These are some the new articles I found while browsing Google Scholar on the subject of API documentation since my last update on the topic. I found about 20-some new articles since January, which is exciting! Here’s a review of just the ones I’ve had a chance to skim and write up, so far.
This recent trove of documents makes me happy and sad as did the papers I reviewed in an earlier post. These articles contain lots of great research into API documentation, who uses it, and how it’s used. All of these are available for download and I would encourage you to do that if you are interested in API documentation.
At the same time, I’m still disappointed that there has been absolutely zero research published on the topic from the technical communication community this year (was I really the only one who was doing that lately?!) and little to no reference to anything tech-comm related in these papers. If you know of some API research published in a tech-comm venue (and that’s not already in my list), please let me know. At this point, all this is just a warning that some of my disappointment might seep through into my article reviews.
Many of these articles (3/4) had both academic and industry authors, which suggests that industry-academy partnerships aren’t that unusual in the research of API Documentation—if you’re in computer science. In tech comm, as Tom Johnson’s recent survey laments, not so much.
Some of these articles cite earlier research in developer user studies and also contribute to that body of work. None of them, however, cite what I would call writing or reading research. That wouldn’t be so troubling, if it were just these articles, but I can’t think of an article on the topic of API documentation published in a computer science venue that talks about actually reading and using the content. At the same time, there now seems to be a recognizable genre in API documentation literature that Head et al. describes as, “finding anti-patterns in documentation” (see reviews below).
So, here’s a short review of four of the articles I read this morning.
Although I’ve been in the field conducting research for the past month (in places, such as depicted in the photo), I still managed to publish and “present” several research papers that have to do with the piClinic Console. More are still in the pipeline, so stay tuned…
In Using Independent Studies to Enhance Usability Assessment Skills in a Generalist Program, co-authored with Dr. Pam Estes Brewer, Associate Professor in my department, we talk about how we used the development of the piClinic Console as an independent-study project for one of her usability research students. Dr. Brewer presented this paper July 23 at the IEEE PROCOMM conference in Toronto. The short story is the project provided an excellent challenge for her student and her student provided vital usability research data that informed the design’s iterations throughout the year. The paper also describes some of the other projects we’ve used to help develop future usability researchers.
Enriching Technical Communication Education: Collaborating Across Disciplines and Cultures to Develop the piClinic Console, was just presented in Milwaukee, WI at the 36th ACM International Conference on the Design of Communication. Instead of a personal appearance, I sent them this video to present in my stead. The paper details the design process and how it was applied to our technical communication curriculum. For example, as the usability research independent study project described in the preceding paper. Other tech comm lessons the project has produced include some visual UI design, the production of the promotional video that appears on piclinic.org, and several projects for the computer engineering department. The video, on the other hand, provides some of the back story behind the project.
So, I’m taking a break from technical writing related thoughts and posts for a while. For the next two months, I’ll be focusing on the development of, I suppose you could call it, my side project for the past few years. While, I’ve been working on this for the past four years, or so, it’s starting to gain some momentum.
“The piClinic is an open-source, patient-record automation solution designed for limited-resource healthcare clinics around the world. piClinic systems fill the gap between a paper-based patient-record system and a complete Electronic Health Record (EHR) system at a very low cost per system. The piClinic is built on the digital principles to provide an accessible, sustainable, and low-cost solution.”
No, seriously, what the heck is a piClinic Console?
I had the pleasure of joining Tom Johnson in another podcast and one of the topics we touched on was that of so-called best practices. Today, I stumbled across this post in a thread about high-tech job interviews:
It’s hilarious to me that during the hiring process tech companies insist candidates know and follow best practices. And then when you actually work there you find out they actually just use a total disaster development process that’s held together with duct tape and a few nails.
This week, my flying experiences spanned a broad spectrum. For the newcomers, I’m licensed to fly single and multi-engine airplanes, but lately, I’ve been flying airplanes with only one fan to keep the pilot cool (i.e. single-engine airplanes). However, this week, I had some new experiences.
Boeing 737-200 Simulator
A couple of days ago, I visited the Delta Flight Museum at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to fly their Boeing 737-200 flight simulator. Simulating an airplane that weighs over 100,000 pounds at takeoff, the Boeing 737-200 simulator represents the second biggest aircraft I’ve flown (simulated or otherwise). In college, I flew the Boeing 747-200 simulator with the flying club and the 747-200 weighs eight times as much as the 737-200.
