Being Agile in technical documentation – Part two

Two years ago, we wrote a number of posts, and an Adobe-sponsored whitepaper, on Agile and its effects on technical communication. This topic was picked by others, including Sarah O’Keefe and Mattias Sander, who made further suggestions. We thought it was time to revisit this topic, and expand on some of the issues raised.

In Part one, we looked at Agile and the Lean method’s principles of maximising value and minimising waste. Here in Part two, we look at how we can minimise waste in the document production process.

Removing waste from user’s interaction with the product

Let’s briefly touch on value and waste during the use of the product by the user.

User Assistance can contribute to the user being less “wasteful” when they’re using the product: minimising the time having to stop when they get stuck, or having to rework things to fix mistakes. This means you need to provide the right information at the right time, in the right place, and in the right format.

It needs to provide the required information to the reader as fast as possible. In practice, this can mean having the Help embedded in the application itself. It might also mean creating different documents to suit different audiences, or even personalised content. It also implies User Assistance needs to be as short as possible, but not shorter.

This also means you’ll need to carry out some usability testing of the content and perhaps even A/B testing. You have to test to check what you’re producing is what gives value to users.

Removing waste from user documentation process

Let’s look at how we could apply Lean principles to writing technical documentation in an Agile environment.

Is it needed?

The Lean approach can help us identify which parts to document, and which to leave out. Under Lean, you should only document what customers tell you is absolutely necessary. Only information that adds value to the user, or increases their productivity, should be included. If the information isn’t needed by anyone, we shouldn’t write it (unless we have to do it for legal or other reasons).

By going through a design process of empathy, defining needs, generating ideas, prototyping and testing, we can identify the best way to solve a specific problem. In practice, User Assistance (in other words, the online Help and user documentation) should be considered part of the product design, and included in the initial design planning, rather than being left to the end. This requires a change in product planning thinking, as documentation is often treated as an afterthought, pushed to the end of the development process.

In an Agile development process, designers will create Use Cases for each feature, and technical communicators can do something similar. Use Cases can be used in the planning of User Assistance to identify who will use it (the audience), what value it will provide (or what problem it will solve), and when they will use it.

Load levelling

In addition to the waste of “non-value adding work”, in our simplified description of Lean there are also wastes of “overburden” and “unevenness”. These relate to having too much work to do in the timescales allowed, and having to stop and wait for something you need in order to carry on working. Instead, our goal is to have a consistent, productive rhythm to our work.

For technical communicators, this “overburden” and “unevenness” could be waiting for reviews, waiting for edits, waiting for work, or waiting for approvals. It can also mean wasting time having to switch tools or stop and start different tasks. If we can measure these wastes, we can justify the need to change working practices.

Levelling allows a consistent workflow, which makes it possible to set standards and identify abnormalities. The Lean methodology contains a number of techniques for smoothing out a work schedule, such as a triage approach to prioritising new work requests. One of the key ways we can level the technical writing workload is simply to start the project earlier. The benefits from avoiding having to stop and start, or rush things at the end, may outweigh any waste from having to go back and amend some of the content written at the start of the project.

One-piece flow

Related to load levelling is continuous, or one-piece, flow. W. Edwards Deming proved in the 1950s that implementing a continuous flow system, instead of working in batches, can have a significant impact on improving quality and reducing throughput time.

A continuous flow system works like serving people food from a counter. Customers move forward, picking up their stater, main course and pudding as they go down the line. When a serving station runs out of food, there should be a new tray of supplies ready to replenish it just in time to serve the next customer. People only work on one piece at a time and only one piece of work moves from one stage to the next.

Deming proved one-piece flow results in fewer bottlenecks, less waiting and faster throughput. You pull work from the previous step when you have available resources. It also means that mistakes appear earlier. As items are pulled one piece at a time, you should have one only faulty item to deal with, rather than a large batch of defects. If you fix the problem, identifying what caused it, it goes away before it can escalate.

One example of technical communicators working in batches is when they send out drafts of whole manuals to reviewers. One piece flow could mean passing on content for review in smaller pieces – perhaps even issuing content for review on a daily basis, making it an integral part of the product development process.


One of the tools used in both Lean and Agile projects is a Kanban board. This is a visual representation of the pieces flowing through the process. It can help the team identify any problems, and control and regulate the amount of new tasks given to the team. It can be the case that no new work is added to the board until a current work piece is defined as “done”.

One approach is to include the technical writing task in the project Kanban board. This could mean if there are problems with creating documentation, these are brought to the surface for fixing there and then.

Alerting and fixing any problems early

The philosophy of both Lean and Agile is to bring problems and defects to the front, and force people to confront them and fix the immediate and underlying problems.

