Yes, YOU can write docs as cool as Twilio’s

After attending Write the Docs 2018 (Portland, edition) and watching a YouTube video, I’ve got it figured out: How you (i.e. anyone) can create documentation as cool as Twilio’s–a consistent entry in lists of the best API documentation examples.

All you need to do is follow these six steps:

  1. Think, plan, and work iteratively.
  2. Infuse user research and analytics into your entire writing process.
  3. Treat your documentation as a product.
  4. Do what’s best for your documentation customer.
  5. Create and support a writing process that enables contributions from outside of the writing team.
  6. Build the CMS that supports all of the above.

That’s it!

You’ll need to understand that it took them a few years to get to where they are, today. And, it sounds like they’ll keep moving the bar.

But, don’t be discouraged. The sooner you start, the sooner those three to five years will be behind you.

A little background

Twilio’s Kat King opened Write the Docs 2018 in Portland this May, starting the conference off with a strong sense of user testing and research. That always gets my attention at a tech-writing conference. The next session by Jen Lambourne continued by describing how she applied user research on documentation. I’ve been going to tech writing conferences for quite a while and I can’t recall going to one with such a user-research focus.

I’ll make references to these videos, in what follows in case you want to go straight to the source (something I always encourage). The practices they describe, however, are straight out of user-centered-design. You can also see some of my favorite books on the topic for more background.

What’s noteworthy here is that the Twilio team has applied them successfully to their documentation–proving, if nothing else, that documentation works like any other product (and perhaps works best when treated as one).

So, here’s how the steps work:

Continue reading “Yes, YOU can write docs as cool as Twilio’s”

Reader goals – Overview

readingbookThe reader goals in this series describe the different reader and content interactions with informational content to help content developers and site managers provide the content that best accommodates their audiences’ goals. The underlying assumptions behind these interactions are twofold:

  • Readers come to informational content with some goal in mind.
  • The readers’ goals might not coincide with their content experience.

Understanding readers’ goals is critical to providing the content and experience that helps readers achieve their goals.  Understanding the relationship between reader goals and content also informs the feedback that the reader can provide and the best time to collect that feedback.

Informational content

The interactions described in this series are based on (and primarily intended for) informational content that has no specific commercial goal. These interactions might also apply to sites with commercial goals; however, they were developed for sites with no specific commercial goal.

Audience analysis

The reader-content relationships described in this series are best discovered through audience research.  Having these models in mind can help inform and direct your research. These models can also help identify and characterize the patterns you observe in your audience research.

At the same time, as a writer, I realize that it isn’t always possible to conduct audience research before the content is required. In those cases, these models provide a reasonable starting point from which to later collect data that can be used to refine your model and content. By taking what you know about your audience, you can select an interaction model that fits what you know and use that model as the basis for your initial draft of the content and its metrics.

Feedback and metrics

A key part of these interactions is to help identify what type of feedback can be collected and the best time to collect it. From the readers’ perspectives, the content the means to accomplish a goal, therefore, goal-related feedback is the most representative measure of content effectiveness.

When readers’ goals coincide with completing the content, as in the Reading to do here case, collecting goal-related feedback at the end of the content makes perfect sense. However, we found that much of the content found in  informational sites has a different relationship with readers’ goals. Recognizing this and altering the feedback instruments to match can improve the quality of the feedback on the content.

Finally, the interaction descriptions in this series are somewhat vague when it comes to specific instrumentation and metrics. This is for two reasons. First, the best instrument to use is very context specific. Second, because of this, we haven’t studied this aspect enough to make general recommendations. However, we’re working on it.


This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information Websites. See the entire series

Reader goals – Reading to learn

This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information Websites. See the entire series

Reading to Learn (to use Later or to Apply with Other Information)

Reading to Learn to Use Later, without a particular or immediate task in mind, is similar to what Sticht described as Reading to Learn [1]. The critical distinctions between this and Reading to learn to do now and Reading to learn to do a task later are:

  • The reading task in your content is a subtask of the reader’s ultimate goal of learning a new concept or skill.
  • The reader does not have a specific goal beyond an increase in knowledge.

An example of reading that facilitates this type of reader goal, where the goals are accomplished after using the website or in conjunction with using other information, would be websites and books about design principles so as to use the information later when designing a website. The connection between the reading and the ultimate application of the knowledge is too distant to have a meaningful and identifiable cause-effect relationship.

