Category Archives: collaboration

Picking Up the Pieces

I  completed a writing assignment with a  small startup company where I revamped the approach to  product documentation to emphasize short article-length documents that are preferred for posting to the Web (as if anyone really read book-oriented PDF documents cover to cover anyway).

The company that hadn’t made revisions to their existing product documentation in over a year (and is planning for a new product release real soon now). It’s the same startup where I spoke to the engineering manager about the use of open source authoring tools (see my post Bottom Line). The discussion eventually evolved into my proposal to use open source software as a “free” (or at least low-cost) alternative to the expensive per-user licensing and support contracts that are required for commercial tools such as FrameMaker and RoboHelp. In a time when companies need to get the biggest “bang for the buck”, OpenOffice (or variants such as StarOffice and Lotus Symphony) may be all that a small to medium sized company needs to create the short article-length documents that are preferred for posting to the Web (as if anyone really read book-oriented PDF documents cover to cover anyway).

So, I started with a situation where there were no source files for the documentation that shipped with the last software release, no clear idea of which versions of the authoring tools  were used, and no real incentive to spend the $999 for the current version of RoboHelp or FrameMaker. My first real task was to take the last available FrameMaker 7 source documents archived from an older software release, buy an older compatibile version of FrameMaker (at only $499), and eventually export RTF files that could be used with OpenOffice before any updates and revisions could actually be incorporated. Along the way, I contended with authoring tools issues (such as template formatting, conditional text, and PDF export) that are not within the expertise of the average technical writer, and I found that the “free” technical support to be minimal.

Once I managed to break apart the book-length manuals into manageable chunks (approximating a chapter in length and topic organization),  I found that OpenOffice provided the flexibility to export the content to the project team to review and update in wiki format (moinmoin is what is used here), then I could take those revisions and updates to create PDF files to post on the company web site, as well as serve as the basis of an “old school” browser-based online help set that uses standard HTML tags (framesets) rather than rely on fancy JavaScript or ActiveX controls.

A pleasant benefit of using open-source software such as OpenOffice  is that no expensive upgrade was required in order to extend OpenOffice with the ability to import and export PDF files (included in version 3.1) or to import and export wiki formats (contributed by community members). Perhaps the needs of the startup where I work are not as complex as my former employer that maintained a large knowledge base with expensive single-source structured authoring tools. However, through the collaborative efforts on open source software, the bottom line seems to be that low budget does not necessarily mean low tech.

Bottom Line

I had a recent conversation with an engineering manager at a small startup company who was interested in finding ways to update the existing company  documentation, as well as create documentation for a new product release. What piqued my interest was that the conversation led to a discussion of authoring tools and their ability to handle current output formats (such as HTML and PDF) as well as upcoming Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis for collaborative documentation (see my previous post).

Coming from a  company background with dedicated publication teams, it was easy for me to assume that their documents were created using software such as Microsoft Word or Adobe FrameMaker. At first, I argued the relative merits of a word processing tool such as Word for short documents and FrameMaker for multi-chapter documents. Then, I realized the manager was far more interested in the use of open source software such as OpenOffice for authoring.

I continued the discussion comparing the relative merits of OpenOffice against Microsoft Word, when I began to see that the discussion was evolving into the prospective use of open source software as a “free” (or at least low-cost) alternative to the expensive per-user licensing and support contracts that are required for commercial tools such as Word and FrameMaker. In a time when companies need to get the biggest “bang for the buck”, OpenOffice (or variants such as StarOffice and Lotus Symphony) may be all that a small to medium sized company needs to create the short article-length documents that are preferred for posting to the Web.  Even more, open source software such as the Liferay 5.2 portal application can  not only be used to publish content to the Web, but also to manage Microsoft Office formatted documents in a content management system.

Through the collaborative efforts on open source software, the bottom line seems to be that low budget does not necessarily mean low tech.

On The Fly (Part 2)

Great minds think alike! I wrote about the impact  on the impact of agile software development on documentation (see On The Fly) where I shared my experiences how the frequent (and often extensive) changes to product features make it difficult to create conventional documentation such as product manuals and online help within tight project deadlines. After that post, I came across The Agile Technical Writer and The Agile Technical Writer II by Susan Maddox. Based on her experiences working on agile projects. she came to the conclusion that, rather than her role as a technical writer being cut out of the loop, she finds it has become even more interesting, exciting, and valuable.  She said, “As a technical writer, my aim is to reduce other people’s work, by making the documentation as simple and useful as possible. It takes a lot of work to achieve that simplicity. But it’s awesome because it’s what I love doing.”

I couldn’t agree with her more wholeheartedly. I urge you to read Susan’s posts to get a another insider’s perspective on the impact that agile development is having on how products and services are documented.

On the Fly

The original premise when I started this blog was to discuss how Web 2.0 technologies and open source software are changing the way that products and services are documented. Document collaboration among a community of authors (and not just a single team of writers) is becoming the norm with open source software projects such as Glassfish and Ruby on Rails using blogs and wikis for discussions and draft reviews. The influence of document collaboration will become more pervasive as (once) proprietary products such as databases and operating systems incorporate open source components (such as MySQL Enterprise and Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

An even more fundamental change than the increased use of document collaboration tools is the way that software products and services are being developed. As customer requirements demand more flexibility and quicker response in planning and implementation, companies are adopting agile development processes that focus more on working software than formal detailed specifications. The foundation of agile development are principles where software is planned, implemented, and tested “on the fly” so that project teams work closely with customers as requirements change, rather than treat change as an impediment to the development process. For more information, a presentation on agile development (in particular the Scrum methodology) is available here from the Scrum Alliance.

