loading...
Cover image for What is effective documentation

What is effective documentation

foodogsquared profile image Gabriel Arazas Originally published at foo-dogsquared.github.io on ・9 min read

I’m beginning to be more oriented on technical writing. In fact, I’m starting to consider to take on technical writing as a career. So I ask myself related to the very thing that makes me appreciate technical writing: documentation. That question is "What is effective documentation?"

As I remember from a presentation, there’s this quote that rings very well.

Documentation is the “curb appeal” of your software.
— Dan Allen

Antora: Documentation Sites for Software Teams

Despite the saying, it applies to all types of projects. It is the "curb appeal" of your project.

Let’s take a shallow dive on the deep ocean of documentation and inspect what I think mainly builds it: technical writing and typography.

Importance of technical writing

Technical writing is an often-overlooked process for open source programs. This is reflected in GitHub’s 2017 survey on open source (which is the latest version as of 2019-09-20) where incomplete and/or confusing documentation is the biggest hurdle.

What’s common among successful software projects like Asciidoctor, React, Python, Laravel, Firefox, LaTeX, Chrome, and Arch Linux is the accessible and thorough documentation that describes enough details for the new and the seasoned users.

As such, one of the leading importance of technical writing is communication. Without the work of technical writing means no communication. Non-existent communication means no incentive to look for your project. It’s that simple.

The documentation is where the first impression lies for your potential users. Despite the saying of judging the book by its cover, the documentation can reflect the quality of the project. Having non-existent or bad documentation gives the impression that your project is bad no matter how well-crafted or optimized your code.

The documentation is also where the lasting impression goes for the veterans and potential contributors. If the users see the project docs is working as intended and well-maintained then it’s more likely for them to participate and contribute through bug issues and code improvements.

If you’re learning another framework or a tool, odds are you would first visit the startup guide from their homepage. If you want to know more specific about the tool, you would dive further into their detailed sections.

If you want to get a shot at making your project to be recognized, give the documentation a priority.

Like what I previously mentioned, this doesn’t only apply to software projects but to all types of products whether it’s a power tool, a phone, a calculator, or a book.

  • If you’re opening up a package of your shiny new power tool, odds are you would need to get your hands on a manual.

  • If you’ve just received your new phone, you would find the user manual first to get started.

  • If you want to know all of the capabilities of your calculator, you might want to view the manual.

  • If you newly start with a referential book, you would explore first the preface or the introduction where it introduces the structure of each section.

As you imagine, the use and importance of technical writing is everywhere.

Though, be wary that there is a flip side on technical writing. When there’s communication, there’s miscommunication. It can be blamed to various things but the point is having outdated or incorrect documentation can also give a bad impression. Worse is that it might be better to have no documentation at all.

Importance of typography

How about typography? It seems like it’s a specific requirement for a software project but it can be important in making your content legible. No one in their right mind would read the content no matter how well-written if it’s badly formatted.

Typography can boost the "curb appeal" further by adding greenery to your project. It makes all the more pleasing to the eyes.

Typography also dictates how long will the user stay reading. A badly formatted book will surely receive shorter retention than a badly written one. It’s a bonus if the reader will also get a laugh out of the badly written one.

Inspecting other projects

They say that success and advancements stand on the shoulder of giants. Let’s inspect how other software projects did their thing.

Think about most of the software you’ve used and remember your experience navigating the documentation. The million-dollar question is what’s common between the documentations of popular projects and what good practices can we get from them.

To get us in the same page, here’s the list of software I reflected and inspected:

Anyhow, I try to answer the million-dollar question. I put the answers in two lists: one for the content and one for the typography.

Common attributes of documentation content

Here’s what I gathered for reflecting the experience reading through the content. I’ve also observed how they organize their content and lead their users into the different parts of the program.

  • They provide examples.

  • They don’t repeat information a lot and gives the appropriate link instead.

  • They organize the documents commonly by required level of expertise and general concepts.

  • Most of them (if not all) provide generalized explanations and a detailed version.

  • Not everything is documented compared to looking at the source, if available (e.g. Python).

Typographic best practices

Here’s one for navigating through the documentation and observing the typography.

  • Optimal characters per line are at least 50 to 80.

  • Base font size is at least 16px.

  • Font size and spacing of headers of various levels are distinct.

  • Consistent use of brand colors (if there’s any).

