Successful Documentation 3: ‘Writing’

This is the final article in a series of three outlining the key elements of a good user documentation process: so you understand your user documentation project and you have a clear understanding of the required specification. Now you are ready to write. Here are some tips to help you on your way – this article is not about the actual writing itself; it is about the things which go along with the writing.


Index keywords should be defined while the topic is being written.  At this time, the subject matter is clear in the author’s mind, and they are very conversant with all of the intricate details.  Indexing during the writing stage also means that your keywords are reviewed as part of the draft process. 

Some authoring tools do not really facilitate this kind of approach particularly well (e.g., some do not allow multiple author access to the files needed for indexing), but at least the keywords should be listed at the end of each draft.  (Depending on the authoring tool, this may actually be easier for the reviewers, anyway.)

User documentation reviews

To ensure that your user documentation is technically correct and readable, you need to get it reviewed by an intelligent selection of people.  For a software project, your review list should include a subject matter expert (generally the programmer), the software architect, perhaps the project manager, and another writer.  The review requirements will vary with each draft, so your reviewers and review procedures should be documented in your work pracs.

Testing your user documentation

Testing can be performed at a number of levels:

  • Each writer should test their own user documentation by following it to use the product. But remember, this kind of testing is not very powerful, because there is a tendency for writers to follow instructions as they think they have written them, not as they have actually written them. 
  • The second level is for the testing to be performed by other writers as part of the peer review. 
  • The third level is for the testing department to do formal testing on the user documentation.  This type of testing does not often happen, but it is good to try to get it happening.
  • The fourth level is/should be conducted as part of Beta testing.

No matter what level of testing you use, it should be designed to ensure that the tasks documented are true to the product, and that any online help functions correctly.  For the user documentation to pass testing, it needs to satisfy the goals you specified in the earlier stages of the project.

Localising your user documentation

Although localisation is often considered a post-writing activity, it is best to do it as part of the writing stage.  The exact timing may vary project to project, but a good rule of thumb is to get the translators working on the second drafts (but only if you are not expecting many changes to the draft).  TIP: Most translators will probably prefer to work on a sizable piece of user documentation, rather than individual topics sent to them piece-meal, so you should wait until you have something of a respectable size to send them – perhaps a whole subject area, as opposed to a single topic.

With localisation, you are performing a balancing act.  If you send the user documentation to the translators too soon, you will spend a lot of money on changes to the translations.  If you send it too late, it will not be ready in time for the release of the product.

Managing change

It is important that you minimise the impact of changes to the product and/or development schedule.  To do this, you need to develop a technique which:

  1. Identifies the change.
  2. Estimates the impact in time and/or resources.*
  3. Informs the project manager.

* You can use the same estimating techniques as you used earlier in the project.

Tracking writing progress

It is important to note that the writing stage is not simply about writing.  If you track your progress at every step along the way, you will be able to see whether you will meet your milestones and deadlines, and you will also be able to use this project as a learning experience to better plan the next one.  (You should ensure that all project records are easily accessible for ongoing maintenance and future project reference.)

You should track the time taken to perform every step outlined in this procedure as well as each draft stage, review times and total turnaround times.

Conducting regular team meetings

In order to keep all team members informed of writing progress, you should conduct regular team meetings.  These meetings should be a forum for taking a look at your tracking metrics and discussing the estimated percentage complete for the various topics currently under way.  If the estimated percentage complete is lower than it should be given the time already spent, then you can act on it.  These meetings allow you to identify queries and delays in progress.

Writing progress reports

Management also need to be kept informed of the status of the project.  You should write periodic progress reports outlining:

  • Where the project is at.
  • What you have done over the last month.
  • What you plan to do over the next month.
  • Any issues you have encountered.

Manage Production

The meaning of “production” varies depending on what kind of documentation you are working on and who the audience is.  It can encompass such things as:

  • Printing
  • Binding
  • Product build (when the help is compiled into the product)

Although the production stage generally only requires management, you still need to spend a fair bit of time on proof reading and liaising with production people.

Evaluate the Project

The purpose of the evaluation stage is to consider:

  • Did the project go according to plan?
  • Why? / Why not?
  • How individual team members contributed to the overall project.
  • How the project manager performed.
  • Whether the documentation achieved its goals.

Your tracking metrics will come in handy during this stage; if there were any flaws in the project progress, they should go some way towards identifying them. 

Is your documentation successful?

Now that you have written and released the documentation, you need to determine whether it has achieved your goals.  The only way to accurately do this is to conduct further user research.

And that’s it! Remember, this process is an ‘ideal’ process. Take the bits that suit you and your project, and leave out the bits that do not fit. Good luck!

