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Creative Documentation 136

Posted by CmdrTaco
FuriousCurio writes "Linux kernel hackers appear to be an endlessly creative group of individuals. In response to previous documentation attempts not having been read by many people, KernelTrap is reporting about how the lguest documentation was prepared to be something of an adventure story. Self-proclaimed to turn you into an lguest expert, lguest being one of the new solutions for running a virtual instance of the Linux operating system as a user process within a real instance of the Linux operating system, the documentation mixes humor and wit into puzzles, poetry, and of course source code and a low-level understanding of virtualization. But the questions remains, will making documentation more entertaining actually work to get people to read it?"
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Creative Documentation

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  • by Fx.Dr (915071) <exterminans@pala ... com ['oft' in ga> on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:03PM (#20133783)
    If you compile the Anarchists' Cookbook you wind up with Windows 3.11 for Networking.
  • Yes.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by UncleTogie (1004853) * on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:04PM (#20133799) Homepage Journal
    ...a point hit home by the success of the "For Dummies/Idiots" series. It's one of the selling points of the books, and the reason why our shop recommends the series for neophytes....
    • Re:Yes.... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by value_added (719364) on Monday August 06, 2007 @05:11PM (#20134621)
      ...a point hit home by the success of the "For Dummies/Idiots" series. It's one of the selling points of the books

      I think the very readable For Dummies series of books hasn't reached the seemingly untapped potential of its target audience. ;-)

      Maybe someone with a better knowledge of history or who has studied technical writing can elaborate on this, but I believe it was the O'Reilly series of books that broke ground on changing the manner in which technical books were written from textbook-ish style to something more informal and entertaining.

      I'd guess there's more than a few books in the O'Reilly catalogue, for example, on everybody's favourite list, but the increasing focus on appealing to readers often leads to compromising on actual content. More people educating themselves by buying or reading more books (or on-line documentation) is A Good Thing, of course, but my preference has been for the (apparently dated) textbook-ish approach. Compare, for example, something like Internetworking With Tcp/Ip: Principles, Protocols, and Architecture (Internetworking with TCP/IP Vol. 1) [amazon.com] published in 1991 with anything published today on the subject of networking. One is as comprehensive and as well written as it is boring to read, while the others are more accessible and topical and shorter. No surprise which sells more copies.

      What I've never got my head around is that people increasingly don't want to read anything. I wonder how somehow making their living as a writer feels knowing that most of us are guilty of relying on a Google search for a quick intro or how-to when the READMEs, man pages, source code, etc. is sitting on their hard drive.
      • What I've never got my head around is that people increasingly don't want to read anything.

        Agreed, and I try to work around it with the following question line to clients: "Say you have two drivers. One is familiar with the state Driver's Handbook and traffic laws, having read up on them. The other has just got behind the wheel for the first time. Which one do you think would get in more accidents, and why?"

        Of COURSE you get the ones that'll politely nod, and then go right back to what they're used to doing. It IS gratifying, however, to see that lightbulb flicker on every so often...

        When

        • Re:Yes.... (Score:5, Funny)

          by gardyloo (512791) on Monday August 06, 2007 @06:09PM (#20135249)

          Agreed, and I try to work around it with the following question line to clients: "Say you have two drivers. One is familiar with the state Driver's Handbook and traffic laws, having read up on them. The other has just got behind the wheel for the first time. Which one do you think would get in more accidents, and why?"
          Whichever one ATI wrote.
      • Re:Yes.... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Oliver Defacszio (550941) on Monday August 06, 2007 @05:45PM (#20135011)
        I wonder how somehow making their living as a writer feels knowing that most of us are guilty of relying on a Google search for a quick intro or how-to when the READMEs, man pages, source code, etc. is sitting on their hard drive.

        I am a technical writer, and I assure you that it's absolutely no secret that this is the case, and we're OK with it. I can't deny that there are times where I feel a little down after sweating blood over a documentation project that I know 16% of our customer base will ever read (that's an actual statistic, incidentally, from a firm I once worked for), but, in the end, my paycheck still arrives. I will say, though, that both companies for which I've worked as a writer are constantly working to improve documentation content and style in hopes that you'll use it instead of Google. Tech writing, despite how it probably appears, evolves like anything else. Whether its an effective evolution is up to you, I guess. I have my own opinions in that area.

