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Document Like You Don’t Know the Subject

(Feature image credit: Markus Winkler)

“All books are just the same letters in a different order”. -Unknown

I know I originally heard this (paraphrased) quote from a comedian.  I thought it was Stephen Wright, though I was unable to find this attributed to any comedian on Google. The closest attribution I could find is to the author Cornelia Funke: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1197597/Cornelia-Funke-Weren-t-all-books-ultimately-related-After-all-the-same-letters-filled.

Point being (my regular reader knows I wander off point often, and hopefully entertainingly so), I think that many people tasked with writing documentation think that all the information is right where they found it, and that anyone else can do the same research and come up with the same understanding. To counter that view, I point you to the news and whatever thing people are doing or saying in large enough numbers to be noticed while the vast majority realize that nothing could be further from the truth.

The thing about documentation, the numbers are generally the opposite, in that only a few understand the need to be specific, explicit, and concise.

The trick that has always worked for me is to write the content, then follow the content as if I had no previous understanding of the topic.

When possible, I prefer to go one better and find someone who really does have no understanding and ask them to follow the content. My greatest success with that method is when I created a 20-page document (with lots of screenshots) that walked developers through the sequence of steps to become productive in working with an enterprise J2EE application with authentication and external system integration. The goal was for new developers to complete the process in under 30 minutes with no assistance. My final test of the documentation was when I gave it to our visual designer who completed the process in 40 minutes with no help other than the document.

At the least, I always try to get at least one consumer of the documentation to go through it and provide feedback. When possible, publish the documentation to a platform that encourages feedback. Even better if peers are allowed to edit and revise on their own.

Finally, when comments are edits are made, it is best if the platform provides an alert mechanism so that the content owner can review the changes or comments.

© Scott S. Nelson