August 27, 2010

Getting Lost in Features

I have two pet peeves when it comes to "features". One is that we get very caught up in documenting a product's features and not how to use the product. The other, and the one this post is about, is that we tend to crave more features even when they don't make the product any better.
Yesterday I came across two articles. The first article was about a CS professor who uses old BBC micros to teach his students how to program. The micro strips away all of the "features" of modern IDE's and forces the students to think about the code. The second article was a meditation on the possibility that documentation efforts have become so focused on the shiny presentation features and rich editing features that quality content has been overlooked.
The "feature" overload problem makes me remember my early days of MP3 players with horror. I wanted no part of the iPod. It only supported a few formats, didn't have a radio tuner, didn't record, couldn't edit song titles, didn't have a way to make playlists on the fly..... Instead I raced out and bought a fancy Rio that supported every format known to man, recorded, had a radio tuner, and even had network syncing. The thing rocked, but it was a bitch to use. Worse, the radio sucked and I never recorded anything. The only "feature" that was useful was the network syncing because I didn't have a place near the computer to put the syncing cradle. As more of my friends got iPods and I got to use them, I became very jealous. The iPod looked good and was easy to use. Less features, but a better solution to the problem. When the Rio died, I replaced it with an iPod and never looked back.
I look at some of the Webhelp systems in the world and ask myself how much does all that Javascript goodness really add to the usefulness of the documentation. Does a collapsible TOC really make it easier to find things? Does putting the index on a separate tab make it easier to use? Does the half-assed search capabilities built into the system make it faster to find information? What about the buttons that collapse the TOC pain or sync the display to the TOC? They all look cool, but would spending more time on good content and good organization be more valuable? My answer is that the "features" of most documentation UI's are not that helpful and that better content is usually a good answer. Personally, I find using search painful and would prefer a halfway decent index any day.

I have the same problem with a lot of the documentation tools that are on the market. Framemaker, RoboHelp, ePublisher Pro, Flare, Word etc. are all powerful feature rich tools that are intended to make documentation production easier. They all, in their own ways, takes the writer away from the content. WYSWYG editors place too much emphasis on page-layout and distract from the words on the page. To cope with all of their features, and the odd missing features, takes a learning curve and often you are forced to make compromises to fit the tool.
Even some of the XML editor's for documentation can go overboard. They all do auto-complete to various degrees and have WYSWYG views. Give me a simple editors that validates my mark-up and spell checks and I'd be happy.
Let me focus on the words and not the tool.
We need to remember what problem the product is intended to solve and make it excellent at solving that problem. Strip away all features that do not further that goal.