        A much, much bigger frustration is the lack of respect given to tech writers by developers and hardware engineers. I couldn't count the number of times I've been handed a pile of "documentation" written by an barely literate ESL developer somewhere with the expectation that I can magically turn it into a public doc in "what, a day or two?" In their eyes, we're typists, and in the two years I've been doing this, one of my greatest professional joys has become the look on the face of some snarky developer when I say, "No, this is more like three weeks. Will that hold up your release?" As joyful as I am, though, there are times where I simply have to produce something in a quarter of the time it actually needs, and that invariably results in garbage. In my opinion, many of the problems with technological documentation could be solved by just keeping me in the loop throughout the project, but that seems to be too much to ask. On the rare occasion where this happens, I've produced award-winning manuals (yes, there really are awards for this) that receive a surprising amount of kudos from customers.

        But, most of the time, I'm handed junk information at the last minute and nobody's willing to answer the phone as I try to distill anything meaningful from the whole thing. Then, I either unapologetically delay the project or produce crap. The sun goes up, the sun goes down.
        • by KlaymenDK (713149)

          I couldn't count the number of times I've been handed a pile of "documentation" written by an barely literate ESL developer

          If you only knew what we (developers) get from the clients in the first place! Just last week a manager 3 levels up from me asked for a sizing (price tag) on a system that was barely even an idea yet. But you know, this is not all of the problem. Another part of the problem is something that you appear to share with developers:

          there are times where I simply have to produce something in a quarter of the time it actually needs, and that invariably results in garbage.

          I know this is a problem everywhere. The reality is, too little of this kind of work is aiming for end-to-end quality, but rather short-sighted focus on quarter-end commitments.

          http [dilbert.com]

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by richie2000 (159732)

          many of the problems with technological documentation could be solved by just keeping me in the loop throughout the project

          I have on occasion had to more or less forcibly inject myself into projects just to be in the loop. I have also threatened the entire development staff with a baseball bat or simply coming around and sit on them (I'm fairly big) if they didn't give me useful data. It worked so-so - getting on the projects worked better, even though it took a lot of time from writing. It probably helped that I'm trained as a programmer originally and could actually contribute a little bit to the projects.

        • by l0b0 (803611)

          [...] both companies for which I've worked as a writer are constantly working to improve documentation content and style in hopes that you'll use it instead of Google.

          Why? Seriously, the web is the best possible place for documentation. Application documentation search (man, info, Windows help) is infinitely far behind any of today's web search engines, and considering the revenue possibilities, this is not likely to change. Other benefits (semantics, no need to compile, cross-platform) are left as an exer

          • Why? Seriously, the web is the best possible place for documentation.

            Because companies think that the only correct representation of their product comes from within. They just hate, hate, hate it when you read some wrong information about their product on a public forum somewhere, then tie up an expensive Tech Support representative when you screw things up and have to call. And, frankly, they're right. Now, before you trot out the old chestnut about customer objectivity versus corporate policy, just thi
            • by l0b0 (803611)
              I feel your pain. But having it on the web will not prevent people from finding information on forums, and it certainly doesn't mean random Joes will be able to edit it.
              • Totally true, but you asked why companies are bothering to evolve their documentation, and that's why -- in an attempt (possibly vain) to avoid having you get information on their product from an unreliable source (the term "unreliable" includes those that the company doesn't like, of course). Sometimes, to be honest, it seems like more of a "cover your ass" strategy than anything else -- "No, there's no warranty on your Flibble. Yes, we know that a Google search tells you to clean it with a blowtorch, but
  • ...until I was eaten by a Grue.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by plover (150551) *
      One of the problems will be in what some people consider "funny". Would you have read the documentation if it went like this?

