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.

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