In a Reading to Learn to Use Later goal, as shown in the figure, the reader reads information from many different locations, of which your content might be only one information source. While similar to the Reading to Be Reminded interaction type, in this interaction type, the reader is seeking more information from the content. In this interaction, the content is new and the reader might consult multiple sources to accumulate the information required to reach the learning goal.

Reading to learn
Reading to learn

It is difficult to measure how well readers are accomplishing their ultimate learning goal when their interaction with the website may be one step of many and they might not use the information until much later. However, it is reasonable to collect information about the immediate experience. For example, the content could encourage readers to interact with the page as a way to provide feedback to the reader and to collect information about the readers’ experience. The content could also include quizzes, and links or affordances such as prompts to share the content with a social network.


[1] Sticht, T.G., Fox, L.C., Hauke, R.N., Zapf, D.W.: The Role of Reading in the Navy. DTIC Document (1977)

Reader goals – Reading to do a task later

This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information Websites. See the entire series

Reading to Do a Task Outside the Website Later

When reading to do a task outside the website, readers’ accomplish their goals outside of the web and after they’ve read the content that provides the prerequisite learning for the task. Some examples of such interactions include:

  • The United States Internal Revenue Service’s instructions on filling out the Form 1040[1].
  • The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)’s information about performing crosswind landings [2].
  • An article about how to do well in a job interview [3].

The figure shows the relationship between the readers’ interaction with the content and the task they hope to accomplish.

Reading to do a task outside the website later
Reading to do a task outside the website later

When authoring content for this type of interaction, the web usability goals include search-engine optimization. Term and vocabulary alignment is an important and easy way to make the content easy for the reader to discover.

Of course, providing meaningful, interesting, and helpful content is critical. In this type of interaction, understanding the nature and relationship of the content and the task are key elements towards getting meaningful feedback on how well your content is doing in those categories. Because this type of interaction consists of two, temporally-separate events–reading/leaning and doing–it might be more effective to assess them separately. For example, you could  include affordances in the content that test the intermediate goal of learning the content before the task is attempted and to consider using methods to collect and coordinate information about task completion.

Consider the case of a driver’s license test-preparation site. The site could include a quiz for the reader (and the site manager and stakeholders) to determine the readers’ learning and the content’s effectiveness in the short term. Perhaps also providing feedback to the reader on areas that require additional study. The task, passing the written driver’s license test in this example, would occur later and be measured at the Department of Licensing. The two experiences could be related somehow to evaluate the effectiveness of the test preparation site and the actual task of passing the license exam.

In this example, asking the reader about satisfaction could also be done during and after readers’ interaction with the content to understand how they feel about that, as long as the questions did not interfere with the learning task.


[1] http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i1040gi.pdf

[2] http://flighttraining.aopa.org/students/solo/skills/crosswind.html

[3] http://mashable.com/2013/01/19/guide-to-job-interview/

Reader goals – Reading to do now

This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information Websites. See the entire series

Reading to Do a Task Outside the Website Now

Readers who interact with a website to do a task outside the website seek to complete their task while reading the website for the information they need. Examples of such websites include sites that describe how to repair a household appliance or how to cook a meal. The figure shows the interaction between the readers’ goal and their interaction with the content.

Reading to do a task outside of the website now
Reading to do a task outside of the website now

In this type of interaction, readers interact with the content after they decide to perform the task and end their interaction with the content when they feel confident enough to complete the task without additional information. At that point, they continue towards their goal without the content. Depending on the complexity and duration of the task, readers might return to the content several times during the task, but the key aspect of this interaction with the content is that it does not coincide with task completion.

This interaction can influence several aspects of the design. For example, readers might like to print the web content to save or refer to later, so it might be inconvenient to have the web content spread over several web pages. However, because readers might stop interacting with the content at any point, the content could be divided into individual pages of logical steps with natural breaks.

Because readers stop interacting with the content before the complete their task, asking for information about their task when they leave the content might be confusing because they haven’t finished it, yet. On the other hand, asking about the content might be reasonable.