      Narrator: In A.D. 2007, virtualization was beginning.
      LGuest: What happen ?
      Machine: Somebody set up us the guest kernel.
      User: We get host OS.
      LGuest: What !
      Operator: Main OS boot up.
      LGuest: It's you !!
      Hypervisor: How are you gentlemen !!
      Hypervisor: All your kernel are belong to us.
      Hypervisor: You are on the way to virtualization.
      LGuest: What you say !!
      Hypervis

    • You must have come across this:

      {
      /* Wildcard not in map but now is */
      - if (wild & (CHE_OK || CHE_UPDATED))
      + if (wild & (CHE_OK | CHE_UPDATED))
      source->stale = 1;
      }
      pthread_cleanup_pop(1);

      - if (wild & (CHE_UPDATED || CHE_OK))
      + if (wild & (CHE_UPDATED | CHE_OK))
      return NSS_STATUS_SUCCESS;
      /* It is pitch black. You a

    • OK, this is just getting weird. Who knew that grue was part of the BSD userland?

      Last login: Sat Aug 4 16:49:07 on ttyp2
      Welcome to Darwin!
      [ohreally_factor~:] ohreally% grue
      tcsh: grue: Command not found.
      There is no grue here.
      [ohreally_factor~:] ohreally% man grue
      grue(1) grue(1)

      N
    • by billstewart (78916) on Monday August 06, 2007 @08:21PM (#20136667) Journal

      A stairway called .. leads up.
      A directory called "docs" leads down to the left.
      There are files here.
  • by Tom9729 (1134127)
    I think the first question that comes to my mind is why? If the documentation was "so good" in the first place and people didn't read it, what makes them think that making it into an adventure game will make more people read?

    It's certainly creative, but creative isn't always good...
    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by innerweb (721995) on Tuesday August 07, 2007 @12:21AM (#20138395)

      The concept is not new. It is called engaging the reader.

      For most of us on slashdot, we are already engaged by the technology. We have no other need to read the documentation. We want to know how to make this work just to know how to make it work. But, the average user could care less about how a thing works, so long as it does what they want it to without any need to learn if possible. Why do you think tutors and techs have so many jobs? Why do you think so many people have diseased computers? Because they are not engaged in learning about how or why it works.

      For those old enough to remember, the old TRS80 manuals were good examples of how to write engaging documentation in their day. We can do much better today, but few have done as well since then. People need an emotional tie when learning to truly remember. Think about those things you actually do remember from decades past. They almost all have an emotional anchor, whether it be tears or laughter or something else (excitement of learning?).

      So, creating a set of documentation that meets needs of people who do not get the same excitement/enjoyment out of just learning the tech will go far for helping the others out their learn the tech. And we need them to learn the tech. Or linux and OSS will die on the vine.

      You can always claim that as long as people can write software, there will be open source. I counter that until the general public has a vested interest that they are aware of and care about, OSS is always at the mercy of government and business. All it takes is a few laws to be passed and OSS goes away. Some are on the books now and some are talked about often enough here.

      The best way to fight for the future of anything is marketing. That includes *good*, solid, easy and friendly documentation. That may be the biggest selling point to the home user in the end. "It just works" is not just a slogan, but an expectation of most people. If whatever it is does not live up to that, then whatever claims to be next will steal their attention.

      It boils down to loud words mean nothing. Claims of ours is better means nothing. All that means anything is the average parent/sibling/child can sit down and just use it. If the docs are not fun and easy, then that is very unlikely to happen for most people.

      InnerWeb

  • by GillBates0 (664202) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:05PM (#20133819) Homepage Journal
    Q1. What is lguest?
    A. RTFM n00b.
  • Basically, how about writing user documentation that captures real world scenarios and details from start to finish how a task, or better yet, an objective can be completed.