  • Use monospace font for code listings.

Regarding the best example, I think React does this the best both in documentation content and typographic practices. Go on, take a gander on it.

ReactJS docs

How I practice these?

I won’t detail much on how to practice technical writing or apply typographic practices since I’m not a professional. Instead, I’m describing how I apply the two skills.

Plan the document early on the project

To create good documentation, you must take the time to plan the document. Ask yourself what is the ideal document structure for your users, what information do they need to know, and other questions that reflect the value of efficient documentation.

Even for a small project, making effort to plan is heavily appreciated.

In my case, I created a document structure for my project. Create a README and the docs/ folder for assets (e.g. images, videos). I also created a standard template for my README: the abstract, purpose, getting started guide, details, and the license. You can see more of the details in my project template documentation.

Document only the big things

By that, I mean prioritize documenting the high-level details like the architecture, data design, implementations, and abstractions. You don’t have to document your whole codebase (and you shouldn’t). Leave out the very specific details and only draw the big picture.

When you did document the whole thing from its nooks and crannies, you give rise to another problem of constantly switching gears for updating your code and the documentation. It’s a nasty experience that you might as well not document it in the first place.

Create a minimal design that focuses on readability

For practicing typography, you can create a minimalistic design that focuses on content form.

In my case, I recently started to refer to some related resources and quickly created a Hugo theme that focuses on it.

.Hugo theme Contentful

You could also start by redesigning some of your previous stuff.

I’ve started to reconfigure my LaTeX templates and it is certainly more readable than before.[1]

My current LaTeX lecture layout

It has improved spacing between paragraphs and non-textblocks, larger font sizes for mathematical texts, and improved font combinations.[2]

Create a style guide or a set of guidelines

Style guides are used to keep certain aspects of a project to be consistent. Certain examples exist on styling your code, general writing, academic writing, citations, design, technical writing, and many others.[3]

However, all (if not most) style guides are suited for the organization’s purposes. If you aren’t able to find a suitable one, just create one. It doesn’t have to cover every possible case since it is specifically created for your own (or your team). You can steal ideas from multiple style guides, cherry-pick the best of them, and combine it to suit your specific needs.

In my case, I created a writing style guide that generally applies to all of my writing and typography works. I eventually dedicated a repo for my guide styles to easily refer to it in the future.

Conclusion

The documentation is a powerful tool for projects. They serve as an introduction and make the "curb appeal" for your project. Practicing technical writing can amp up your communication skills which can mean the make-or-break moment for your project.

In any case, technical writing must also be presentable. Your documentation may have all of the content they need to know but nobody is going to read good content with bad form. Typography can help you out in making your content legible and easy to read. Applying related typography practices can make cruising through the documentation a pleasant experience.

Giving some time for technical writing and typography can surely boost the impression of your project. It also adds the bonus of future-proofing your project for yourself and for others.

Further looking

Books

About Writing: A Guide by "Open Oregon Press"

An open textbook that describes the process of writing for different papers. It also gives tips on writing a sufficient body of text that can apply for various papers like academic and research papers.

Practical Typography by "Matthew Butterick"

A pay-as-you-want online book that introduces you to typography with practical lessons and descriptions. I fully recommend this book if you want to learn more about how to make your content presentable.

Technical Writing by "Open Oregon Press"

Another open textbook from the Open Oregon Press that specifically tackles technical writing of various formats from emails, cover letters, and résumé. This covers the basics you need to get started on practicing efficient technical writing.

Tools

Asciidoctor

An Asciidoc-based toolchain for publishing documents into various output formats. It also expanded upon the original Asciidoc markup language with additional text formatting features. It’s what I mainly use for writing documentation for my projects.

Web

Art of README by "noffle"

It’s a GitHub repo detailing on READMEs from what they are to what makes them good.

How to Become a Technical Writer: A Beginner’s Guide by "Tom DuPuis"

An overview for absolute beginners for those who are looking into technical writing. Tackles various topics that you should know first and foremost.

Write the Docs

A global community of people who cares about writing documentation. They provide good resources for getting started with technical writing on the website.


1. My LaTeX templates can be found at my GitHub account.

2. If you’re curious about the font combination, it uses Source Serif Pro for roman (normal), Source Sans Pro for sans, and Fira Code for monospace.

3. You can see examples of them at my personal style guides README.

Posted on by:

Discussion

markdown guide