The Wiki Document Movement

by David Lane

Ask anyone and they will tell you that I am a Luddite, plain and simple. I prefer pen and paper to electrons and LCDs every time and I am not a fan of technology for technology’s sake. I am also not a fan of poor documentation. We all know the type. The documentation that says Start the widget master… and then it does not tell you that to start the widget master, you actually have to start a different program called backwards engine or something similar. Oracle was famous for that sort of stunt. Then there is the useless documentation, the type where it says If you are still having problems, please contact your Administrator. Our friends from Redmond have heard more than an earful from me on this one too.

Back in the dark ages, I discovered a great program called faq-o-matic. This web-based tool was on the front edge of what would become the Wiki movement. It was a simple, easy to use FAQ tool that was extensible, indexed and simple to use. I deployed it for personal reason – I wanted somewhere to make notes on the various systems I was building at the time, pretty much by myself, and without a lot of supporting documentation beyond the README files that came with the code. And even they were pretty thin. I was making it up as I went and needed a way to remind myself of what I had done, if no one else. The only major drawback was the print capability. At the time, it was pretty limited, but generally we did not print a lot out of it. Most of our printed documentation was in some form of document or PDF file.

Fast forward to the present day. Documentation has made leaps and bounds forward, mostly. Bad documentation still exists, but it is becoming rare. I find it most often when I am trying to read the translation into English from a developer or development team that do not speak natively speak English – I find this a lot with radios made in Japan. The more technical the radio, the harder the documentation is to understand, despite the fact that the instruction are in English… or at least something that looks like English. But what has really taken off is documentation in wiki form. This has its good and its bad sides.

The good side is clear. It is easy to update and edit, keeping it current, especially in fast moving development environments. Errors can be easily corrected by the installation team or from comments submitted by end-users. It is a living document.

The down side, and this is less clear, is that it is almost impossible to print the bloody thing out. Remember that comment about being a Luddite? I prefer reading my documentation on paper. I am getting old and my eye sight is not that good, especially if I have to plow through hundreds of pages. Also, I tend to make notes in the margins: things to watch out for, things to be aware of, things to check, and ideas to purse later on. All of these things are very useful, but all are very difficult to do with on-line documentation. I also find that I use my commuting time for this reading and my commute runs through a large swath of cellular dead-zones where even if I had a broadband card for my laptop, it would do me little good (which is one of the reasons I don’t have a broadband card).

The other problem with on-line documentation I have found is I most often need the documentation when I am in a position where I cannot get it electronically. I am in a server room without access to a browser or subjected to filtered access to the site with the documentation. There is also the real problem of the lack of screen real estate to read the documentation and execute the commands (more common than you might think, especially when you are in an industry that only allocates one monitor per system because why would anyone need more than one monitor?).

It is not that I am opposed to wiki based documentation. I like it, for the most part. But there needs to be a way to extract that documentation into some easily printable form. Printing page after page by clicking print, next, print, next – is not a good use of time. Scaling and frames complicate it even more (and it really frustrates me to print a page only to find out I did not get the document but the frame around the outside!). I know this is possible, and in many cases fairly easy.

So, if you are a document producer, remember that there are a number of people out there that want to use your documentation. And how they use it is as important as what is in it!

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