    either that, or just turn it all into a first person shooter. I'll settle for either one.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by WK2 (1072560)
      That is called a tutorial. Tutorials are a great resource, especially for beginners. It is also important that tutorials are accompanied with "reference" material.
  • Ah, my old Apple //c (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ArcherB (796902) * on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:06PM (#20133833) Journal
    I remember the manual and floppy that came with my Apple //c. The floppy was an addition to the manual and included little games to help you learn the system. I remember one where little apples, some hollow, some filled, that were rolling down a conveyor belt. You had to hit the right apple key (open or closed apple) depending on the apple that was rolling down the belt. I believe a bunny gave you the gave you tips (ala Clippy). I don't think I remember the manual being all that serious either. That type of creative instruction led me to actually RTFM and get to know the basics of my computer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      At the risk of getting flamed into hell and back out the other side, I seem to remember reading that the Solitaire game that came with MS Windows originally ('way back when) was designed specifically to get people used to using a mouse, since up until that point, you had DOS at home and LIKED it that way! /a 'mouse'?! //wtf would I do with THAT?
    • by KlaymenDK (713149)
      The Mac in 1984 also had a bunch of not entirely serious but very instructional programs to tell you how to orient, hold, and use the mouse. One of them was putting a movie theater sign back together after it fell apart, another was a neat little maze program.

      These things continue to this day, though. With the TouchStream keyboard, you got a game where you had to balance a ball on a surface by moving your hand across the keyboard.
    • I remember that. It was called "Apple Presents Apple". You had to complete all the minigames / tutorials / etc. to unlock a primitive paint program. I used to play it all the time in computer labs and what not, but I seem to recall that I almost always got called away or had to leave just as I was unlocking the paint program. Ah, the joys of being eight years old...
  • of prose as well as program code. I get mixed results with the creative liberties I takes with comments. It depends on the environment I guess. In the big, formal corporate place I worked, the people generally didn't take too kindly to it. In more informal environments they get a kick out of it. If you're talking about the documentation for a project, I think I'd keep it straight. Who wants to plow through a bunch of shitty writing to understand a program? Technical docs should make it as easy as pos
  • by croddy (659025) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:06PM (#20133841)
    ctrl+f "docutainment" NOT FOUND?
  • Great (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Turn shitty documentation into nerdy poems and puzzles. It's already a puzzle and full of stupid 'wit'. The last thing I'm going to want is documention be adapted to Monty Python or tired Douglas Adams' jokes.
  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:09PM (#20133875)

    Will making documentation more entertaining actually work to get people to read it?

    Hell no. Just make sure I can search it when I get stuck.

    Even the author of TFA thinks this doc is crap (you need "grep" to get off the first page?):

    At this point it's not immediately obvious what we're supposed to do next. ...quick grep of the driver's makefile reveals that it was a very big hint
    • by Nazlfrag (1035012)
      No, you don't need grep, you just need to type 'make Preparations'. If you're exploring the source code documentation, I'd assume you knew what a makefile does well enough to guess this easily.
  • Documentation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rueger (210566) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:12PM (#20133911) Homepage
    Should be clear, complete and timely.

    Every time I've tried to solve a linux problem I've run into docs that miss one, two or all three of those things

    Documentation has to be very clear, very unambiguous, and very specific. When you're already up against a problem you don't want to be guessing at what the docs are trying to tell you.

    Looking at TFA, my suggestion to not waste everyone's time with cutesy games - hire a real professional to write and edit your docs and get them right the first time.
    • clear, complete and timely.


      Ideally, entertaining documentation should supplement standard documentation. However, I can appreciate that writing documentation can be very boring, and this would cause the doc writers (probably the programmers) to procrastinate on making the docs complete and timely -- especially when they're not payed. If this motivates the documentation writers (and secondarily, motivates the readers), then I'm in favour
      • by rueger (210566)
        "Ideally, entertaining documentation should supplement standard documentation. However, I can appreciate that writing documentation can be very boring,"

        Wrong. If you find that, then hire someone who knows how to do it. I suspect that those who find it "boring" just aren't willing, or lack the skills, to do the thoughtful and detailed work that is needed.
    • I agree completely. Documentation needs to be clear without any extra frills like stories and poems.

      However, there's a difference between the essential documentation and supplementary instruction manuals.

      The essential documentation needs to have everything in it and be clear and well organized, and hence it will be extremely boring. A supplementary instructional manual on the other hand like this one for Ruby [poignantguide.net] has the ability to capture the reader's interest in a way documentation can't.