Successful Documentation 2: ‘Specifying’

This is the second in a series of three articles outlining the key elements of a good user documentation process: so you are responsible for managing a documentation project. You know who your audience is, what they are trying to achieve, how the product enables them to achieve it, and what the audience requires of the help. Now it’s time to specify your intentions.

State your goals

Generically speaking, your goal statement should indicate that you hope to create a suite of documentation products that will satisfy audience requirements.  Specifically, you will have a number of sub-goals. (TIP: It may help to remember that the goals you set here will need to be used to measure the success of your product through your own in-house testing as well as through evaluative user research.)  Such sub-goals may include:

  • Ease of use
  • Accessibility
  • Helpfulness
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Comprehensiveness
  • Adherence to style guidelines
  • Correct spelling and punctuation 

Write your Concept Specifications

Once your goals have been set, you can start to contemplate what you are going to produce.  The first step is to create some concept specifications.  Simply put, concept specifications are very high-level overviews of what you are proposing to produce.  For example, your concept spec for the online help might state that you will be producing a product that allows the user to access information using a TOC, an Index, and a Find.  It might suggest some possible GUI features of these elements, but it will not lay down requirements; just possibilities.  The concept spec for your manuals might state that they will be professional looking, will contain many professionally drawn pictures, will have adequate white space, will be stylish, will be divided into chapters to match the task oriented nature of the online help, etc.

Generally, the product you are proposing could be implemented in a number of different ways. You should write one or more concept spec(s) for:

  • What components the documentation suite will consist of (online help, printed manuals, tutorials, overviews, etc.) – “Documentation Products Concept Specification”.
  • The types of information your documentation will contain (e.g., the structure of the TOC, are you going to follow minimalism practices?) – “Documentation Content Concept Specification”.
  • The functionality and user interface of your documentation suite (e.g., how it will work and how the audience will interact with it) – “Online Help User Interface Concept Specification”, “Printed Documentation User Interface Concept Specification”, etc.
  • The delivery method (how you will deliver the help to users and how you will update it).
  • What languages the documentation will be produced in.

Design some possible implementations

Now that you have decided roughly what you would like to produce, you can design some possible implementations of it.  Your designs will be very high-level and they may not actually work (they may actually be just paper prototypes).

With most other considerations already finalised through your user requirements research, these implementations should only differ as a result of the

  • Technologies behind them
  • Tools used to create them
  • Overall look and feel

You need to learn as much as possible about these things, in order to determine what is actually possible, successful and effective.  You should be aware of current trends, literature, white papers, etc.  This information can be obtained from a variety of sources.  Some good places to start include:

  • List servers
  • Conferences
  • Books
  • Other publications
  • Other writers
  • Other products

Conduct usability testing on your prototypes

Model (prototype) your designs for the decision makers and audience samples.  This allows you to pick the best features from each design (and to determine priorities for them).  Select a design (or merge multiple designs) that you believe best satisfies user requirements.  At the end of this stage, you should know enough to detail exactly what you will be producing, including what help platform and tool you will be using.

Write your Requirements Specifications

Requirements specifications detail exactly what you must end up with.  These specifications should contain as much detail as possible about the features and functionality of the documentation product (not how you will go about building it).

Requirements specs are basically an evolution of your concept specs.  Once you begin work on your requirements specs, the concept specs are effectively frozen.  You should write one or more concept spec(s) for:

  • What components the documentation suite will consist of (online help, printed manuals, tutorials, overviews, etc.) – “Documentation Products Requirements Specification”.
  • The types of information your documentation will contain (e.g., the structure of the TOC, are you going to follow minimalism practices?) – “Documentation Content Requirements Specification”.
  • The functionality and user interface of your documentation suite (e.g., how it will work and how the audience will interact with it) – “Online Help User Interface Requirements Specification”, “Printed Documentation User Interface Requirements Specification”, etc.
  • The delivery method (how you will deliver the help to users and how you will update it).
  • What languages the documentation will be produced in.

Estimate Project Duration & Resources

Once you have completed the requirements spec stage, you should know enough to accurately estimate the duration and resource requirements for the remainder of the project.  You should also update the “Documentation Project Plan” document with this information.

Estimating is always a difficult process, and there’s not really any sure-fire way of getting it right.  Mostly it depends on the job and your experience.  However, following are some guidelines that might help you.

If you have records from previous projects, you might simply be able to estimate project duration based on these.  You should try to compare the old subject material and topics with the new to make sure that the old times will be applicable to the new project. 

If, on the other hand, the project is entirely new, you will have no records to use as a guide (unless you have managed a similar project in the past).  In this situation, project estimates will be very difficult to make.