The impact on conventional product documentation (from user guides to online help) is potentially huge when a project team adopts an agile development process. No longer can writers use formal specifications as a negotiating point with project teams to determine the number, scope, or schedule of document deliverables. Likewise, writers can no longer rely on formal specifications to provide the gist of the information that will be fleshed out during the draft development and review cycle. Instead, the de-emphasis on formal specifications in agile development means that writers must be able to install and configure the software from working prototypes to the final version in order to create the needed task, reference, and conceptual documentation.

Scott W. Ambler wrote an excellent article detailing the documentation issues for agile development. Some of the insights that he shares are:

  • The fundamental issue is communication among team members, not formal documentation.
  • Write documentation if that’s the best way to achieve relevant goals, but there are often better ways to achieve these goals than static documentation (such as an online help system that focuses only on a single product release or version).
  • Document information that is stable (not speculative).
  • Seek (then act) on feedback on a regular basis throughout the document draft and review process.

Because of the iterative nature of agile development, Ambler notes that a best practice should be to wait until the information has stabilized before you capture it in documentation. It is risky to capture speculative information, such as requirements or design details, early in the lifecycle because those details are likely to change.

To give you some idea of the current (and likely) demands for someone wishing to create documentation on an agile project, you can look at a wiki article intended to describe the administration console for an open source project. As with the rigor of agile development, the administration console underwent significant UI changes between the November 2008 community milestone build to the current Beta build in January 2009 — requiring a total of 38 draft revisions to the original wiki article posted in November (and likewise supporting the decision that a conventional online help system for the console was too risky at that stage in the development). To track all those changes, myself and another writer became part SME (knowing what the software is supposed to do), part system administrator (install & configure software), part QA engineer (figure out what the software actually does and doesn’t do) before we can even devote time to the task of actually writing.

This effectively means that writers are no longer insulated from the software development and QA testing processes with a unique process just for product documentation. Writers will increasingly be asked (if not required) to participate as peers on the project team during agile software development, or else their jobs will (most likely) become redundant.

It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It (Part 2)

I said in a previous post that, while community wikis are a valuable opportunity to solicit feedback, they cannot replace the requirement for dedicated writers to create task, reference, and conceptual documentation for a given product or service. Yet, I did not acknowledge at the time that community members have an “enlightened” self interest to keep the wikis accurate and up to date.

Two articles that were contributed to the Liferay community wiki (as part of an open source partnership) brought this to mind. The first wiki article had updates incorporated by a community member after the article was first posted. The other wiki article illustrated the opportunity for community members to discuss possible revisions/updates after the article was first posted.

Such input/feedback could not be incorporated at the time that these articles were written because, to be honest, the authors of the articles couldn’t anticipate everything that the users would need to know (or want to know). Indeed, there is wisdom in saying that the community is greater than the sum of its members.

PS

I have summarized the effort needed to contribute articles to the Liferay community wiki (with an eye towards creating documentation for a future commercial release) on my wiki.

It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

I haven’t gotten any user comments on the articles that have posted to the community wiki after blogging about it. But, just for argument’s sake, I do get comments from users just after I start together the review draft of the product documentation (which are based on the wiki articles). Do I incorporate the user comments as part of the product documentation as I would review feedback from the project team? Or should I just collect the user comments and have the product team review them for completeness and accuracy (as is done with bug reports)?

In other words, should a documentation wiki for an open source project be considered as complete and accurate when the product documentation is available separately? Or, more to the point, can a documentation wiki replace the need for separate product documentation?

My past experience working on open source documentation projects is that, while community wikis are a valuable opportunity to solicit feedback, they cannot replace the need for dedicated writers to create the required task, reference, and conceptual documentation. In other words, someone has to bake the cake before others can get a taste.

Perhaps the ideal role that community wikis and blogs can play will be to provide forums to discuss how to fill the gaps in the product documentation over the life of the product, perhaps starting with planning and deployment issues (at the beginning of the product lifecycle) to upgrade and migration issues (when the next product release is available).

PS

Originally posted on blogs.sun.com by J. Aseo on 10/31/08.  You can find a summary of the effort needed to support the Project SocialSite community wiki (with an eye towards creating documentation for a future commercial release) on my wiki.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

I wrote my first blog about my issues with blogs and wikis (specifically blogging to arouse user interest in an early draft of an article). So…after a full month of revisions incorporating feedback from the project team after first posting my article to the wiki, I think the content is now “complete” (or at least it incorporates everything that everyone on the team can think of). Then comes the deafening silence of no responses from the community…kind of like that saying “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

At first, I’m more than a little discouraged, because wikis are supposed to be this wave of the future that will bring about the age of collaborative documentation and forever break down the walls between professional technical communicators and the user community, But perhaps I’m just being skeptical–it took 20 years before desktop publishing moved from the realm of graphic designers to everyday users. Things take time, and good ideas like wikis will eventually move from the realm of computer geeks to everyday users.

So, I guess I’ll just continue to keep posting articles, being well aware that community feedback may be slow in coming (if at all at first). But if you plant a seed, and the seed grows up to be a tree, then someday that tree just might make a “boom” and someone will be around to hear the sound.

PS

Originally posted to blogs.sun.com by J. Aseo on 10/31/08.  You can find a summary of the effort needed to support the Project SocialSite community wiki (with an eye towards creating documentation for a future commercial release) on my wiki.