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documentation

I should have blogged more about it, but I already suck at blogging (I have to improve this), and also the Internet connection was not really working well with my computer at the conference (now I’m using the hotel connection!).

One world: AWESOME.

My first GUADEC, and I’m really enjoying it.

A lot of interesting talks, lots of great people, and also lots of work to do.

We had the documentation workshop the day before GUADEC started, and it has turned out really cool and interesting: lots of people are interested in documentation, users and developers documentation; and this is absolutely great!

We had interesting discussions with the Anjuta developer, the Evolution developers, people from Openismus, and many other I can’t probably even remember the names (apologies for that!).

Phil and I have also been working quite a lot in these days: Phil on the what is going to be the new GNOME users help, me mostly on the Rhythmbox docs.

Today we will have the BoF room at GUADEC for us and we will brainstorm a lot on new topics for the GNOME users help. If you want to help us out, or just to hang around and see how we work, please join us!

Last but not least: there are rumors about having a developers documentation hackfest, probably in Berlin, thanks to Openismus. It’s not confirmed yet, but it would be absolutely great! (I hope I can have days off from work to help out with that too).

For your eye pleasure, directly from the Desktop Help Summit, the 10 top things you shouldn’t do when writing documentation. Enjoy.

Hi guys,

Top 10 things not to do with your docs:

Reading the interface back
————————–
∘ Don’t document the entire interface – it’s safe to assume certain
things are obvious and don’t need to be discussed.
∘ Don’t read back the interface – people can figure out that the Open
button opens something.

Not aiming at a consistent level of technical expertise
——————————————————-
∘ Say something basic and something advanced in the same sentence, e.g.
“Click Open to open the document” in the same sentence as “you need to
install GRUB after you partition.”

Verbosity
———
∘ Explaining things at great length, in the same topic as where you give
the instructions.
∘ Just link off to a conceptual topic instead.
∘ Assume people will skim – don’t make them read loads of intro before
you get to the instructions.

Incorrect level of formality
—————————-
∘ It’s OK to use contractions.
∘ Still use reasonably formal language (i.e. don’t be crazy or overly
friendly), but don’t make it sound dry. it should flow.

Lack of context
—————
∘ Need to give context so people understand what is going on.
Confidence.
∘ Don’t just write a big list of commands.

Over-use of screenshots
———————–
∘ Only use them to illustrate a point.
∘ Don’t need to use them everywhere, the user is probably looking at the
screen anyway.

Leaving out steps or using too many steps
—————————————–
∘ Need to choose the appropriate level of detail. No need for one step
per mouse movement.
∘ Likewise, don’t miss things out if they seem obvious, just cover them
very briefly.

Documenting things which no-one cares about
——————————————-
∘ Document things that people need to know about, don’t just scratch an
itch.

Putting more than one topic in one document
——————————————-
∘ Results in long, rambling documents.
∘ Confusing, difficult to link to, overlap.
∘ Users confused by irrelevant, buried information.

Don’t talk down to or patronise your users
——————————————
∘ Using phrases like “obviously” can make people feel bad if it’s not
actually obvious.

If anyone can find one or two examples of any of these mistakes, that
would be cool.

Does anything come to your mind?

Oh, BTW, buttons are on the left.

Today was the GNOME Docs meeting day, a planning session for things to come in the doc world of GNOME.

We needed to plan a little bit of work for the coming months (one or two months, not much more), and we decided to focus ourselves on small applications help, something in the order of small games, the calculator, and so on. This will be a good exercise for writing help for an application, and a good learning moment to learn Mallard and topic based writing.

Speaking of games help, since Mario Blättermann ported the Tetravex documentation from Docbook to Mallard, we said: “Why don’t we start from that, and see how we can expand it and work on it?”. Tetravex is not that complex game, and should be pretty easy (and fun) to work on what Mario created.

We wrote down a basic structure for how a game help should (probably) be structured, and it goes in the form of:

  • Gameplay (Introduction)
    • Basic Gameplay and winning scenario
  • Strategy
    • Multiple pages if necessary
  • Multiplayer
  • Tips and Trick

It’s a really basic structure, probably it’s not complete and it will need to expand as we move forward and we reach new kind of games, but for a starter, we think that should work. I’m not going to explain each of them, I think they are pretty straightforward and self-explaining.