Within Lean, and often in Agile, when a problem or issue is identified, everyone is empowered to stop the process, and swarm around the problem to solve it immediately. So could a technical communicator have the right to flag to stop the process? Would a development team be willing to face up to the sheer amount of documentation and work with the technical communicator to tackle the problem? The answer should be yes, but it would depend on how closely the team adheres to Agile principles. For this to happen, the team needs to have an authoring system that enables non-professional technical communicators (such as developers) to be able to contribute content.

Dealing with variations in project plans

Technical communicators need to avoid having to pull the emergency cord, and this means they need to be able to deal with some of the variations that can arise as projects change over time.

In Part three

In Part three of this series, we’ll look at how we can modify our writing process and tools so we can implement these approaches into how we work.

Being Agile in technical documentation – Part one

Two years ago, we wrote a number of posts, and an Adobe-sponsored whitepaper, on Agile and its effects on technical communication. This topic was picked by others, including Sarah O’Keefe and Mattias Sander, who made further suggestions. We thought it was time to revisit this topic, and expand on some of the issues raised.

This is part one of a series of posts on this topic. 

Being Agile in technical documentation – Part one

Agile creates a number of challenges for technical communicators, which can mean they need to adapt their working methods in order to work efficiently.

What is Agile?

Agile development is a way of managing IT development teams and projects that has been around since 2001. It’s an alternative to traditional project methods, which, it was felt, often lead to unsuccessful projects.

One of the main criticisms of traditional project management methods was they often led to teams working to a plan that became less relevant to user needs, current technology, and market trends over the lifetime of a project. This could result in software that were already out of date by the time it was released. The approach was also criticised because some faults might not be identified until towards the end of the project, which could make fixing them time-consuming and expensive.

In 2001, a group of developers published the Agile Manifesto, which outlined their vision of how they felt software projects should be run.

In Agile projects, the goal is to develop robust products quickly. The project and its deliverables are typically broken down into short development cycles, which are usually two weeks, and, based on the feedback and lessons learnt from these cycles, the project adapts and changes over time. The team delivers early, frequent and continuous releases of products.

One goal is for teams to find problems quickly, and either correct a problem immediately or eliminate the affected feature altogether. This should mean there is less waste, something we’ll look at in more detail later.

Agile’s effect on writing

In traditional project environments, technical communicators often use functional specification documents, which describe what will be delivered, and any available prototypes, as their information source. At the start of the project, they have detailed information on what the product is meant to do.

The Agile manifesto proposes working software over comprehensive specification documentation, which often means there is far less written information for technical communicators to use. They often have to produce content based on word-of-mouth descriptions, fluid sketches, use cases, and business cases.

Managing Agile projects relies far more on face-to-face communication and self-directing teams than any formal documentation mapping out the whole project for years in advance.

The release of products in short, iterative, cycles can mean there is little time to write the user documentation before the product is released. Also, if the product is changing with every release, there may be a need to rework the content that’s already been written.

An Agile approach to technical writing

Technical communicators who work in an Agile environment often need to adapt the way they work to meet these new challenges. In other words, they need an Agile approach to technical writing.

Agile is based on a manufacturing method called Lean, and we suggest this Agile approach to technical writing should be based on Lean principles as well.

Learning from Lean

The Lean methodology is a method for making things. Originally developed for manufacturing, today it is used in healthcare, programming and other business areas. Lean is an adaptation of the Toyota Production System, a set of principles and methods developed in Japan in the 1950s for creating high quality, reliable cars at a reasonable price.

In a nutshell, Lean’s approach is to:

Maximise the value to the customer


minimise waste.

Lean is a never ending process. You constantly seek out waste, strive for perfection, look for maximising the value. Agile shares this philosophy of continuously striving for perfection, looking to maximise the value to the customer and avoid time wasted on activities that don’t add value.

About value

In Lean, you start by understanding what the customer values in the product. Once you’re able to define value, you can then pinpoint where and how value is added during the development process.

You focus your efforts on ensuring that resources are targeted to deliver that value as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If a feature or a step in the development process doesn’t add value, it is seen as a “waste”. In Lean, you challenge whether those “wastes” in the development process are needed or if they should be eliminated.

The result is an emphasis on providing the value customers are willing to pay for, whilst simultaneously identifying where you can reduce costs.

About waste

Waste is categorised into eight types in Lean. However, we can simplify things by looking at the three original wastes that were defined in the Toyota Production System.

The three types of waste are: “non-value adding work”, “overburden” and “unevenness”. Non-value adding work can mean the waste of time and effort on activities or features that don’t give the user any value. Overburden can mean someone having more work to do than they can handle, which often leads to mistakes, defects and poor quality. Unevenness can mean the times when you have to stop or slow down, while you wait for someone else to give you a item needed in order to do the work. Instead, our goal is to have a consistent, productive rhythm to our work.

