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Shaun McCance: Discovery Docs Part 1: Discovering Why

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GNOME

This is Part 1 in a series about the Discovery Docs initiative, which I will present about in my upcoming GUADEC talk.

A long time ago, in the days of bonobos and fishes, GNOME documentation was written as long, monolithic manuals. We split these beasts into digestible pages as best we could (which is to say, poorly) and hoped for the best. Then we had an idea. What if we actually controlled the granularity at which information was presented? What if, instead of writing books, we wrote topics?

And so we did. We weren’t the first software project to make this shift, but we were early on the curve, and we did it radically. While many help systems still try to shoehorn topics into a linear structure, our help focuses on creating a navigable web of information.

The question of how big the topics are — how big the chunks on the web are — is entirely up to us. For the most part, we have chosen small topics with the least amount of information we could get away with. The reasoning is that users can find quick answers to questions, and if they want to learn more, we have extensive cross linking. Our topics have mostly followed the familiar trichotomy of tasks, concepts, and references. Our documentation is deliberately excruciatingly boring.

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Discovery Docs Part 2: Templates and Taxonomies

  • Shaun McCance: Discovery Docs Part 2: Templates and Taxonomies

    This is Part 2 in a series about the Discovery Docs initiative, which I will present about in my upcoming GUADEC talk. In Part 1: Discovering Why, I gave a brief history of GNOME documentation, and explained our current unabashedly boring task-based approach. I proposed focusing instead on learning and discovery in an attempt to attract and retain enthusiastic users. In this post, I’ll explore what a learning-based topic might look like.

    GNOME documentation currently focuses on tasks, concepts, and references, with tasks doing the bulk of the work. This is a common approach across the entire documentation industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only approach. Notably, we don’t strictly enforce these taxonomies as some other documentation systems do. Rather, we provide some templates and guidelines, and we trust humans to make good judgment.

    To shift to a more engaging approach, I’m exploring a lengthier topic type that I’m hesitantly calling a “lesson”. A lesson incorporates a concept, possibly a task, possibly a quick reference, and further reading for specific use cases or advanced users. It should be readable in about five to seven minutes. Let’s break down an outline of a lesson.

haun McCance: Part 3: Voice and Style

  • Shaun McCance: Part 3: Voice and Style

    This is Part 3 in a series about the Discovery Docs initiative, which I will present about in my upcoming GUADEC talk. In Part 1: Discovering Why, I laid the groundwork for why I think we should focus our docs on discovery. In Part 2: Templates and Taxonomies, I talked about how to structure topics differently to emphasize learning. In this post, I’ll talk about how we should write to be engaging, but still clear.

    One of the main goals of Discovery Docs is to be more engaging and to create enthusiasm. It’s hard to create enthusiasm when you sound bored. Just as your speaking voice can either excite or bore people, so too can your writing voice affect how people feel while reading. Boring docs can leave people feeling bored about the software. And in a world of short-form media, boring docs probably won’t even be read.

    This post has been the hardest in the series for me to write. I’ve been in the documentation industry for two decades, and I’ve crafted a docs voice that is deliberately boring. It has been a long learning process for me to write for engagement and outreach.

Shaun McCance: Discovery Docs Part 4: Discovery

  • Shaun McCance: Discovery Docs Part 4: Discovery

    This is Part 4 in a series about the Discovery Docs initiative, which I will present about in my upcoming GUADEC talk. In Part 1: Discovering Why, I laid the groundwork for why I think we should focus our docs on discovery. In Part 2: Templates and Taxonomies, I talked about how to structure topics differently to emphasize learning. In Part 3: Voice and Style, I proposed using a more casual, direct writing style. In this post, I’ll look at increasing reader engagement.

    “Nobody reads the docs.” This is a common complaint, a cliché even. It has some truth to it, but it misses the bigger picture. For this post, the more important point is that people don’t often seek out the docs. So if we’re writing interesting material, as I’ve discussed throughout this blog series, how do we reach interested people?

    This post is all about how we encourage people to discover.

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