Documentation Emergence

I stumbled across a link somewhere along the way to a thread about the Pyramid project's documentation planning process. It's neat to see a community coming to what I think is the best possible technical outcome. In the course of this conversation Iain Duncan, said something that I think is worth exploring in a bit more depth. The following is directly from the list, edited only slightly:

I wonder whether some very high level tutorials on getting into Pyramid that look at the different ways you can use it would be useful? I sympathize with Chris and the other documenters because just thinking about this problem is hard: How do you introduce someone to Pyramid easily without putting blinders on them for Pyramid's flexibility? I almost feel like there need to 2 new kinds of docs:

  • easy to follow beginner docs for whatever the most common full stack scaffold is turning out to be (no idea what this is!)
  • some mile high docs on how you can lay out pyramid apps differently and why you want to be able to do that. For example, I feel like hardly anyone coming to Pyramid from the new docs groks why the zca under the hood is so powerful and how you can tap into it.

Different sets of users have different needs from documentation. I think my ":Multi-Audience Documentation" post also addresses this issue.

I don't think there are good answers and good processes that always work for documentation projects. Targeted users and audience changes a lot depending on the kind of technology at play. The needs of users (and thus the documentation) varies in response to the technical complexity and nature every project/product varies. I think, as the above example demonstrates, there's additional complexity for software whose primary users are very technical adept (i.e. systems administrators) or even software developers themselves.

The impulse to have "beginner documentation," and "functional documentation," is a very common solution for many products and reflects two main user needs:

  • to understand how to use something. In other words, "getting started," documentation and tutorials.
  • to understand how something works. In other words the "real" documentation.

I think it's feasible to do both kinds of documentation within a single resource, but the struggle then revolves around making sure that the right kind of users find the content they need. That's a problem of documentation usability and structure. But it's not without challenges, lets think about those in the comments.

I also find myself thinking a bit about the differences between web-based documentation resources and conventional manuals in PDF or dead-tree editions. I'm not sure how to resolve these challenges, or even what the right answers are, but I think the questions are very much open.

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