Using social networking for documentation

May 23, 2011 at 9:11 am 2 comments

I have recently been reading a fair bit about how social networks are being used for technical communication. It’s a hot topic, and although some companies’ tech writing teams are already joining in conversations with users on Facebook, LinkedIn and their own user forums, how they include this kind of content in their documentation is what they are currently trying to get their heads around.

You may have already heard the term “Web 2.0” thrown around. It is the term that has been associated with websites that allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media kind of dialogue. Or as Wikipedia so clearly puts it, “Web 2.0 is associated with web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web.” Right…

From personal experience, this type of communication and user-influenced documentation has been seen in the online gaming world for some time.

Customer service-wise when players need help, they go to the game’s official website forums to ask the question. Then, more often than not, it is the other players that answer the question before any of the official game developers get a chance to. This happens regardless of how good the how-to documentation is. I think the thought process is along the lines of “why spend time researching when I can just ask?”

Additionally, as time goes by, these forums begin to replace the how-to documentation. The sea of discussion threads will appear very messy at first, but there will be a search function to tidy it up. Using keywords, you can filter discussions to often find exactly what you are after. And not only that, you can read an entire conversation that has already taken place about the issue or feature. If the conversations are too dated, that is when you may have to refer to the almost redundant how-to documentation. Or alternatively, you could start a new discussion…

Here are some examples I have come across recently of this growing Web 2.0 trend:

Writing procedures in Facebook
Link: http://www.2morodocs.com/2011/04/content-strategy-posting-procedures-in-facebook/

2morodocs talks about this very interesting concept. Some of the main advantages I gleaned from this were:
• Format – the Facebook layout bodes well for procedure writing
• Updates/changes – if your product is evolving, you can ensure everyone knows how and why as soon as it does.
• Customer service – as well as being able to provide real-time support (procedures are easy to write), by providing hints and tips you can also provide people with information they need, before they even know they need it.
• Relevance – by including regular features, you keep your product fresh and in peoples’ minds.

Hosting documentation in a wiki
There are two types of wiki, open and closed. Open wikis allow anyone to submit content, most famously demonstrated by Wikipedia, while closed ones only allow employees or specified users to add content. An open wiki can present problems, which mainly stem from managing and hosting the “crowd-sourced” content. Wikipedia does this by keeping the entire website level (there is no hierarchy or website architecture), but hosting business documentation this way is another matter. This is why the majority of businesses using a wiki for documentation (or thinking about doing so) are using a closed version.

I did find an example of an open wiki however, which uses a wiki called Confluence (there are numerous wikis that have been developed – i.e. Wikipedia uses MediaWiki). The company, Atlassian, developed the wiki themselves and this example is the wiki for their software application CROWD: http://confluence.atlassian.com/display/CROWD/Crowd+Documentation

Including tips via Twitter
Websites can contain a text box that displays a continuously-updated list of tweets. It will recognise recent tweets containing a predefined word and display them. Anyone can write a tip and have it show on the page, which, when added to the homepage of a documentation website, gives it that freshly updated feel.
I found a good example of this while browsing Atlassian’s wikis. Their JIRA wiki has one: http://confluence.atlassian.com/display/JIRA/Tips+via+Twitter

Living documents – getting users involved
Sarah Maddox, a technical writer for Atlassian, gave a presentation recently at the WritersUA 2011 conference. Considering the work they are doing in this social networking field at Atlassian, I thought a link to the run down of what she said might be appropriate: http://ffeathers.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/writersua-2011-%E2%80%93-using-social-media-to-get-readers-involved/

“At Atlassian, we’ve been using social media in various ways, to make our documentation a living, interactive hub where people can find the answers to their questions, talk to us, talk to each other, and use the documentation as a tool to help each other.”

James

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ffeathers  |  May 23, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Hallo James

    Nice post, and thank you for linking to my blog. I like your examples from the gaming world.

    With Confluence wiki, you can configure part of the wiki site as open and part as closed. You can also allow different groups of people to do different things with the various types of content. For example, the technical writing group can update content, while outsiders can add comments to the pages. Or the entire staff can update pages and add comments, while external viewers can only view the pages and comments.

    You mentioned the term “Web 2.0”. I’ve heard people talking about “Documentation 2.0”, being what happens when you apply these techniques to documentation. What do you think of that term? Some days I think it’s pretty cool, and other days it sounds a bit trite.

    Cheers
    Sarah

    Reply
    • 2. James  |  May 24, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Hi Sarah! Thanks for the reply.

      This post was actually inspired by a couple of the discussions on Technical Writing World, including the one you started about using wikis.

      From what I saw browsing some of your examples Confluence looks great. I’d love to work on a project that was migrating content to Confluence.

      I don’t really like the 2.0 terms personally. I hadn’t heard it linked to documentation before, but it makes sense. Trite is a good way of describing it, and it’s just a bit ambiguous for me.

      James

      Reply

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