One possible method for estimating is:

1. Compile a list of tasks, and record how many there are in your list.

2. Compile a list of concepts that must be documented, and record how many there are in your list.

3. From your list of tasks, select ten that are representative of the rest (in terms of complexity, expected length, status of the relevant development, etc.), and of the same granularity (e.g., you can write a single topic for each).

4. From your list of concepts, select three that are representative of the rest, and of the same granularity (e.g., you can write a single topic for each).

5. Estimate the number of pages per topic.

6. Document these tasks and concepts as a trial, ensuring that you track the:

  • Total time taken to complete each topic.
  • Portion of this time that was due to product change or indecision.
  • Number of pages per topic.
  • Number of extra, unexpected, but necessary, topics you became aware of as a result of the documentation.  Keep a separate record of the number for both task and conceptual topics.

TIP: Make the most of your trial documentation. Even though you have chosen a design through design prototyping, you can use your documentation sample to test the usability of your documentation approach.  By presenting the sample to an audience sample, you can determine whether you are heading in the right direction with your doco (i.e. whether you have interpreted and implemented your user research results correctly).

7. Determine the average time taken per page for task and for conceptual topics.

8. Apply this average to the rest of the topics in the project.  Topics written early in the project normally take longer due to lack of information and a higher number of technical issues.  This means topics written later in the process will probably take less than the average calculated here.  However, this will normally be offset by the extra time product changes will incur during the project life-cycle.

9. Estimate the time per subject area based on the average time per topic.

10. Estimate the number of extra, unexpected, topics that will likely become necessary during the course of the rest of the project.

11. Allow for training, work maintenance, holidays, sick days, meetings, usability testing, production (approx 6 weeks turnaround time for printing a 1,000 page manual, including proofing), evaluation, and evaluative testing.  Each of these elements will vary according to the nature of the project, and they will tend to take far less time than the actual writing.  That is why specific guidelines are not provided as they are for writing.

Calculate how long you actually have to do it, then how many writers you will need to get it done during this time.  Draw up a project schedule using Microsoft Project, identifying useful milestones and project deadlines.  Some of your milestones might include:

  • Prototype Testing Complete
  • Work Pracs Written
  • Design Specs Written
  • First Draft Complete
  • Second Draft Complete
  • Localisation of Second Draft Complete
  • Final Draft Complete
  • Localisation Complete
  • Documentation Ready for Release
  • Production Complete
  • Project Evaluation Complete
  • Post-release Usability Testing Complete

It is important to note that you will have milestones before this point, but because they occur prior to the formal scheduling stage, they do not need to be included in this schedule.

Write Work Practise and Design Specs

Along with user research, work practise and design specifications are perhaps the easiest project elements to overlook, especially for a small team.  However, even within small teams, it is helpful to maintain both.

Work pracs are for ongoing things, that affect the day to day working environment of the team (e.g., How to use your documentation tool, How to release your help, a style guide, etc.).  Design specs are for documenting one-off things like how we actually plan to go about this thing.  This will include such information as what tools we will be using, what each will do, and the mechanics of how it all fits together.  e.g., How the VSS project will work, how everything should be managed, multi-user issues, how it will be localised, etc.

In the final part of this series we will outline the writing process and understand how much easier this is to complete, once the understanding and specification phases have been completed.

Documentation Projects 1: ‘Understanding’

The importance of good documentation is often overlooked but have you considered that it can unlock potential and either make or break a product?

The creation of user documentation is a big component of any software project. Unfortunately, it’s often undervalued and left to the last minute. But that does not mean it should be without a good management plan.

This is the first in a series of three articles outlining the key elements of a good user documentation process. Think of it as an “ideal” process; very few projects will be able to implement every step, and some will require additional steps. Nonetheless, it should provide you with a good foundation (especially if you are new to user documentation management).

Identify Your Scope

The first step in any project is to identify exactly what you are expected to deliver.  Generally this will happen before you take on the job, but it should still be the first thing that you document.  Identifying your scope involves identifying where you fit in the overall development process and where you fit within the company.  No documentation project is ever just documentation, so it is important to know exactly what else is involved.  Some of the other areas that routinely fall under this category include:

  • Specification review
  • GUI review
  • Product user requirements research
  • Documentation audience requirements research
  • Usability testing

All of these things are integral to the development process, and should be scheduled properly.

Familiarise Yourself with the Work Environment

Get to know everyone involved in the product. For a software project, this will mean the project manager, the designers, and the technicians who will be doing the low-level coding.  Try to build a really good relationship with them. 

