this changed?"

Creating devious puzzles and challenging other people to solve them can be fun, but there is a time and place for puzzles. Asking somebody for help is not one of those times.

Comments (14)
  1. John says:

    Don’t forget to print the screenshot and take a picture of it on a wooden table.

  2. And don’t forget to save as .png instead of .bmp.  I’m amazed at how many 3MB screenshots that I get. :)

  3. James Schend says:

    I got asked to report bugs with Slashdot’s site a few months ago. Turns out they never read/respond/fix bug reports, but I’m still putting them in… the only difference is that the notations on the screenshots have gotten funnier and funnier.

    Here’s a gallery of them:

    http://schend.net/images/index.php?path=screenshots%2Fslashdot/

    And my particular favorite:

    http://schend.net/images/screenshots/slashdot/slashdot_idle_comments.png

    (Image of vast American prairie used to demonstrate excessive whitespace- prairie does not appear on actual site.)

  4. Afrodot says:

    Yeah, Crapdot has really stunk it up lately.  Idle is an abomination, but at least it has its own section and can be ignored.  Borking up the user pages is a criminal offense second in severity only to Hitler’s crimes (I am not joking).  I don’t care for the relatively recent introduction of dynamically-loaded pages (i.e. Craphose and comments), but it’s not a huge deal; I just set my User-Agent to IE6 before going there and I get the old behavior.

    Jess: Sometimes people do a Print-Screen and paste it directly into emails; this is highly annoying, as it takes up a lot of space both in terms of storage and screen area.  It is especially annoying when the screen shot is so large that I have to use the scroll bars to see the whole thing.

  5. Dean says:

    "Sometimes people do a Print-Screen and paste it directly into emails"

    It took us a while to train our guys to use Alt-PrintScreen instead of Print Screen with no cropping when sending screen shots… they have dual monitors…

  6. Dmitry Kolosov says:

    Am I the only one here having a deja vu?

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2008/08/19/8877486.aspx

  7. Grank says:

    Hey, just wanted to suggest to readers in the Firefox camp (and I think it has an IE plugin as well) to check out FireShot, which makes screenshot annotating ridiculously easy and pretty.  I would never bother to make those circles and notations and stuff in screenshots as nice if I didn’t have a free Firefox plugin that does it for me!  Really, there’s no excuse for unannotated screenshots when the foss community makes it so easy on us.

  8. CDarklock says:

    I’ve noticed some developers write bad code as a sort of game. It’s sort of a system test – you’re supposed to do a code review, and I just hacked in this piece of crap code. Will you call me on it?

    If the answer is "no", a puzzle develops. Precisely how bad does my code have to be for you to say something? I can fix it later, in a separate checkin, so there’s no permanent harm. But if my function says "bool IsEven(int parm){ return (parm == 2); }"… I mean, honestly, are you even reading these?!

    If the answer is "yes", a different puzzle develops. How subtle an error will you let me introduce? If my function fails only on alternate Tuesdays when it’s a full moon and the year is an even multiple of 17, will you catch that? Again, I can fix it in a separate checkin, so no permanent harm.

    Note that I am speaking from the viewpoint of a purely hypothetical developer who does this, and that developer is not actually ME. I’ve just seen this dynamic from the management side, and this is what I figure the people who do that are thinking.

    It works out in the end… you see a pattern of progressively more and more subtle issues blocked at code review, or more and more egregious ones passing it, but they’re fixed rapidly – usually within the hour. I’ve generally found it harmless, so I tend to just let the team do it.

  9. Luca Masters says:

    With regard to creating puzzles when asking for help:

    I help with a friends website, among other things I’m one of the main peopel users contact when they need help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard things like this:

    ‘I forgot the password to my other account. Can you help me?’

    ‘What’s the username?’

    ‘I’m not telling.’

    At this point, I just swear at them.

    A lot.

    (Every helpdesk’s fantasy, isn’t it?)

  10. This is why I use the Snipping Tool for taking screenshots when I want to show of bad behavior.

    Circle the problem on the screenshot, add in some large red arrows pointing to said circle, and highlight any incorrect text.  Include a before screenshot with the same area circled, and then include explanatory text saying "why did UI element FOO change from BAR to BAZ?" (And describe what user actions took place in between the two screen shots!)

    Asking good questions is hard. :)

  11. Steven Edwards says:

    The usage of the ellipses also seems wrong. It really seems like it should be four dots and with equal space rather than dot space dot dot dot.

  12. Roy says:

    I second the Snipping Tool shipping in Vista.  Snip is a great utility and I get mark exactly what’s wrong or highlight text, and saving the file in Ping, or emailing straight from the Tool is very handy.

  13. James Schend says:

    Another good one, if you can get your company to spring the $50 or so, is SnagIt. It can even take short movies, if you want to demonstrate an animation or failure-to-redraw type bug.

  14. eLD says:

    Years ago I seemed to get more than my fair share of 4mb+ bitmaps of people’s desktop sent to me as a screenshot. This was a little bit annoying as our mailserver is located at the corporate HQ in another country, so it arrived at a glacial speed.

    Then things progressed so that most of them were word documents with embedded pictures. OK, I can open those, no problem. Too easy.

    More recently it became screenshots embedded in single slide powerpoint presentations. Its interesting that this must imply we are appealing to a new demographic – managers. Still too easy. I’ve yet to receive the "Questions?" slide at the end like you though Raymond.

    Just recently though, I’ve had cause to lament the march of progress providing cheap electronics. I’ve started receiving screenshots taken with digital cameras, with lots of megapixels. The picture is invariably suffering a bit of camera shake so it is a challenge trying to infer what the text could be saying.

    What next?

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