Infuse user research and analytics into your entire writing process.
Treat your documentation as a product.
Do what’s best for your documentation customer.
Create and support a writing process that enables contributions from outside of the writing team.
Build the CMS that supports all of the above.
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.
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).
One of the many informative experiences I had at this year’s WriteTheDocs 2018 conference was my chat with employers/recruiters at the Job Fair. My primary goal was to learn what they looked for in their technical communication interns and entry level recruits, so I could bring that back to school. What I learned was not surprising, having only recently left industry for academia, but it was a wake-up call.
Recruiters want people (even their interns) who have experience and they want current and relevant experience.
I agree, that’s a bit of a Dog bites man story. Of course they do. All other things being equal, having current and relevant experience is almost always better than not. I suspect it is because the assumption is that with it, the person will become a productive team member sooner than later. What I think is often overlooked is how other idiosyncratic aspects of the specific job might have a greater influence in the time to productivity, such as the onboarding support (discussed in Sarah Day’s talk at this year’s conference), but that’s not something that I, as an educator, have much control over (unless you’re hiring me to consult on the process, of course).
What an intern needs
One of the things I have to keep in mind when reviewing my notes is that I was at a software documentation conference and the companies I talked to were software companies with open-source software products to document. In that context, it was natural that they were looking for writers with experience in their product domains: open-source tool experience (Git, GitHub, Markdown, etc.) They also looked for a passion for documentation—as evidenced by experience in such tools (e.g. documenting an open-source project in GitHub). I don’t know how many of these observations transfer to looking for writers in other industries.
Had an amazing experience at the 2018 WriteTheDocs conference in Portland, OR, last week. This was the first time I’ve been able to attend the conference, although I’ve followed it for years. While you can watch the formal talks from this, and previous, conferences on YouTube, it really is nothing like attending in person. What you don’t get to experience from the excellent YouTube videos, that is literally tangible in person during the conference, is the supportive sense of camaraderie, support, and acceptance from the participants.
The talks were a collection of first-person testimonials and experience reports by experienced and practicing (well, except for me, perhaps) technical writers and managers. The talks all had a practical focus and tangible, practical takeaways that the audience could take with them and put to work on the job.
Bottom line, if you are a technical writer and can go to only one conference a year, I recommend this one quite highly.
The downside to the conference is ther are too many places to be at once. In addition to the formal talks in the ballroom, a parallel “unconference” and job fair took place simultaneously in a smaller room below the ballroom. To complicate matters further, there were all the people I knew from the WriteTheDocs Slack to meet in person.
In my thread on user interactions with documentation, I suggested that you want your measurement instrument, usually some form of survey question(s), to influence the experience you’re trying to measure as little as possible. From a measurement standpoint, that’s nothing new. You never want your measurements to influence that which you’re measuring to prevent contaminating your measurement.
In the case of measuring feedback, or in this case, documentation or experience feedback, a recent tweet by Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) described how the use and perceived use of the measurement system had contaminated the data collected by Uber/Lyft (and countless other services). He tweeted, “Given that an equilibrium has emerged where any rating lower than 5 stars means your Uber/Lyft driver was bad, they should probably just replace the 5-star scale with a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down.”
You’ll have to take my word for it (or find it on your own, I’m not trying to hide). I’ve seen where your GitHub account is treated as a developer’s code portfolio, and I think that’s a shame. I treat mine more like a code sandbox where I can go and play learn.
Having a portfolio is a good thing for those who want to show off such things; however, after having looked at a few open-source projects, I see more that are on the sandbox end of the spectrum than those on the portfolio end–by a 2:1 margin (I’d guess, I don’t count them).
One project that I’m in the middle of is definitely not anywhere near the portfolio end but it’s exactly where it should be. I’m using it to test out different ideas that, if all goes well, will inform the production version of the project, at which point, I’ll create a new repo that incorporates the best of the various experiments. Until then, it’s going to be where I do what I need to do to figure out what it is I want to do.
If you want to see how I’ve coded for money, you’ll have to look at examples in which I did exactly that. Unfortunately, I don’t have any copies of such work, except for maybe some old code examples I used in some documentation.
If you want to see what I’m tinkering with, feel free to check my GitHub Repo (after you find it).