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Does it take a community to create technical documentation?

The technical writer profession certainly takes it on the chin sometimes. Community-based technical documentation (user forums, wikis, blogs, and other social media) is becoming a go-to source for technical documentation. Such documentation may even be another excuse to edge technical writers out the door.

While even for me, Google is the first stop when I need to research a technical issue. I then have to dig through a fair amount of crap to get verifiable technically accurate information to help resolve my issue.

Even vendor-sponsored user forums can get laborious unless I can find another user who has exactly the same issue that I am encountering.

I consider myself a quick hunter and gatherer of information, but what about less experienced technology users having to look something up online. My online first method of researching technical issues comes from the natural migration of user documentation from print to online (take for example Microsoft Office documentation on Office.com) and the following issues:

  • Disappointment with vendor documentation and support
  • Language and cultural barriers with offshore technical support
  • Lack of access to vendor documentation when I’ve been on customer sites

Community-based documentation is already taking a foothold with technology vendors — Microsoft and HP to name a few. The capturing of community knowledge on technology topics like configuring an HP printer to print wirelessly from Mac OS X can be quite powerful indeed. However, to make it work for the product and the users, there is a lot of work that needs to happen behind the scenes. For instance, technical writers aren’t going to be able to opt out of learning the technologies they are documenting. Schedules need to factor in that additional time. Mature processes (not buzzwords) need to be in place to help cultivate the community-based documentation from degenerating into a morass of technical inaccuracies and fanboy flame wars.

For a technical writer to have any substantive participation in the community-based documentation they are going to have to have a grounding in the products and be able to capture additional information from subject matter expert interviews.

Seeding a community-based documentation site with paid moderators seems to be a necessity to ensure that customers can reap some value from the online resources your company puts online.

Community-based documentation as potential source material for traditional online help and documentation is also another interesting element to consider but that is still going to require grounding in the product and a different shade of strategy than what is normally found in typical documentation plans. The strategy for community-based documentation shouldn’t just have a technical writer as a stakeholder/interested party, this list can include:

  • Product management
  • Marketing
  • Technical support
  • Sales
  • Professional services

Community-based documentation isn’t going to be appropriate for every audience. For example, when I worked for a federal government contractor and sharing technical information in an open online forum is a no go. Likewise, an open online venue isn’t going to be right for some in the medical and legal fields to share their technical issues and concerns because of the risk of compliance issues.

My luck with community-based documentation in the past has primarily been with vendor-driven sites like MSDN blogs, WordPress online resources, and some of the Microsoft forums.

Will Kelly is a technical writer and analyst based in the Washington, DC area. His writing experience includes writing technology articles for CNET TechRepublic and other sites. Will’s technology interests include collaboration platforms, enterprise mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), project management applications, and big data. Follow him on Twitter: @willkelly.

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