Turning a Technical Author’s work on its head

Q. What’s the most popular wiki in the world?
A. Most people know the answer to this: It’s Wikipedia.

Q. What’s the second most popular wiki in the world?
A. It may surprise you to know that it’s WoWWiki, a wiki comprising over 250,000 articles and information. It may also surprise you to know it’s about playing a game – World of Warcraft.

So the second most popular wiki in the world is, to all intents and purposes, a user manual. And the biggest and most popular user manual in the world is (a) a wiki and (b) for a game.

We came across this fact in researching gamification and its potential use in technical documentation. Cherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt will be speaking on this subject at the UA Europe 11 conference in June, and it’s one of the topics we discuss in an book  on technical documentation trends, which we’ll be publishing shortly.

So where does turning a Technical Author’s work on its head come in to all of this?

Technical Authors spend a lot of time making life easier for users. However, according to games researcher Jane McGonigal, one of the key reasons why games are so hugely popular is because:

Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, making the goal of finding out the answer more challenging might be more rewarding for the user. Perhaps it might even leave a greater imprint on their memory.

Instead of the Technical Author developing and providing a Table of Contents for the user, could we even see a scenario where the user creates his own collection of information and organises it as he sees fit? Could the Technical Author’s role be not to organise and arrange the information, but instead to provide (a) some (but not all) of the information and (b) a platform where the user can store and organise it for themselves? It’s an approach similar to Pokémon (“gotta catch them all”), where children gain immense pleasure from collecting cards and building their own personal battle decks.  It’s also similar to the FLOSS Manuals website’s ability for users to remix their own personal user guides.

Pokemon logo
Let’s reassure you not all the applications of games theory to User Assistance are as unusual as this. What do you think – could the concepts from games theory add value to User Assistance and could they turn the work that Technical Authors do on its head?



Amusing and playful, but isn’t there a teeny difference between playing games and processing a purchase order (or whatever)?

In the loosest sense, there’s a case for allowing customisable notes and signposting to content …like you could way back in Winhelp. I’d agree wholeheartedly that stuff that is personal is more readily recalled, but to suggest authors make a virtue of incomplete information, hmmm…

Our users are probably more interested in meeting their monthly targets than curating information


Re: make a virtue of incomplete information
I meant it in the sense of recognising that the Technical Author’s content was almost certainly going to be supplemented by content from the users. Only where the author was confident the content could be delegated to users (and that work was going to get done) should they leave out important information.

There are moves to “gamify” business applications, so the differences may narrow. This could be leaderboards for the person making the fewest errors, processing the largest number of orders etc.


Right, so the dashboard of business KPIs – sales, orders, margins, blah – could be a sense that the interface is gamified? I’m ok with that, so long as it remains a game for the folk on minimum wage converting telesales leads, rather than a big stick to beat them with.

Anne Aloysious

I like the idea & I think it can be done if you have a large doc set & a team of writers to create a kind of game story board with some kind of rewards for information retrieval and sample user document collections, but it will be time consuming & you need to do quite a bit of user-acceptance testing. Really nice idea & would be highly motivating to work on something like this but am also a bit afraid of finding out the ROI maybe unhappy end-users. or then again it might prove to be worth the gamble. If you succeed, let me know! 🙂

Warren Jason Street

“Technical Authors spend a lot of time making life easier for users.”

Wikis aren’t really created by, or for, technical authors. They’re egalitarian efforts, made by people who either accept or harshly criticize the material added by amateurs.

Wikipedia has evolved from an amateur endeavor to one run by an internal editing culture. They are now eliminating and deleting material deemed “not noteworthy enough” or insignificant.

Wikis, in and of themselves, are fine, but they’re nothing you would want to rely upon. Submitting wiki material in an academic setting is akin to exposing yourself to ridicule.


Up to a point Lord Copper. Mindtouch and Atlassian (with Confluence) both offer wiki platforms that are popular with Technical Authors.

Warren Jason Street

Why the insult? I’ve read Waugh.

If the platforms you mention are so widely used, then please post about them. I’d love to learn more. Pardon me for not being hip to their usage. This is an obvious oversight on my part.

My experience is with US academia, which is suspect enough, I suppose. No one quotes from Wikipedia, or from Wikis in general because of their open-source nature, not without risking being left open to, well, insult, I guess.

mick davidson

Two things:
1. I’m sure our users would HATE it if we made it harder to find info or presented them with incomplete info. They want to get to the right info as fast and as easily as possible. Nothing else is acceptable. Getting them to add their own info is a good thing, as it personalises the info to how they use our software, which is a good thing.
2. WJStreet, that’s wrong, plenty of us are doing just that, for corporate clients, who really like it. I am a technical author and the contributions made by others (the amateur writers such as development, testing and support) are taken by myself and turned into info that can be seen by clients. And there’s nothing amateur about that. On top of that clients add their own info, which we use to expand on what we already have. Which all combines to make life a lot better for clients and for myself as a technical author. Wikis have revolutionised technical writing, and long may they reign. As for your last comment, I’m assuming that’s a joke, or you’re speaking from as someone who is completely ignorant of enterprise-level wikis. If so, you should take a look Atlassian’s Confluence or Mindtouch’s wiki’s – they’re both excellent examples.


It wasn’t meant to be an insult – its use has moved on from that in Scoop, to mean merely that one disagrees.

Warren Jason Street

As for your last comment, I’m assuming that’s a joke, or you’re speaking from as someone who is completely ignorant of enterprise-level wikis. If so, you should take a look Atlassian’s Confluence or Mindtouch’s wiki’s – they’re both excellent examples.

I accept your point, but the clients I deal with reject them as unreliable.

Warren Jason Street

As to the unreliability of general wikis, like Wikipedia, here’s a better article than I could write with some great examples:


That said, yes, you can find acceptable material on a Wiki, but it should point you to other more reliable sources, and I wouldn’t personally cite or use with attribution the Wiki material itself. If that’s acceptable to a client, all well and good. Everyone is going to have an opinion on that, I regret sharing mine.

But I have to thank you for the information on Atlassian–it looks like a very promising tool.

Helen Griffith

I agree that sometimes things are better imprinted on the memory when you have to think hard about them. However sometimes it’s a one off task for which you don’t need (or want) to use up valuable brain storage. All I want a lot of the time is the simplest instructions – I hate thinking 🙂

Eric Sutherland

An iteresting mix of views, but side with the status that wiki data might be to much of a mix and have missing information. That’s alright for Techies or Authors that are happy to dabble or search for the answers. Users might jump up and down and complain on finding that state.

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