WriteTheDocs Europe 2016

Mid september I was in Prague for the WriteTheDocs conference. I went there with four of my colleagues to learn how to improve our documentation. We discovered much more than what we initially expected.

Stickers

First impression

From the first talk I realised that I actually did not know much about the community that I had joined. I expected it to be composed of those developers that also write documentation and enjoy it. But when the first speaker introduced himself as an engineer, and that it apparently was something worth specifing, I knew that I was going to have some surprises.

I then discovered that there is such a job as "Technical Writer". After two days of conference I'm still not sure what it means, to be honest. From what I gather, they are people with skills in writing and they know how to convey information in a clear and concise way. They can translate complex concepts into simpler words so others can understand them with minimal effort. A technical background is not mandatory, but asking question is paramount. They have to deeply understand the subject to be able to synthetize it.

Documentation is code

Throughout the conference, I saw talks explaining how important documentation was and why it should not be added as an afterthought. People were exposing issues in the way documentation was done, and suggesting ways to fix those issues.

At their core, issues people had with documentation were the same issues we have with code (quality, bloat, complexity, etc). The suggested solutions were also the same we apply to code (user testing, automated testing, linters, short feedback loops, etc).

Language as code

Good writing is how you run words into someone else brain to spark ideas. It's not different from a code you execute. If you write bad code, your code will do bad things. This is exactly as true for documentation.

Documentation is as important as code, because it is like code. Language is brain code. Every word will journey through the reader mind. You must be careful to only send important information, as fast as possible, and avoid overflow.

Syntax is paramount, and ambiguity must be avoided as it slows the process down. Readers shouldn't have to read a whole sentence before getting the meaning of it. They should be able to process it as it comes. It's the same as loading a big file to RAM versus reading it line by line.

Docs or it didn't happen

Documentation is as important as code when it comes to features. If undocumented, any feature is outdated as soon as it's shipped. If you're in a Scrum environment, then it means documentation should be part of the DoD of any feature.

As a developer, I will always add tests for any new feature. This is how I can prove that the feature is working. Writing documentation is proving that the feature actually exists.

Docs or it didn't happen

If you see a GitHub repository with an empty readme, you'll assume the project is unfinished. If you see a project without documentation, you'll assume it's not usable.

This is even more true if you're documenting an API. User testing with eye-tracking showed it: when confronted with a new API, everybody searches for the documentation first. Then they look for live examples and code samples.

And like tests, the logical next step is the documentation equivalent of TDD: Documentation Driven Development. Start by writing the documentation, and then write the feature. Documenting the user-facing API before writing any code will let the best API emerge by itself.

Write drunk, edit sober

As developers, we spend more time fixing bugs and adding features than coding the initial skeleton. The same happen when writing documentation. Great documentation requires hundred of tweaks and rewriting and no-one ever did it right on the first try.

Writing and editing requires vastly different state of mind. Write a first draft to dump your ideas. Don't bother with typos nor grammatical errors, but write down all you want to say, to get a rough word count. Then, let it rest. A couple hours or even days, before editing it again.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Define a shared Styleguide, with the voice and tone you want to keep consistently through your documentation. Your readers should not feel like they are reading a different author on each page.

Writing documentation is easy. Anybody can do it. What is hard is to write something that will be understood and remembered by the reader. The key is brievety and simplicity. Remove words and sentences until you think there is nothing left to remove. Then remove some more. And remember what someone famous once said: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

People will come to your pages from search engines. They won't read from top to bottom but can jump to any part of the page. They will scan the content, so help them identify what each section is about. Each of your paragraphs should explain exactly one idea and should explain it clearly (in perfect UNIX-style).

Tips'n'tricks

A good story ends with a satisfying finish, not in the middle of a cliffhanger. At the end of any page, list what has been learned, show what can be built with this knowledge or add links to the next steps.

Tools can make your life easier. They can even be pluggued to a Continuous Integration service. Don't waste time doing what a computer can do better and faster than you. Focus on where you bring value.

Support

Spend time with your users. Immerse yourself into the support team and see the real issues your users are facing. Schedule regular user-testing sessions. They are an invaluable way to know the real issues that need documenting.

Add code samples because that's the first thing developers read. Add video tutorials for beginners and interactive jsfiddles for experienced users. Don't hesitate to add pictures to explain complex concepts.

All good writers are avid readers, so read. It will give you more words to enrich your vocabulary, so more ways to express nuances. This is even more true if you're not a native english speaker. Translating books into other languages is also a great way to improve your writing skills.

Conclusion

Even if not exactly what I was expecting, the event was a success. We all learned a lot, met interesting people, and even had the chance to pitch DocSearch. I think I will come again next year.

We will maybe even suggest a talk, because I feel that the way we write documentation at Algolia is on the right track, even if a bit special. We write the documentation of the feature we develop, and we also do the support for it. It puts us in a virtuous circle of feedback, bug fixing and documentation enhancing.

We like doing support, but we'd rather spend our time on adding new features. So enhancing the documentation and fixing bugs is our way to ensure that we spend less time on support and is a good motivation.

Thanks to all the organizers, speakers and attendees and hope to see you next year!


Tags : #writethedocs

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