Creating documentation in a Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery environment

Creating user documentation and online Help in a Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery environment can be challenging for technical communicators and developers.

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Adapting to change in technical communication

Technical Authors work in a profession where they must be able to adapt to changes in the technology sector. Often, the changes relate to the outputs they need to create or the authoring tools they use, and most Technical Authors adapt quite easily to the new situations.

However, sometimes there are also changes to writing styles or the type of subject matter, and these can take a little while to get used to.

One significant development has been with the growth in Web-based, Software as a Service applications. In this environment, the User Assistance often fulfils a pre-sales and a training function, as well as providing the help when users get stuck. We’re working on a project at the moment where the writers have had to include this additional type of information, going against their natural inclination to be as succinct as possible. This has involved providing information on why you should use a particular feature, as well how to use it. For the writers, this have meant they’ve needed to gain a better understanding of the context in which the application is used, and deeper understanding of the users and their working day.

The other area that can cause challenges is writing API documentation. This is often written using different authoring tools than usual, and it often requires the writing of more factual, reference information. This can mean the writers need to have some understanding of the programming languages used to create an application, and be able to write for a more technical audience.

These differences is something I’ll be discussing in depth at the free Write the Docs London all day mini-conference on Friday, 4th March. In Aye, Aye, API – What makes Technical Communicators uneasy about API documentation, and what can we do about it?, we’ll look at the challenges mainstream Technical Authors face when writing API documentation.

If you have any insights or thoughts regarding the differences between writing end-user documentation and API documentation, please share them via the comments box below.

Summary of the findings from our 2016 technical communications survey

We asked Technical Authors to complete a survey into the issues and challenges they face in 2016 and beyond. There were four main themes that stood out:

  1. Issues around working in an Agile environment.
  2. A need to develop skills in creating training screencasts. This included how to use tools, structuring and presenting content, and the ideal length of each video.
  3. Improving the status of Technical Authors and the Technical Publications department in the organisation. This topic has come up in previous surveys.
  4. Developing skills in using DITA.

We’ve looked at Agile recently, and we’ll revisit the other topics in the upcoming months.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the survey.

Explaining complicated stuff using simple words

Book coverRandall Munroe’s latest book Thing Explainer will be released tomorrow. In the book, Munroe uses line drawings and only the thousand most common words to provide simple explanations for complicated objects.

It’s good practice to use words that are commonly understood. In some industries, Technical Authors have to write using only a limited list of approved words  (a “controlled vocabulary”). For example, there are controlled vocabularies for aircraft maintenance manuals, because some maintenance engineers have a only limited amount of English.

Sometimes, the word “stuff” doesn’t help the reader to understand. So what do you do when readers need to understand the small differences between objects, particularly when they can have a big effect on what happens next?

XKCD cartoon

In order to write clearly, there are times when you need to use more than the thousand most common words. Technical Authors deal with this issue by using concept, terms and references topics. When they need to use words that some users might not understand, Technical Authors provide a link (or cross reference ) to another topic. This other topic provides an explanation or a definition of the word or concept. The topic can contain words, images, diagrams, animations or videos to help the user grasp the meaning.

It’s good to use simple words, but it’s more important to make sure the information is clear.

Presentations at Technical Communication UK Conference, Autumn 2015

Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking at Technical Communication UK 2015, which will be held between 29th September and 1st October 2015, in Glasgow. Ellis will be speaking twice, about:

  • Creating an academic course in technical communication, and
  • Help in the User Interface – a case study in first user interaction and embedded Help formats.

If you’re planning to attend the conference, we look forward to see you there.

What should be on our roadmap for training courses in technical communications?

We thought it would be useful to reflect on our plans for topics and courses in technical communications. In the past, some of the best suggestions have come from customers and prospects; it’s great to pick up useful ideas from others.

Today, you’ll find classroom or elearning training courses in:

We have a separate roadmap for business writing courses, which is where our policies and procedures training course (and again, Introduction to content strategy) fits in.

Our current thinking is to offer more topics around managing and planning technical documentation projects. In the past, we’ve offered an course on estimating projects. We also know managing project time is another important topic. Perhaps there are other topics that would fit under this category?

There’s also the issue of which courses should be online (recorded) courses, and which ones should be classroom-based (live) courses. Delegates say really like the two training venues we use in central London (we struck gold there), but online courses enable people to take a course pretty much anywhere and at any time.

If you have any thoughts, you can email us your thoughts, or you can use the comment box below.