August 18, 2010

Documentation UIs

Another writer and I were talking at lunch he bemoaned the stagnation in the thinking about how users interact with documentation. For the most part, the UIs for documentation haven't evolved much in the past 10 or 15 years. The two forms are PDFs and basic HTML. PDF is still PDF - a poor electronic substitute for paper although now some PDFs can be annotated. HTML documentation runs the gamut from boring to more boring. Most of it is basic 90s HTML mark-up with some sort of JavaScript collapsable TOC and basic JavaScript driven search capabilities. You may get linear navigation aids in addition to the basic browser buttons, but the often the JavaScript screws up the browser buttons. Help systems are just HTML documentation with a different framework wrapped around it. Eclipse Help looks very similar to the HTML help most groups churn out.
My fellow writer placed the blame for this squarely on Adobe. They purchased all of the proper assets to make real change (FrameMaker, PDF, Quark, Illustrator, Photoshop), but left most of it to languish. FrameMaker has not substantially changed in the 10 years I've been doing documentation. In fact, the only real change from 1995 that I can see is that FrameMaker is now a Windows only product. PDF has also stagnated.
Adobe does deserve a fair amount of blame for the stagnation, but they are not alone. All of the tool vendors in the documentation space have allowed things to just stay flat. WebWorks has improved their product's functionality for the writer, but the output is still JavaScript laded HTML. Flare is not much better. The DITA OT and the DocBook tool chains cannot claim any highground here either. The DocBook HTML output is definitely stuck in the last century and the DITA OT HTML isn't much better.
All of these tools allow you to improve the look of the output by messing around with the CSS files or adding your own processing logic to them. For example, there is no reason I couldn't make the DITA OT generate a fully collapsable floating TOC that is rendered using CSS beyond my skill with XSLT and my time. Therein lies the rub. Most people working in technical documentation today do not have the skills or the time to do major customization work beyond what the tools provide natively. Some tools make it hard, some just don't provide any help. Even when the customization methods are easyish and well documented there is little time.
While the tool vendors share some of the blame for the stagnation, it is the professional writers and the users of documentation that share most of the blame. We have not demanded better interfaces to work with documentation. We have accepted that it must live with the subpar UIs we've suffered with for years. Don't we really just want print of HTML served up Google style? Or is it that we have been conned into believing that is the best we can get?
Lately the world of electronic books has been showing us that we can expect more. iBooks, the Kindle apps, and a slew of other eReading platforms have recently appeared on the market that have shown that reading electronic content does not need to be boring or painful. I just read a beautiful version of Alice in Wonderland on my iPad. The typography was excellent, the page layout was top notch, the interface was intuitive, I could look up words in the dictionary without too much disruption. It was a dream. I've seen comic books on the iPad as well and they too work very well. In most cases they are just trying to replicate the feel of a printed publication, but some of the elements go beyond that. New eBook platforms allow for embedded audio and visual content as well as text.
When it comes to help systems, a different UI paradigm is needed from the book paradigm. The current bland HTML page with a generic search feature cannot be the best we can do. One thing we can do is break the TOC model. It provides a false sense of "bookishness" to a help system that is essentially non-linear. The search features can use some bulking up as well. Maybe adding features that allow users to save searches. How about letting user's build their own TOC based on their use patterns or save breadcrumb trails. More connection between the help system and the UI it documents would be good as well. Some help systems already have the ability to open dialogs and trigger actions in the associated products, but typically this feature is hard for a content developer to trigger.
Don't we owe it to our users to demand more and better usage paradigms. Ones that make the task of finding and consuming information easier and are more than just functional?

August 16, 2010

A Tale of Two Doc Types

As I see it, modern technical documentation comes in two basic formats: books and help systems. The key differentiator is the reader's expectation about how the documentation is used and not the actual production medium.
Books are intended to be used in a linear, narrative fasion. A user expects to start at one point (a chapter head or section head) and then move forward through the pages to gain more detailed information about the task identified on the start page. A chapter starts off with an overview of ESB processes and then proceeds to provide more granualar information about them. Location has meaning and the content flows together to build a complete picture.
Help systems are intended to be used contextually like a web. A user expects to be dropped into the system at a topic that is relative to the task at hand and then traverse links to any relative information. The idea of chapter and section are meaningless. Location is valueless and each page is a relative island with bridges leading to other islands that may provide further information.
In PDF, and print, the difference between a book and a help system is hard to define except that the help system will almost always feel incomplete and disjointed. PDF, like print, is meant for linear content since it is harder to jump around and the viewers all prominently display location.
In HTML, things are more flexible. HTML books can feel linear and help systems can feel web-like.
HTML books should prominently display their TOC and provide some indication of position in the TOC. They should also provide navigation buttons for traversing the content linearly. Clues like the word chapter and section also help orient the user.
HTML help systems, while most have a TOC system, can dispense with a majority of the location trappings since location has little value. Help systems should not have linear navigation tools, since linear navigation does not always translate into the expected behavior for the user. Words like chapter and section should be expunged since they confuse the user by implying organizational constraints that are not valid in the help system.
Things get confusing for help systems since they often have a TOC panel that displays a linear organization of pages that appear to be grouped into nested structures like chapters and sections. Look at an Eclipse help system's TOC and it is easy to think that it can be used like a book. Start using it that way and you will soon become frustrated because, even if there was a way to navigate linearly, the actual content is not linear in the same sense as a book. Some high-level topic may be a big process that the nested topics provide detailed sub-processes and context, but it is rarely the case that it flows like a book. It is intended so that a user can quickly land on a single page, perhaps by triggering F1 from the UI, and get the information they need. They can choose to explore the provided links to other topics or not. In a book, they would likely need to click through to the pages that follow for more information.
A book is a longer, more descriptive, leisurely way to learn about something. It is intended as a way to deliver content at a deep level in a pedigogical manner. A help system is a collection of quick cards that deliver targeted information so a user can get on with the task at hand. The idea that a writer can create a document that fits both purposes is foolish. The result, like all attempts at making hybrids, will be something that does neither job well.

