The Importance of Documentation

Nod if you’ve come across this before. You find an amazing software library that you can use for your project, whether at work or one of your many side-projects, and you find the documentation just lacking.

I’ve been here, and I’m certain you have as well.

My first job began with me writing what is called a Standard Operating Procedure or SOP document. In other circles, this is called a Work Instruction, or a Run Book. This was not a fun exercise. I naively believed that as long as I wrote it well, I was doing a good job.

I was wrong.

The users found it hard to read. While I’d succeeded in capturing the process in readable, concise English, I’d made the mistake of assuming that the person reading the document would be like me.

Somehow, I’ve always been a believer of “well-written documentation”. I am not so certain that the quality of the writing matters as much as the way it has been written though. I’m certain you don’t want docs that read like a Charlotte Bronte novel, for all that you enjoyed reading Jane Eyre. Every piece of documentation needs to stay cognizant of who is going to read it.

This is hard though.

When you write a README.md in your Git repository, who is going to read it?

When you write a blog post in your company’s tech blog, who is going to read it?

When you write a conference talk submission, who is going to read it?

When you write the API section of your documentation, who is going to read it?

When you write a Getting Started guide, who is going to read it?

When you write an Invention Submission document for the Legal and Invention Protection department in your organization because you’d like to file for a patent, who is going to read it?

If you’re not asking yourselves these questions, and if you’re constantly writing your documentation as though the same sort of people are going to read all these sections, then you might as well stop writing the document in the first place.

Consider the README.md file. Someone who arrives at this file comes to it in one of three ways:

  1. They found the repository on Google, when they were searching for something.
  2. They found the repository when they were searching for keywords in Github (or on Gitlab, or your company’s installation of whatever SCM they picked)
  3. They found the repository linked in some tech blog post
  4. They found the repository linked in some tech-centric social media post.

There’s a pattern here. The people who find your repository this way are cutting to the chase. They’re developers, or tech-savvy folk. So don’t go into lengthy explanations of what your product is. Show them right away!

If you have a CLI, mention that. If you have a User Interface (whether a TUI or a GUI), use screenshots or a GIF. If you have a libray, show how it can be used, maybe in a tiny code snippet that shows life both with and without your library. If you have something that integrates a plugin system, show them how to get plugins.

But most importantly, if you have a website with more detailed docs (and you should!), point them to it.

The audience here, is someone who can get started with your code with just this file. Give them the same credit you give yourself. This is someone who wants to figure out how your tool/code works with your source code.

Things to remember when you are doing this:

  1. This might be a co-worker. So if you’re going to need to point them to relevant setup instructions that may or may not involve package managers. (They may love installing from source!)
  2. This might be someone who found a bug in your code and would like to report it. Point them to your issue tracker / relevant contact details.
  3. This might also be someone who is evaluating your library for use in his organization. Large orgs like to see the license. Make sure you use short license descriptors. If you use an image though, make sure you also provide the License file in full writing in your repository.

However, a README file is not the same as a Getting Started Guide, for example.

In a Getting Started Guide, you need to ensure you talk about the following:

  1. How do you install your code in the most-relevant fashion?
  2. How do you check whether the code has installed (usually by checking the installed version)?
  3. How do you get started with a small, but common use-case?
  4. How do you do 2 or 3 other common activities with this code?
  5. How do you find in-depth resources for each of these activities?
  6. How do you find the developer manual?
  7. How do you report bugs?

Some of these are the same as the ones in the README.md section, but the way you write this will change. Now, your user may not even be a developer. They’re going to be your user, the person for whom you wrote this tool or library in the first place. How do you ensure they have the least friction in getting started? How do they get a quick taste of what your code can do?

That’s what the Getting Started guide does. No where here do you talk about what your library or tool does. That was the introduction, which the current reader doesn’t care about. Instead, they want to know how to get started.

Remember that this tonal shift keeps happening constantly. Every single page of your documentation should feed off this belief.

Your Getting Started Guide is not your README.md file.

One of my favourite resources on writing documentation is Divio’s Documentation System. There’s also a great talk that was delivered at PyCon Australia 2017 on the topic.

While those are great resources, I’m starting a series of blog-posts on writing different parts of your documentation, and I’ll update them over the next few weeks.

I’d like to expand on my idea of what goes into a README.md first, and then tackle how to write the other parts of documentation in dedicated posts.

Series

  1. How to Write Documentation: The README.md file
  2. How to Write Documentation: The Getting Started Section
  3. How to Write Documentation: The Installation Guide
  4. How to Write Documentation: The API Reference
  5. How to Write Documentation: Conference Talk Submission
  6. How to Write Documentation: The Tech Blog
  7. How to Write Documentation: Patent Submission Document
  8. How to Write Documentation Extras: The Uninstallation Guide
  9. How to Write Documentation Extras: The Configuration Guide
  10. How to Write Documentation Extras: Testing Instructions
  11. How to Write Documentation Extras: The Changelog
  12. How to Write Documentation Extras: The Roadmap
  13. How to Write Documentation Extras: Issue Tracking
  14. How to Write Documentation Extras: Presentations

Categories:

documentation   software-development

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