So, if you out there would like to start a new experience in the wonderful world of GNOME Doc writing with a light task, we might need your help in writing games help.

Get in touch with the GNOME Doc team at: http://live.gnome.org/DocumentationProject.

It’s not secret that I started a new job and that I’m now working for a closed-source company (even if sometimes I have to work with my beloved Linux, but unfortunately that’s rare).

Before starting, I thought I would have found some great docs, describing the works of others, API documentation, internal guidelines, flow-charts, diagrams, whatever; I thought I would have found the basic “infrastructure” that makes a developer work.

I was wrong.

Actually there is documentation, but it’s only the end-user documentation, no real internal documentation. No documentation to help you speeding up with your work, to understand how things work. No (useful) comments in the code.

What would have taken you 5 days of work to accomplish, (exaggerating) will take you two weeks: you have to ask someone else in the company, but maybe they don’t remember or didn’t write that particular piece of code, or didn’t work on that implementation.

Documentation is important, from the end users to the developers, if you want your project to self sustain, if you want to ease the life of other people, and if you want your project to live a long and prosperous life. People were not in your head (and are not in your head) when you wrote that strange thing. 1-2 years from now you could be working for another company, what would be of other people who are trying to understand what you wrote? How would people easily understand how things work in a complex environment?

But luckily, things they are a-changin’. They are now realizing that they need documentation, that they need documentation in the code, and that they need to document things. A small victory.

Lesson learned: next time you do a job interview, if you don’t know the company, ask what are their internal standards, guidelines, and if there is documentation. You can understand a little bit of the level of professionalism of it.

Wow, long time no post on this blog… need to remove some dust from here…

Lots of things happened in the meantime that dust was settling: moved into a new city, found a house (or at least something that can be considered so), started a new job, done the usual round of translations and some GNOME-docs related activities (even if not that much since the translations period was on).

But we are here to talk about our beloved Mallard and GNOME docs.

During the last GNOME Doc meeting Paul had a great idea: that we needed to show a little bit of the process that has permitted us to write the shiny new Empathy help, along with some code snippets and how I/we have brainstormed on the topics, how we’ve sorted them and all that jazz.

So let’s dive into this new experience.

I chose to talk and describe a little bit the IRC section, since it has been reported (in the survey we ran) as one of hardest thing to set up in Empathy (and we hope that with this new kind of help it’ll be a little bit easier than before, or at least understandable).

When I “sat down” and started to brainstorm on the topics that could end up describing how to use IRC, I was helped by the survey we ran back in June-July: I already knew that users found it difficult even to “set up an account” (“setting up” an IRC account is not correct, since you don’t really register anything, and Shaun addressed that during the review and the last phases of the writing). So the very first topics that came to mind were:

  • Creating an IRC account
  • Joining an IRC channel
  • Starting an IRC conversation

I started by creating the skeleton of those pages, they were empty, since I needed them to be able to “play” with them in the main index page, to see how to sort and group them, and which words to use. In the meantime I was using Empathy with my IRC account, ‘cause I needed to focus on that feature and see what other things I could do, and came up with other topics:

  • Favorite rooms
  • Nickname password
  • Sending files
  • Problem with the nick

During the first phase of the work on these topics, they where in the same group of all the other text-based conversations (you can see something here in one of my previous post, even if in that one the topics were already grouped), but that wasn’t working out for me, and so decided to group them in a “master” page were all IRC topics would have be. This is the final code-result for the “master” IRC page:

<page xmlns="http://projectmallard.org/1.0/"
 xmlns:e="http://projectmallard.org/experimental/"
 type="guide" style="2column"
 id="irc-manage">
 <info>
 <link type="guide" xref="index#text-conv"/>
 <desc>How to use IRC with <app>Empathy</app>.</desc>
 <revision pkgversion="2.28" version="0.1" date="2009-07-25" status="draft"/>
 <revision pkgversion="2.28" version="0.2" date="2009-08-14" status="review"/>
 <revision pkgversion="2.28" version="0.2" date="2009-08-27" status="review">
 <!--
 <e:review by="shaunm@gnome.org" date="2009-08-31" status="done"/>
 -->
 </revision>
 <credit type="author">
 <name>Milo Casagrande</name>
 <email>milo@ubuntu.com</email>
 </credit>
<!--
 <copyright>
 <year>2009</year>
 <name>GNOME Documentation Project</name>
 </copyright>
-->
 <include href="legal.xml" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2001/XInclude"/>
 </info>
 <title>Internet Relay Chat (IRC)</title>
 <section id="manage" style="2column">
 <info>
 <title type="link">IRC Chat Rooms and Conversations</title>
 </info>
 <title>Chat Rooms and Conversations</title>
 </section>
 <section id="problems">
 <info>
 <title type="link">Common IRC Problems</title>
 </info>
 <title>Common Problems</title>
 </section>
</page>

And this is the page as it is right now:

http://library.gnome.org/users/empathy/2.28/irc-manage.html

No topics are hard-coded in this page, all the linking magic happens in gnome-doc, we don’t have to worry about creating the links. We only have to decide that one page should be linked from another one (or that one page should contain a link to another one), and that’s it. With Docbook (at least for how I’ve been using Docbook) you insert the link of the page in the page, you don’t declare a page as linked.

During the writing work, one of the topics has been a little bit “tricky” to write: the “favorite rooms” one. Why? Because the procedure is common to all the text-based group conversations, is (probably) most used with IRC (there are also Jabber-rooms, but personally I don’t know how much they are famous or of common-use), and there are three different “actions” you can do within a “favorite rooms”:

  1. Set a room as favorite
  2. Join one of the favorite rooms
  3. Manage favorites

Using a per-page topic in this case made no sense to me, the topics were short and direct. A single page, interlinked from the IRC and group conversations topics, would have worked out pretty good in this case. This is the part of code that does the interlinks trick:

<page xmlns="http://projectmallard.org/1.0/"
 type="topic"
 id="favorite-rooms">
 <info>
 <link type="guide" xref="index#text-conv"/>
 <link type="guide" xref="irc-manage#manage"/>
 <link type="seealso" xref="irc-join-room"/>
 <link type="seealso" xref="group-conversations"/>
 <desc>Set, join and manage favorite rooms.</desc>

The type attribute tells us where this topic will be linked from. In this case the topic is linked from two guide pages and is also inserted as seealso links.

And here is the favorite room page:

http://library.gnome.org/users/empathy/2.28/favorite-rooms.html

This is just a little bit of the process and how things work with Mallard, and these are some of the lessons I learned during my journey:

  • Do surveys or try to gather information from users. You don’t usually write documentation for yourself.
  • Start brainstorming before writing, and even before using the application you are going to document. And if you don’t know the application, that’s not necessary bad.
  • After the first brainstorm, use the application and take notes of what you can and would do, and how you should do it and how you do it.
  • Before really writing, create a skeleton (just the titles and nothing more) of what you will write and see how it works out in the overall help.
  • Think carefully about the words you will use: weigh them and see if you can use simple words (even translators will be happy!).
  • Try to think and be as a normal user as possible (hard part!), but don’t forget the advanced ones.

Today I was looking at the structure of the new Empathy documetation so far, and I was thinking about the new topics that need to be addressed. Looking at the actual layout, I thought: “And now, where do I insert these topics?”. “In which category do they fall under?”.

So, this is the actual layout:

Old Layout

And this is the new one I’m thinking of, with some of the new topics (those are just there to test the layout and nothing has been written yet, wordings might change):

New Layout

What do you think? Suggestions about the wordings? Does “Text conversations” make sense as opposed to “Audio and video”?

I think I have to find a way to have fixed-width columns in the two-columns view, since I don’t like the “Text conversations” section in that way.

Playing a little bit with Mallard, prompt by last GNOME Documentation Q&A session and by Shaun release of gnome-doc-utils 0.17.2, I tried to see what is the situation with Mallard and translations using the xml2po tool.

Well… looks like it works.