August 13, 2010

Documentation in an Agile World

Most agile frameworks are programmer focused and don't talk about the documentation part of product development. Its not that agile frameworks don't consider documentation an important part of product developement. It's that documentation is a black art to programmers and is often hard to quantify (and we writers like it that way: it allows us to resist change and maintains our sense of creativity).
For example take the following story:
As a developer implementing an algorithmic trading application, I need to put price constraints in place to ensure that the algorithm operates within safe boundaries.
The acceptence criteria is pretty clear "it is done when the developer can add price contraints to his trading algorithm". The functional part of this is easy to measure and understanding what to build is also clear. But what about the documentation part of the story? What is the acceptence criteria? "A procedure that explains how to implement a price constraint." That is not easily verifyable. I could write a procedure that is simple and just walks the developer through the steps:1: add this line of code. 2: include these two parameters in the argument list. etc. Does that really satisfy the requirement such that the developer knows how to implement the price constraint? It is ultimately going to involve some subjectivity.
The second question is wheter the story, with the documentation included, could be fit into a single sprint. The documentation cannot really be written until after the implementation is underway and cannot be QAd until after the implementation is complete. The developer will also need to spend some time with the writer providing information. So, should any story with documentaiton impact be split into two stories: one for engineering and one for documentation (the documentation story is dependent on the engineering story)? IMHO splitting stories into a programming story and documentation story is the best way to do it, but it leaves open the possibility that the documentation story will get prioritized out of the release.

Another question that including documentation in agile frameworks that I've heard involves having skin in the game. The concern is that writers, because they cannot write code, may have sprints where they have no active tasks (no skin in the game). In traditional development models, the programmers get started building stuff right off the bat and the writers settle into what they call "disovery mode". The writers are researching what the programmers are building. At some later point in the release cycle, after the programmers have built a bunch of stuff, the writers start writing. So, it makes sense that there is a concern that in early sprints, writers will have no skin in the game. However, I think that this is not going to be a concern in actuality. The writers always have user requests that filter in from previous releases that can be completed in early sprints. They also have areas where they know the documentation can be improved. Given that functionality will start appearing after the first sprint, the writers should have something new to document by sprint number two.

One more question. This one combines concerns from both the previous questions: How do you create acceptence criteria for a story like "understanding the user roles for Apama" or "research the Sonic WS-Security implementation"? My opinion is that you don't because they are not stories they are tasks that need to be completed as part of resolving a story. The task may require an entire sprint, but that does not change the fact that it is just a task. I also don't think that the task will take an entire sprint because such tasks will be constrained tighter than "research WS-Security" to something more along the lines of "research how to secure a Web service using Kerberos tokens." It is possible that some reasearch tasks may take more than a sprint, but programmers may also need to spend a sprint doing research on ways to implement some functionality. The framework has space for it.

August 11, 2010

What Does Documentation Do?

I'm often asked to explain what value I think documentation provides, what role does it play in making a good product. Most people think of documentation as a neccessary evil or just a bunch of words that are better left unread. Many people's experience with technical documentation, mine included, is frustrating. It never seems to guide on the path to doing the thing you really want to do. It may tell you how to use the "burn and dodge" tool or "use the process designer," but it doesn't really tell me how to selectively darken a portion of a photograph or assemble my services into a process flow.
So what does most documentation do? It explains the features that make up a product. It tells the user how to use the process designer and all of the paths to getting there. It may even mention a few of the reasons a user may want to use the process designer. The problem is that most users don't want to use the process designer. They want to assemble their services into a process flow. More likely the user has an even more specific goal such as assembling my services into a sequntial process flow so that they look like a single service to my customers.
So what should documentation do? It should provide a user the information they need to darken a portion of a photograph. To accomplish their goal, the user will need to use the dodge and burn tool. However, they need to use it in a specific way (only one way) and they are more likely to find the informaiton because it relates to their goals.
Why does documentation often look like feature documentation and not user documentation? One: product release plans are often a list of features and not a list of users stories. Two: writers don't have access to customers to actually understand their goals and needs. Three: the myth that writing user focused documentation is too expensive. Writers can get out of the trap by pushing on product owners to provide user stories and access to customers. Writers can also start pushing back against the myth. It takes a lot of time to fully document the seventeen ways to implement a widget and all the stuff around it. It takes a lot less time to figure out why the user wants to implement that widget and document the best path to accomplishing the goal. It is also a lot more valuable.