Familiarise Yourself with the Product

Find out what is going to be involved in the product.  You must know:

  • What are the goals of the development?
  • What user requirements they are trying to meet?
  • How the product will be used?
  • Who will be using it?
  • What the features of the product are?
  • How the product will look and feel?
  • Will it require a specific design?  For instance, it may only run on the latest version of Windows, it may have a particular look and feel, a particular environment (that the help screens may have to be integrated into), etc.

    These are all things that you may have input into, either through simple critique, or through input into user research requirements. Try to read as much documentation as you can find, and interview as many stakeholders as possible. As you go, note down any issues you identify, any questions you have, or anything you think needs to be different.

Some (non-human) sources that you can utilise to achieve this include:

  • Feature and product specifications
  • Project plans
  • Funding application documentation if applicable

Identify the Audience for the Documentation

Discuss with the project manager and other stakeholders (especially marketing), the perceived user/audience.

Specify Perceived Audience Requirements

Make some educated guesses about audience requirements so you wll be able to provide a rough estimate of product duration and resource requirements.

Discuss with the project manager and other stakeholders, the perceived user requirements that the help must satisfy.  See if someone has researched user goals, tasks, and the mental models users employ when using the product (or similar products). If they haven’t, interview in-house experts to identify perceived goals, tasks, mental models, etc.

Secondly, you should identify what the theory says about user documentation (i.e. documentation approach, visual considerations, indexing considerations, etc.

Roughly estimate documentation project duration and resources

Although, by this stage, you don’t really know enough about the product or your audience requirements to know how long the documentation will take to complete, management will nonetheless like a rough estimate.  This is fine, as long as everyone is aware that it is a VERY rough estimate, and subject to change pending further knowledge and research.

This initial estimate must incorporate all of the time you wll spend on the stages that occur before and after the writing stage. Remember, these stages are important, and should not be short-changed.  (TIP: In a well managed project, planning should take approx 30% of your time, writing 50%, production 19%, and evaluation 1%.)

Estimating pre-writing stages

Allowing for the pre-writing stages is trickier than allowing for writing.  If you are having trouble, estimate the writing stage, then base all other estimates on that, using the above figures as a guide.

Estimating writing and post-writing stages

Because you probably still do not know a great deal about the product or the users, your estimate here will be based primarily on a combination of past records, experience, intuition, and industry standards in combination with the goals and tasks you have already specified.  Start with the following steps.

  1. Estimate the quantity of work required to document the tasks the user will need to perform to achieve their goals.
  2. Track down any previous documentation records.  See if you can cross reference the time taken to produce similar documentation in the past with the current quantity estimate.  Derive a figure based on this method.
  3. See how this compares with the estimate derived from industry standard figures (e.g., the current industry standard is to allow roughly one day per page of documentation – this covers all drafts and reviews).
  4. Compare the two figures and determine a good compromise based on your experience and intuition.
  5. Calculate how long you actually have to do it, then how many writers you will need to get it done during the allocated time. 
  6. Draw up a project schedule using Microsoft Project.  Do not forget to allow time for recruiting, training, and writing work practices.

BIG’s TIP: At this stage, you should write the first draft of the Documentation Project Plan.  It should include or refer to all of the steps outlined in this document.  Basically, it should reflect the process advocated here, but be specific to the project you are working on.  It should also include a timeline.

Research Audience Requirements

Research on the users of the product and the audience of the documentation is one of the most important parts of any successful product.  Unfortunately, it is also one of the most often overlooked aspects of any project.  This generally occurs because decision makers feel they already know pretty much everything there is to know about the users and audience. 

When managing a documentation project, you should investigate the chance of conducting research.  If you are employed late in the product lifecycle, you should ask if user research has already been conducted for the product itself.  If it has not, there is a good chance you will not get support for audience research.
Audience research should seek to identify:

  • User goals (what the user hopes to achieve with the product).
  • User expectations of the documentation (Manuals? Online help? Tutorials?, usability requirements, etc.)
  • User mental models (how they already see online help, what impressions they have of it, etc.)
  • User tasks (how the user uses the product to achieve their goals).
  • Which users perform what tasks (user/task matrix).
  • How long have users been doing these tasks?
  • Which tasks are one-off and which are repeated?
  • Did they ever do them differently?
  • Do they do a variety of tasks, or just a few?
  • Do they hate doing it?  (is it tedious, repetitive?)
  • Do they find it difficult?
  • Which tasks are considered essential?
  • Are they normally under pressure when they do the task?
  • Are there other distractions (environmental, social, etc.)?

Some research methods to consider are:

  • Observation of users doing their work in their work environment
  • Focus groups and interviews with users
  • Questionnaires

In our next article, we will consider the specification process and how it links understanding with writing, in the creation of user documentation.