Tracking progress, success, and satisfaction for this type of interaction requires coordination with the content design. The task and subtask flows must be modeled in the content’s design so that the instrumentation used to collect data about the interaction coordinates with the readers’ interaction. Because readers can leave the content before they read all of the content and still complete their task successfully, traditional web-based metrics such as average time-on-page and path are ambiguous with respect to the readers’ experiences. It is impossible, for example, to know if having readers exit a procedure on the first step is good or bad without knowing whether they are also dissatisfied or unsuccessful with the content. Ideally, collecting information about their experience will come shortly after they accomplish their goal. For example, posting a review of their recipe on social media after they finish.

Reader goals – Reading to be reminded

This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information Websites. See the entire series

Reading to be Reminded

Reading to be reminded, or Reading to Do Lite, occurs when readers visit an informational site with the confidence that they already know most of what they need to know about a topic to complete their task, but they just need a refresher. Readers use the website as a form of offline information storage that they may use either online or elsewhere. By knowing the information is available online, readers are confident that they don’t need to remember the details, just where they can find them. Brandt et al. [1] noticed this pattern while observing software developers who “delegated their memory to the Web, spending tens of seconds to remind themselves of syntactic details of a concept they new [sic] well.”

The figure shows how interactions of this type might relate to a reader’s task.

Reading to be reminded
Reading to be reminded

Because, as Redish [2] says, readers will read “until they’ve met their need,” readers will spend as little time in the site as they need interacting with the content. Once they have been reminded of the information they need, they will return to their original task.

Topic design principles needed to serve this interaction include making the content easy to find, navigate, and read. Visible headings and short “bites” and “snacks” of information [2] are well suited to such a goal. However, my research in developer documentation says that these guidelines depend on the specific context–a reminder to know your audience. Knowing your audience is also key to using the terms they will recognize.

Website-based metrics are not particularly helpful in determining the quality of the readers’ interactions. A good time-on-page value, for example, might be short–to the point of appearing to be a bounce, or it might be long. The number of times a page is viewed  also has an ambiguous meaning when it comes to understanding the quality of the readers’ interactions.

At the same time, the readers’ engagement and focus on their primary task (the one that sent them to this content) means asking qualitative information about their experience is likely to be seen as a distraction. Asking about the reader’s experience should be done soon after the interaction and with as brief of a satisfaction questionnaire as possible—perhaps only one question, such as “Did this topic help you?”


[1] Brandt, J., Guo, P.J., Lewenstein, J., Dontcheva, M., Klemmer, S.R.: Two Studies of Op-portunistic Programming: Interleaving Web Foraging, Learning, and Writing code. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, pp. 1589–1598 (2009)

[2] Redish, J.: Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (2nd ed.). Morgan Kaufmann, Elsevier, Waltham, MA (2012)

Reader goals – Reading to do here

This series looks at the different site interactions that readers have with informational sites and is adapted from the full paper on the topic that I wrote with Jan Spyridakis and presented at HCII 2015: Using Readers’ and Organizations’ Goals to Guide Assessment of Success in Information WebsitesSee the entire series

Reading to Do Here

Reading to accomplish a task in the website, or Reading to Do Here, is characterized by readers interacting with a page in a website to accomplish a specific task through the site. In this interaction, the readers’ goal is to complete the task in the web site. Some familiar examples might include registering for a library account, subscribing to an online newsletter, or renewing a business license.

Readers interact with the content or the site shortly after they decide to accomplish the task and they leave shortly after they finish. The figure illustrates the interaction in such a task.

 

Reading to Do Here
Reading to Do Here

Readers who use content in this way will want to find the page to help them accomplish the task as quickly as possible and then complete the task as efficiently as possible. While they will want to know that they have successfully completed the task before they leave the website, after they leave the website, they generally won’t remember much about the experience unless it was especially negative or positive.

The figure shows a very common type of web interaction. Web usability guidelines describe the design implications that depend on the site, context, and audience in many texts. Because the readers’ task is performed almost entirely in the context of the web interaction, measuring the success of the interaction is easily accomplished through the site without imposing on the reader. The web server can collect data concerning the time spent in the interaction; the rate of successful operations (e.g., registrations, applications, or whatever the interaction is designed to accomplish); and the path through the interaction (e.g., back tracks, sidetracks, and early exits). Requests for qualitative feedback should occur soon after the interaction so readers’ remember the interaction. While this interaction model is intended for informational sites, it also matches the interaction model of commercial sites, such as shopping or other e-commerce sites. As such, many of the analytics tools and instruments that work in those contexts will also work in this interaction model.