Why look at Lean instead of Agile?

Agile has developed processes and methods for reducing wastes for developers. However, these processes and methods can result in waste appearing at other points in the overall process, such when we create the end-user documentation.

For example, we might find that leaving documenting to a late stage in the development process in order to avoid the wastes caused by creating content that’s not needed or requires reworking is a false economy. This approach could be more wasteful than starting the project earlier. Using Lean can help us identify how to eliminate or minimise those wastes.

We can look at value and waste from two aspects – during production and during the use of the product by the user. This we’ll begin to do in Part two of this series.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) for content

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an increasingly popular technique used in the construction industry. It involves creating XML digital models of buildings and tunnels during each stage of a project. However, these are more than just 3D animated models, as they also embed information about physical objects in the building. According to Wikipedia:

“A building owner may find evidence of a leak in his building. Rather than exploring the physical building, he may turn to the model and see that water valve is located in the suspect location. He could also have in the model the specific valve size, manufacturer, part number, and any other information ever researched in the past, pending adequate computing power. “

It means architects and engineers can “see” behind walls and discover if there are any pipes or cables that might be affected by any planned works.

This concept of an intelligent model that can be shared between stakeholders throughout the whole lifecycle is also the future for content. Organisations want the ability to know how different items of content are related, what is the structural and metadata information behind the presentation layer and how content has developed chronologically. They want the ability to use a model to plan and modify before they start the more costly work of implementation.

BIM could perhaps provide a useful analogy for Technical Authors, procedures writers, and others developing text-based content, when they are explaining the purpose and value of structured content, single sourcing and Component Content Management Systems.

SharePoint for documentation projects

Most of the Technical Authors I have met don’t have a good thing to say about Microsoft SharePoint. In many ways, it represents how not to publish content online. It is seen as encouraging people to move print-optimised documents (Blobs) around, rather than units of content (Chunks), and users are typically left to rely on search to find which document contains the information they are looking for.

For all those issues, SharePoint may still have its place – for managing documentation projects.

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Assessing the potential savings from single sourcing

One of the main benefits from single sourcing is the ability to reuse existing content. Different departments can avoid duplicating work, which means they can save time and money.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to quantify these savings before you move to an authoring or content management system that enables you to single source. Analysing all the existing documents in a business can be overwhelming, which means often organisations only quantify the savings after the single sourcing content management system has been implemented.

There are a few software applications that can help you analyse your existing content and determine how much duplication exists. You get a sense of how much time and effort was wasted in the past, which is a pretty good indication of how much waste you’d avoid in the future.

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Planning and running a documentation sprint

Atlassian’s Sarah Maddox has posted her slides from her STC Summit 13 presentation “Doc sprints: The ultimate in collaborative document development”. It’s a useful description of a documentation sprint and its benefits:

Contact Cherryleaf if you’d like help and assistance in managing a documentation sprint.

New University of Oxford research shows surprisingly high numbers of out-of-control technology projects

What the customer wanted cartoonResearch conducted by two Oxford academics (Why Your IT Project May Be RiskierThan You Think) has suggested that the private sector has almost as much difficulty managing big software projects as the public sector. It also indicated that some types of projects have put companies’ survival at risk.

Whereas government departments can experience almost permanent revolution, private sector processes, in general, remain fairly stable. So it’s depressing to learn one in six of the projects they studied was a “black swan” – with a cost overruns of 200%.

The causes include: technology that doesn’t work, the difficulty in accommodating the exception cases, managing large teams, changes to the scope of the project, dealing with legacy systems, changes in legislation, and failing to build a system that meets the users’ requirements.

The researchers recommend breaking projects into smaller, more manageable units and using the best possible forecasting techniques.

There’s an additional problem: systems that work technically can still fail. If the user does not understand how to use the system, or if they don’t understand the benefits of using it, your “successful” system can end up under-used. User Assistance (online Help, Getting Started guides, screencasts and so on) mustn’t be forgotten. It’s one of those final steps in a truly successful project.

How can a Technical Author find more time to write user documentation in an Agile environment?

Agile planning board Flickr Creative Commons image: VFS Digital DesignWe’ve been working on a white paper that looks at how User Assistance can be more effective and developed more effectively when you’re working in an Agile environment. The white paper should be published in the next few weeks, but here’s a sneak peek at one of the issues we discuss: the lack of time available for creating User Assistance.

Agile’s iterative release of products, and sometimes frequent changes to the functionality and the User Interface, can make it difficult to create the user documentation. The Technical Author can end up having to rework content they’ve written, delete sections on functionality that’s no longer part of the product, and add information on features that have been introduced towards the end of the project. If the Technical Author waits until the product has been completed, they can find they have very little time available for writing the user documentation.

So what can you do about this?
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