      I would very much lik
  • One of my earliest computing experiences was at JPL who had massively hacked their Univac environment. The documentation was, of course, rewritten in house. I can still remember a variety of Univac commands, not beaccause they were so obvious, but because the documentation was so good.
    @pack rat ; @ prep school

    But they kept it within reason. Turning the documentation into the equivallent of a game, with ppuzzless is just asking for even fewer people to pay attention
  • WTF? (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Q: "Hey, how do I get this mission critical app running?"
    A: "RTFM for teh win - it's a real hoot! I'm a level 2 warlock and member of the trade guild."


    Documentation, even good documentation can be difficult enough to understand without 'puzzles'. Readers want answers to questions and solutions to their problems and quickly goddamnit.
  • Microsoft desperately needs this guys -- or somebody -- to rewrite the Visual Studio .NET/2003/2005 into something usable. Considering how easy the VS 5/6 help files were to use, I've never understood how they were able to take such a giant leap back into almost complete un-usability. One is ready to believe conspiracy theories regarding that MS has a secret state in all the VS manual publishers who try to explain what Microsoft itself doesn't!
    • by plague3106 (71849)
      Hmm, I've found the .Net help to be better than help in vb6.
      • by eggoeater (704775)
        Correct. It's called MSDN [microsoft.com]... and now that they've gotten the MSDN2 site fixed it seems to have everything for all three versions of VS.


    • I hope you're kidding. The documentation for Visual C++ 6 was in many places flawed, and sometimes just downright wrong. I pity any developer who ever tried to use any of the provided example codes. Many of them contained glaring bugs, extremely insecure coding practices, and some didn't even compile!

      Granted, my experience in 2005 isn't nearly as extensive as it was with 6, I've found far fewer of such problems there.
  • > man lguest

    A hollow voice says "Fool".
    • > lguest --help

      You are in a maze of twisty passages that all look the same.

      > n

      You are in a maze of twisty passages that all look the same.

      ARRRGGHHH!
  • Happy Ending: You have successfully started your lguest and now are running linux on linux! Huzzah!

    Sad Ending: You couldn't figure out the Manual, and are now hopelessly confused and not sure exactly what you've done to your machine.

    Actual text may vary from above material, since I just made this shit up... Jonah HEX
  • forcing someone that wants documentation to see the sourcecode is great! especially since wanting to read this kind of documentation usually means your a capable programmer.
  • wrong forum (Score:4, Funny)

    by Joe Snipe (224958) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:19PM (#20133989) Homepage Journal
    here at slashdot we can't even rtfa, let alone rtfm.
  • by fm6 (162816) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:19PM (#20133991) Homepage Journal
    ...go watch a movie. When a technical document tries to entertain, it's just distracting.

    People don't resist reading technical manuals because they're boring. They resist because most of them are crap, full of confusing explanations and information that's disorganized, out of date, or just plain wrong. Easier to figure stuff out for yourself.

    I can say these things, because I write those damn manuals for a living. I like to think my own work is pretty good, but I'm disgusted by most of what I see. And that's the stuff written by "professionals". The amateur stuff that passes for documentation in the OSS world is even worse.
  • Noone ever read it. So this time I'm trying something different, using a bit of Knuthiness.

    While Knuth is a genius and all, I don't think Knuthiness is Chinese for readable. He might want to look to a different model if his goal is to get people to read his documentation.

  • In the world of daily releases, I suppose everybody is desperate to get folks attention. It's a cute way to do it - but not much more.

    The point of doing things for other people is that they shouldn't need to read the manual. Apple's got it right. It just works. In the case where it doesn't - you've already screwed up. In that situation I want an easily-consultable index with simple pages numbers along with a step by step with screenshots account of how to get it working.

    I recently installed apach
    • by koxkoxkox (879667)
      Well, we're talking about a low-level driver here. Some things just can't be that simple. A good doc is always extremely useful when you want to understand something, not just use it.

      Anyway, I think it is a fun idea. I've always loved well-written documentation, when someone tries to explain a program but also to share his passion, sometimes explaining even things that are not necessary. I am thinking of "The TeXbook" by Knuth or "A User's Guide to the Z-Shell" by Stephenson for example.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Control Group (105494) *
      This is where the term "irreducible complexity" turns out to actually mean something.