From this:

The Way of the Mallard

The English Man

To this:

The Italian Job

The Italian Job

Well, it’s a start, and it’s almost working. There are a couple of descriptions that are still in English even if they have been translated, and I don’t really understand why those are still in English.

Anyway:

  • Nothing has been done on xml2po to make it works
  • After converting from PO to Mallard two files, since you have to convert one file at a time, I got bored and I wrote a stupid Python script
  • Future looks bright and we might be able to ship Mallard doc with the 2.28 🙂

Don’t forget:

  • Tonight, at 9pm UTC, there’s the GNOME Doc team meeting (#docs in GIMPNet)
  • If you haven’t done it yet, take the Empathy survey to help the GNOME Documentation Project!

We’ve seen it from the inside, and we’ve seen it from the outside, in which other way can we see it? From the user way.

Since we are going to rewrite almost everything from scratch with a new way of thinking documentation, we need users help. We need you out there.

You, user of our beloved desktop and applications could be part of this process. Well, actually you should be part of this process.

We want to produce the best documentation “evar“, and to do that we need to know all the problems you encounter, all the actions and all the tasks you do with the desktop and the applications. Here we will focus on one single application: Empathy.

If you are not a user of Empathy, that would be great too. You have a fresh mind and you are not used to it, you will probably have a different point of view over regular users and could see things in a different way, with a different eye. We need you too.

What we would like to achieve with this is to gather as much information as we can about what you do with Empathy and what you would like to do with Empathy but don’t know how, what is easy and what is not. This will help us write a better documentation and maybe also address some of the problem with the developers. Who knows!

How can you do this?

First of all, install Empathy (it should be not that difficult: look for a package named empathy from your Linux distribution, if it’s not installed by default).

Then, start using it, play a little bit with Empathy and think of all the things you would do, but don’t know how to do, or all the things you don’t find clear in the graphical interface: incomprehensible words, whatever… (for this, please try to use the English version of the program: if you find words that are incomprehensible in your language, that’s more likely to be a translation problem, even if it could be related to the English word being incomprehensible even to translators; but please, report the English ones).

When you feel comfortable, spend some minutes completing this little study, just a single click away: GNOME Documentation Project – Empathy Users Study.

It’s not a professional survey/study, we are trying to do our best. As somebody said at WOSCON, “help [us], to help you” cit. If you even would like to do this survey in your own language, tell me, I’ll share the Google doc with you, but you have to provide English translation of the final results.

This little survey will be open for two weeks: it will close on July 7th. Spread the voice!

PS: Tomorrow at 7pm UTC on IRC (#docs in GNIMPnet) there’s a Q&A session with the GNOME docs guys. Stop by and say hello!

So it has been talked about Mallard and (a little bit of) what it looks like under the hood, but how does it really look like to our eyes? What are the differences between the old and the new way?

Well, it’s almost like comparing Mallard ducks with Wood ducks.

The Old Way

The Old Way

The Way of the Mallard

The Way of the Mallard

The two approaches are different.

In the old way of thinking, we had a big-one-huge-file (OK, we could have split it up, but the end result would have always been a massive document) divided in chapter, sub-chapter and so on with (almost) one single fixed flow of the information. It felt more like a book.

With the new way, we have smallest chunks of information that we can group how we like, easy to move from on place to another, that address a small task users will be likely to do or have the need to do.

And this is also the hardest part for writers: finding all these tasks.

It’s not perfect, nothing is and will ever be, but it’s a great approach for solving the documentation problem in GNOME (and maybe others can build on it, extend it or do whatever they feel to do with it). It’s probably going to be hard to rewrite all the docs GNOME has from the old way to the Mallard way, but we can do that and it’s not necessary to do everything in a rush. We have fixed goals for the 3.0, and from that moment we will move on with new goals.

Obviously, if you would like to jump in the doc-writing task and help out speed up the process, we’ll be happy! 🙂

If somebody out there would like to find out more about GNOME docs writing, there is a Q&A session on IRC (#docs channel on GIMPnet) scheduled for Wednesday 24th at 7pm UTC for one hour (and more). We will be there, come with your questions!