Documentation as offline memory

While researching my dissertation, I came across a quote that resonated with my experience as a developer and at the same time troubled me as a technical writer (so, you’ll see me quote it frequently). It’s from a study published in 20091 about how developers used documentation while completing some programming tasks.

“Several participants reported using the Web as an alternative to memorizing routinely-used snippets of code.”

Just today, this idea was addressed directly in this tweet:

The tweet resulted in this thread. It’s early as I write this and there are only 16 responses, but I expect this to grow.

Thoughts and musings

From a research perspective, it provides a great collection of cases in which documentation is serving as an offline, community memory that many developers share–more evidence of what Brandt et al. observed in their 2009 study.

From a documentation and usability perspective, it’s a sort of rouges’ gallery of usability fails. Flipping through the responses, it’s interesting to see the different ways that usability challenges have been met by users of the tools.

For example,

  • Mnemonics, in the case of how to use a tar file described in this thread. The conversation eventually refers to this doomsday scenario, so those mnemonics could save the world, some day.

    TAR, as imagined by xkcd. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.
  • Creating an interpreter to translate English(-ish) to regex (Regular Expressions) in this thread. Other comments also refer to regex a the variety of places on the web that try to clarify its opaque notation.
  • Community-sourced documentation was a method described in this thread. Any user of Unix or Linux is familiar with its man pages. This comment talks about simplified versions of this documentation being collected at TLDR pages. According to the site, “TLDR pages  are a community effort to simplify the beloved man pages with practical examples. “
  • Redirection to StackOverflow in which StackOverflow is the community-supported documentation is another way developers deal with common, but not common-enough to memorize, cases as this comment describes.

What does this mean to technical writers?

There’s a recurring complaint among technical writers that no one reads technical docs. This conversation is evidence that if a feature is useful enough and unintuitive enough, that people will read them (or create work-arounds for them). For self-help content in general, however, I’m not sure that having a lot of documentation access is a worthwhile goal when it’s the result of a larger issue (e.g. a lack of usability). In fact, such traffic is often a clue that something needs attention, either in the product, the documentation, or both.

If, for whatever reason, you can’t make the product easier to use, you can use this list as a source of ideas to apply to your technical documentation strategy and help your readers.

1 Brandt, J., Guo, P. J., Lewenstein, J., Dontcheva, M., & Klemmer, S. R. (2009). Two studies of opportunistic programming: interleaving web foraging, learning, and writing code (pp. 1589–1598). Presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI.

Charting the popularity of technical communication

I was exploring Google Trends to see what was happening with tech comm and related terms and found this.

As an added bonus, if you click on Google Trends at the bottom of each image. you can open up the query in the Google Trends site and play with the variables.

Tech Comm ain’t what it used to be

Technical communication and tech comm have been declining in popularity over time. The highest point on the chart is represented as 100 and the rest of the data being relative to that. This chart shows that, the terms dropped in popularity until about 2007, after which they remained relatively stable, except tech comm continuing a slow but steady decline. The joined term, techcomm is even less common, so I omitted it because it ranged from only 0 to 6 over this time period.

Technical communication has annual peaks of activity, which could correspond to TC-related conferences. (I don’t have a database with which to correlate them, so it’s just a hunch.)

What’s moving up?

Continue reading “Charting the popularity of technical communication”

Measuring Value for WriteTheDocs Boulder

Presentation for WriteTheDocs-Boulder
Link to presentation given to WriteTheDocs-Boulder

I had the pleasure of joining the Boulder/Denver WriteTheDocumentarians at their meetup in Denver, last month. I presented a short talk on what I had learned about measuring the value of content that is typically produced by technical writing, which started an enlightening conversation with the group.

I’ve linked the slides and provided a brief narrative to go with them, here. Unfortunately, you had to be there to enjoy the conversation that followed–a good reason to not miss these events!

Measuring content value is a process, not a destination

For some, the idea of measuring the value of technical writing requires a shift in thinking. Measuring the value that content provides is just one step in the process of setting and evaluating content goals (see also Design Thinking). Without getting too philosophical, the first realization to make is that

You can’t measure value until you define what is valuable.

Value, however, can take many shapes, and different people in your organization will likely define value differently, especially when it comes to content.
Continue reading “Measuring Value for WriteTheDocs Boulder”

Is writing API documentation going the way of the keypunch operator?

I’m in the process of writing one of several academic articles that my current profession (professor) demands of me. An essential part of the process is indulging in the diversions and distractions necessary to retain some sanity throughout the process. Today’s diversion was updating my global bibliography. Unfortunately, that idea turned out to have some depressing side effects, which I’m here to share with you.

It turns out that there’s a lot of research being done in how to automatically generate API documentation. Having written a lot of it and read a lot more, I can certainly understand the motivations. What I didn’t realize was from how many different directions the problem was being attacked. Someone even patented an idea for it (US 8819629 B2, in case you were wondering).

Continue reading “Is writing API documentation going the way of the keypunch operator?”

A brief history of API Docs

I published my first API around 1988 for a peripheral to the IBM PC in which the API consisted of software interrupts to MS-DOS. (A software interrupt is similar in function to a procedure call, but used for operating system and device driver functions. I didn’t write the documentation (at least not the published version), but a couple of co-workers and I wrote the interface.

