Why the Documentation Sucks

For many software projects and products, the documentation sucks. The resources are incomplete, out of date, hard to understand, or don’t answer users’ real questions. Perhaps the documentation doesn’t always suck, but there’s almost always room for improvement. Documentation–like the technology it supports–is always changing and this presents a host of unique challenges for those of us who maintain documentation.

This page collects a number of recurring problems with documentation, and presents tactics for improving documentation.

Problems with Documentation

  • Documentation resources and manuals are often disorganized. The organization that makes sense for a documentation resource at the onset often doesn’t make sense three or six months later. This problem compounds over time.

    In general the (hierarchical) organization of a text should follow the flow of the concepts, and there should be no piece of content which could logically appear in two sections. The documentation for some technologies should replicate the organization of the products internal architecture; for other technologies this is the most confusing and backwards organization. Avoid spending all of your time reorganizing documents,

  • Overtime existing documentation becomes out of date. As bugs are fixed and features are added the documentation must be updated. This is a significant amount of work and it requires identifying changes, determining the impact on the text, and then going and making these updates. This is a constant and ongoing battle.

  • Often, users only look at documentation when they have a problem or something isn’t working the way they expect it to, but too often it is hard to find answers to questions in the documentation.

    Most documentation is not goal oriented. Documentation often just explains what things do or how things work, and does not explicitly address how to do things. If you know how to do things, documentation of how things work is great, but for about 60% of documentation use cases, you can save a lot of time if the documentation addresses your use case directly.

    Depending on the writer’s background and their relationship with the users, the documents are either too general (e.g. “this is what the software does, figure out how to use it,”) or too specific (e.g. “here’s how the software works, how you use it is up to you.*) In the end neither is useful.

  • Documentation has errors. This is either the result of the “out of date problem,” or the result of poor quality control. In smaller efforts, it’s a “number of eyeballs problem.” Projects like Dexy that make it possible to test documents in an automatic way, but this has its challenges as well.

Making Documentation Better

Some solutions to tactical problems presented above are addressed inline. Other, more global ways to address these issues include:

  • Use dedicated/professional technical writers. People who have primary roles that aren’t writing will always have something more crucial to attend to, will always have their perspective skewed by their other work, and face challenges enforcing style, structure, and organization on the resource as a whole.

    Good documentation is a significant undertaking. Documentation adds a lot of value, but “doing documentation right” requires a lot of time. Even in teams of relative generalists, specialization is crucial for making sure that there is documentation and that it’s up to date and useful.

  • Define review processes for new documentation. Provide for separate and parallel processes for reviewing existing documentation regularly. Include reasonable documentation time-lines in the release cycle.

  • Provide multiple ways for reader to submit bug reports on documentation, as a method to provide ongoing quality control.

    In pursuit of this, Also have a way to let bug systems ingest emails and for provide commenting on documents themselves (Disqus-like services seem ideal for this.)

  • Treat documentation as part of the development process rather than part of the product management or marketing process. You get better documentation, resources are built and grows proactively with the products rather than in reaction things that have happened in the development process. Also track progress and issues with documentation in the same way that you would track progress with software.

  • Write documentation in the smallest possible units. I’ve called this Atomic Documentation, and it is key for having documentation that’s easy to update and maintain. Additionally, atomic documentation tends to be useful and adaptable in more use contexts.

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tychoish is a blog about software, science fiction, community, music, knitting, and economies with particular attention to their past and future histories. Produced in Brooklyn by tycho garen.

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