Which type of platform is best for developer documentation?

At the Write The Docs event in London last night, Gergely Imreh presented Resin.io’s approach to customer-driven docs – documentation as self service support. Resin.io is a software company that provides Linux containers to the Internet of Things. It sees itself as a support-driven organisation, and so documentation is very important to them.

The discussions at the end of the talk were around which type of platform is best for developer documentation.

Resin.io uses an in-house system, based on Markdown and a flat-file publishing tool. They build pages from “partials” (snippets of re-usable chunks of information) to create “parametric information”. Pages can be built to match different criteria. For example, using Resin.io on a Raspberry Pi and Node.js. It provides an authoring environment that is easy for developers to use; it doesn’t require a database-driven CMS; and the content can be treated in a similar way to the code. The challenge with this type of system is getting it to scale. The “intelligence” of the system is through storing content in folders and using scripts within pages. As the grows, they are finding it harder to manage.

Gergely said he’d like see if a wiki-based system would work better. Content would be easier to edit, as pages would be more self-contained.

Kristof van Tomme suggested using a database-driven CMS. Pages would be built “on the fly”, by the CMS. In this situation, the “intelligence” of the system is through metadata wrapped around each topic and the database software that’s managing the content. The downside is it can mean there might be challenges in moving it to another platform at some stage in the future. You also have to manage the database and protect the CMS  from potential hacking.

Another suggestion was to use a semantic language to write the content. This could be AsciiDoc or DITA. In this situation, the “intelligence” is placed in the topics and with the writers: they “markup” sentences or paragraphs for each applicable parameter, such as audience and computer. These can be published as flat files or be managed by a database. This approach is scalable and tools-independent, but it requires much more work by the writers.

What’s best depends partly on your view of the problem. Is it a information design problem, a software problem, or a data management problem? There are pros and cons to each approach.

New note-taking methods for technical communicators

Note-taking is an important part of a technical communication process. A typical project can move from the account manager to the project manager, and then onto the technical communicator.  Sharing information gathered at client meetings with project team members is often done through internal meetings and phone calls, handover documents written in Word, and other related files uploaded to a SharePoint folder. This type of approach works, but it can be slow and time-consuming.

There are some new(ish) note-taking approaches for students that might also work for technical communicators. We’ve described them below.

Reusable notebooks

The Rocketbook Wave and the upcoming Everlast Notebook are reusable paper notebooks where you transfer your notes into the Cloud using your smartphone. Both notebooks work by you using Pilot FriXion pens. In the case of the Rocketbook Wave, you can erase your notes using your microwave oven (or hairdryer) and reuse the notebook. With the Everlast, erasing is done using a damp cloth.

Everlast notebook

While notebook costs and storage issues are important to students, they are unlikely to be of much concern to technical communicators. You could use the same note-taking system, but with different “hardware”.

The “Bullet Journal” method of note-taking

The Rocketbook notebooks contain dotted paper pages, similar to the Leuchtturm 1917 dotted notebooks, and they are often used in conjunction with the Bullet Journal method of note-taking:

We’ve yet to test the Bullet Journal method, but it might mean that it’s possible for others to read handwritten notes and reduce the need to transcribe them into written notes.

Transferring your notes into the Cloud

There are three popular Cloud storage systems for note-taking: Evernote, Microsoft OneNote and Google Keep. You can use your smartphone to scan your notes and upload them as images to the Cloud. The dotted paper notebooks, such as the Leuchtturm 1917, should improve the scanning image quality.

You can organise your notes into electronic notebooks within these applications, and also add tags to add metadata (See I’ve Been Using Evernote All Wrong. Here’s Why It’s Actually Amazing).

Into those online notebooks, you can also clip web pages and insert files, such as Word documents. It’s never easy to get everyone to use a new application, so OneNote has the advantage of being part of the Office 365 suite and easily integrated with SharePoint. Unfortunately, custom tags can’t be created currently in OneNote for Mac, and this may be an issue for some users.

Which methods do you use?

Please about share your ideas and suggestions below.

SankeyTextualVariant: Visualisation software for comparing texts

Professor Martin Paul Eve of Birkbeck College, University of London, has released, for free, the visualisation software that helped him compare the texts of the novel Cloud Atlas. It displays the differences as a Sankey diagram. It’s intended to be used for comparing contemporary fiction, but it may have uses for analysing other long documents.

sankeydiagram

See:

Perfecting collaborative authoring for online Help

Yesterday, I wrote:

“There are some activities that seem like they always could be improved. One is creating an authoring environment where professional technical communicators and other staff can work together.”

Writing online Help is different from writing some other types of content, in that it involves topic-based authoring. Content is stored in modular, re-usable and flexible chunks of information. By moving away from a page-centric, document model, you’re able to organise and present published information in many different ways. However, it’s a different approach to what many non-professional Technical Authors are used to. Unfamiliarity with this content model, as well as the tools, can make collaboration difficult.

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Editing and proofreading content with linters

A linter is a software utility that flags “suspicious usage” in software. Although linters are used by developers mostly to write more bug-free code, there are a few utilities emerging that work with documentation. They could be useful if you’re writing Web pages, markdown files or XML files.

Write good checks for passive voice, repeated words, adverbs, weasel words, wordy phrases and unnecessary words, and cliches.

Retext Mapbox Standard is a testing tool that checks for common grammar, sensitivity and simplicity errors.

Hemingway is an application, rather than a utility. You can paste your content into Hemingway for an assessment of its clarity. Hemingway will give your content a readability score and identify sections that are hard to read.

Cutting and pasting content into Word documents – Is there a better way?

Earlier this week, we were helping a large company finalise a bid document where they were required to use a Word file sent by their client. This involved taking content from the company’s repository of standard documents on SharePoint, and from emails, plus writing down information provided verbally by the Subject Matter Experts. The bid writing team had to cut the relevant content from a Word document (and emails, Excel spreadsheets, Visio files, Microsoft Project files and PowerPoint presentations), and then paste it into the bid document.

Before we started to work on the document, this had resulted in it containing a large amount of different formatting styles. For example, the content pasted from emails was in Calibri 10pt. font, and the content posted from Word was in Arial 11pt. This meant the bid writing team had to spend a lot of time remedying the formatting.

This method also meant there was no reliable way to embed content, like there is, for example, in Excel – if you change a cell in Excel, related cells in other places can update themselves automatically to reflect that change. For the bid document, any changes to the source content could trigger a further round of copying and pasting into our master document.

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