Later, I want to say in 1997-ish, I wrote the API provided by the Performance Data Helper (PDH) dynamic link library (DLL) that shipped in Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (IIRC). I didn’t write the documentation for this API either as I was still developing software at the time. A super technical writer did the heavy lifting of making sense out of the functions the PDH.DLL provided.

While this isn’t a particularly impressive resume of API development, it shows that APIs and I go way back. They are a very useful tool for solving many problems. Yet, over the past 30+ years that I’ve been using, developing, and documenting APIs, there hasn’t really been much written about their documentation–until recently.

In my informal count (i.e. what I could find on Google while having my morning coffee a few days ago). I came across 17 articles and blog posts on the topic in just the past seven years (full list at the end of the post).

For the curious, here is some of the research that supports what I’ve read in some of these articles. Continue reading “A brief history of API Docs”

Tech comm myths site is live

I just launched TC Myths, my site in which I’ve collected all the myths about technical communication that I could find.


It started out as a quick lit. review, but the list grew more quickly than I expected (or imagined). I originally thought the list of myths would result in a duplicate of a similar list at UX Myths and then that would be the end of it. As it turns out, there is very little overlap. It also turns out that TC Myths are (or have been so far) much harder to research, compared to the UX Myths. The myths are also mysterious, which is why I’ve opened it up to comments and contributions.

I’m trying to understand why Technical Communication has (by my last count) over 70 different myths! Do we really need that many?

So, what does it take to be a TC Myth?
Continue reading “Tech comm myths site is live”

Google Developer Documentation Style Guide has been released

The good news is that Google has released the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide . The bad news could soon be that Google released the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide .

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’m delighted to see that the style guide includes, albeit below the fold, the advice to:

Remember that everything in this guide is a guideline, not a draconian rule.

Personally, I think this caveat should be on every page as part of the chrome, but at least it’s in the introduction. Unfortunately, my cursory review of the guide shows that the rules provide little context to help readers (in and out of Google) decide when would be good time to break a given rule and what the consequence or effect of that might be. But, this is not new. It has been a deficiency in technical communication guidelines and best practices that I’ve complained about for several years now. Maybe in v2?

Getting started

The highlights are a good place to start and provide a short cheat sheet of rules that are relatively universal and, while they don’t provide any resources or background for why these are good practices, I’m familiar with research that supports most of the suggestions, but I’m an outlier.

Hey, Google editors, for v2, please provide links to the background and research behind these guidelines to help readers–that is, the technical writers who will be applying these principles–understand why these are good practices and when they might want to make exceptions as you suggest in the opening caveat.
Continue reading “Google Developer Documentation Style Guide has been released”

Measuring your technical content – What about…?

If you’ve been following the preceding posts on measuring content, as the use-cases and customer journey paths start to become less funnel-shaped, this is about the point where whataboutism starts to occur.

In the post on measuring Tutorials, for example, I assert that “the customer’s goal in reading a tutorial is to accomplish something outside of the web,” making detecting and measuring their success difficult to do from within the topic. While the definition of a tutorial might make that seem like a pretty clear goal, that doesn’t make it immune to whataboutism.

Whataboutism can enter the discussion at this point in the form of “What about the people who come to the tutorial topic looking for a code sample to copy and paste? They don’t want to learn anything.” Or, “What about the executive who looks at the tutorial to see if it addresses a particular issue they care about?” Or, what about…  You get the idea. From what I’ve seen, it’s easiest for whataboutism to enter the discussion when the goals are broad and vague and the data supporting the goals and their subsequent measurement are scarce.

(Does that sound like a content project to you?)

So, what can you do about the “what about…” cases?

Continue reading “Measuring your technical content – What about…?”

Measuring your technical content – Part 3

In my recent posts, Measuring your technical content – Part 1 and Measuring your technical content – Part 2, I described some content goals and how those might be defined and measured for Introduction and Getting Started topics. In Part 1, the interaction was funnel shaped, while in Part 2, the funnel metaphor applied only in one of the two customer journeys through the page.

In this topic, I talk about Tutorials and How-To topics and how the funnel metaphor becomes less appropriate as customers goals move beyond the web experience.

It’s time to get creative (scientifically, of course).
Continue reading “Measuring your technical content – Part 3”

Measuring your technical content – Part 2

In my previous post, Measuring your technical content – Part 1, I described some content goals and how those might be defined and measured for an introduction topic. I this post, I look at Getting Started topics.

Getting Started topics

If Introduction topics bring people in by telling them how your product can help them, Getting Started topics are where you show them how that works. Readers who come here from the Introduction topic will want to see some credible evidence that backs up the claims made in the Introduction topic and these topics are where you can demonstrate that.

Technical readers will also use this as the entry point into the technology, so there are at least two customer journey paths intersecting here.

  • One path will come to a conclusion here, moving from the Introduction page to see the value and then the Getting Started topic to see how it works
  • Another path starts from the Getting Started page (already understanding the value proposition of the product) and moving deeper into the technology to apply it to their specific case.

Because at least one of the customer journeys through the Getting Started topics are less funnel-shaped than for the Introduction topics (some are almost inverted funnels), it’s important to start with the goals and required instrumentation before writing so that you can design your page to provide the information that the customer needs for their goals as well as the data you’ll need to evaluate the page (your goal).

So, in that case, what how might you measure such a topic’s success?

Continue reading “Measuring your technical content – Part 2”