      That is, not all software can be made fire-and-forget that way. Most of the software the end user actually interfaces with, perhaps, but not much more. I'm a SQL Server DBA by profession*, and the idea of a DB server install that "just works" is almost incomprehensible, because the definition of "just works" varies so much depending on what you intend to do with it. Does "just working" include a backup strategy? It should,
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:24PM (#20134051)
    As a documentation writer, I've learned from experience that 95% of any typical audience won't read the docs, no matter how many pictures you include, or how entertaining you try to make it. People, in general, just don't like to read, period. They'd rather call support or fumble around and try to figure it out on their own.

    The other 5%, though, read the docs so thoroughly that they'll find the tiniest mistakes or oversights. This basically means that the docs have to be perfect, even though only a fraction of the audience will bother to use them.

    Having thorough documentation still occasionally helps the other 95% though -- it gives the Tech Support guy something to point to ("see page 108 of the User Guide") when dealing with idiot questions from people who should know better.
  • Longer answer:

    I write tech docs in my day job, and frankly, "interesting" isn't going to solve the "problem" of users not reading the docs.

    Part of my M.S. program was a research project about software document usage and the vast majority of users don't "read" documentation in the same sense that you read a narrative: start at the beginning and read through to the end, with spine-tingling chills, mystery, and adventure galore in the intervening chapters.

    Software documentation is mainly used in two situations
    • But you're talking about a different goal. Tech docs that are designed to be good at answering specific question aren't, and shouldn't be, read start-to-finish, any more than a dictionary should. But docs that are designed to introduce you to something should be, and there may be a role for creative writing in that instance.

      Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between "documentation" and "tutorials." I think the goal of the creative documenting in question, here, is more regarding the latter than the for
      • by RobBebop (947356)

        I agree that "creative documentation" has its place as a teaching tool for people who are looking to get started in a particular new technology. A lack of documentation is a barrier for any new user who wants to "dig into" the code.

        It is a very narrow-minded view that thinks documentation should list the error messages that the code throws when problems occur and provide easily Google-able codes to search for an answer. A lot of the time, even this fails because (and I'm looking at Oracle here) the most

      • by plover (150551) * on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:44PM (#20134309) Homepage Journal

        Tech docs ... shouldn't be, read start-to-finish, any more than a dictionary should.

        Aha! So that's why I know so freakin' much about aardvarks, but jack sh!t about zebras.

  • by Control Group (105494) * on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:26PM (#20134085) Homepage
    There are two purposes to documentation: one is to serve as a reference. That is, when someone who is generally familiar with the system needs to know how to do a particular thing (be it design a cursor, add a command line switch, locate a config file, apply an update, or whatever), there needs to be a document that can be used to easily find that particular answer. This is the goal being striven towards (largely successfully) by man pages.

    The other purpose, however, is to make someone who is completely ignorant of the system familiar with it. Most software documentation is terrible at this. Telling me how to do something isn't helpful if I don't know why I'd want to - or, worse, don't even know that such a thing can be done.

    Since I haven't used a bad car analogy in a while: having a document that explains how to install a cold-air intake on my car is useless if I've never heard of a cold-air intake.

    What the lguest docs are trying to do is solve the latter problem. They're trying to take a system that someone doesn't know anything about (aside from just enough to be interested in it at all) and get that someone up to speed in a general way.

    "How" is a good question to answer, but so are "why" and "what." Gimmicky documentation isn't necessary or desirable for the first, but may very well be both for the second and third.
    • by plover (150551) *
      A good design document based on use cases can make a really good starting point for the "why" document. If a use case titled 'Load guest kernel' doesn't mean anything to you, you're probably not the target audience for the document, let alone the product itself.

      We had a guy spend months preparing a bunch of online courses that gave step by step instructions on how to click here, drool there, drag this and drop that for some source code management product. He gave complete details on how to click on the

      • Agreed - use cases are a good place to start. But I don't see any reason you can't make the use cases themselves somewhat more entertaining than a bland list of bullet points and screen shots. It's also helpful if the use case document goes into some detail (but not too much) about why you're performing each step, and the ramifications of doing things differently.

        Of course, that kind of documentation is hard to write. I'm certainly no good at it.
    • by Bamafan77 (565893) *

      The other purpose, however, is to make someone who is completely ignorant of the system familiar with it. Most software documentation is terrible at this. Telling me how to do something isn't helpful if I don't know why I'd want to - or, worse, don't even know that such a thing can be done.

      EXACTLY! I'd go so far as to say being the "best" software is less important than being able to communicate what your software does and why people should use it. Most "smart" programmers (or more accurately, they thi

  • How to make a more inviting Linux platform for endlessly creative application programmers?

    So far, the endless appeals to fix what you don't like in the OS are causing almost all curious application developers (both budding and experienced) to get up and walk away. I believe this is a larger factor than the MS monopoly/network effect, and that the success of Apple supports my view.
  • by ReverendLoki (663861) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:27PM (#20134111)

    Future Headline: Journalists try and mix humor, wit and puzzles in their writing in order to encourage /.ers to actually RTFA.

    Summary Result: A bunch of disappointed journalists.

  • I still think... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ItsLenny (1132387) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:28PM (#20134117) Homepage
    Wiki's make the best manuals

    when properly implemented

    clear, concise, to the point, easy to search ..

    and when new problems arise they're easy to add

    With this you'd have to add a whole new realm or player class just to tackle the issue and stay with the theme
  • This is painfully stupid in more ways than I could count. Stupid idea. Bad writing. Not even remotely entertaining or funny, even if you do know all of the uber-dork references.
  • Sometimes, the best ideas seem like bad ideas at the time. It is important that the creative people with these ideas continue with them, even if they are ridiculed. Otherwise, we would have missed out on some of the best inventions.

    That being said, intentionally making documentation more difficult is just stupid.
  • It was creative when James Joyce did it. Maybe. But throwing in all sorts of different styles, puns, mysteries and so on is a trivial act. It's not the equal to writing documentation so good it becomes definitive. It's more like being "creative" by being random, which ends up being cute but not really effective.

    If someone handed this documentation to me, I'd send them back to redo it. Not because I'm an enemy of creativity, if one even considered this mess creative, but because I'm thinking of the end user.
  • I found myself looking over it to what it was talking about even in the first paragraph
  • The article summary makes it sound like the kernel is superbly documented but nobody reads the documentation. That's a nice little myth.

    Hey Linus, do us all a favor: mandate that nobody can put an entry/option into the kernel configure system unless they write a help file entry for it, so that we can tell what the hell it does.

    It's incredibly annoying that a number of kernel config parameters have absolutely zero documentation aside from (if you're lucky) a semi-descriptive name...

  • by ravyne (858869) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:36PM (#20134211)
    There's something to be said for the humor/wit approach I think.

    My college physics instructor used the same approach in writing his weekly homework assignments. Essentially, the year's homework detailed the exploits of "Green Sarge" (A real-life version of those plastic soldiers you find at the dollar store) vs the "Beige Chumps" and, later, his arch nemesis -- the Fez-wearing, scimitar-wielding Evil Physics Monkey. Even if the students didn't start the homework immediately, they would always read it to see what Sarge's next exploits would be, and the problem would be in the back of their mind ready to consume any spare brain-cycles. The humorous problems also lead to a lot of impromptu discussion about the problem as well, just talking in the hall or over a lunch table. I think it went a great way towards getting the students to embrace their homework.

    [from (vague) memory]

    Q) At what velocity must the Evil Physics Monkey fire himself head-on into the Green Army supply train in order to stop it? The Train has a mass of 80,000kg and is traveling at 50km/h. The Evil Physics Monkey has a mass of 100kg. The EPM's scimitar has a mass of 15kg, recalculate the problem assuming that the EPM has carried his scimitar into battle with the Green Army supply train. Assume structural and soft-tissue damages are not a factor.
     
    • by Chris Burke (6130)
      Heh, nice. I had a prof who would do the same thing for his AI class homeworks. There wasn't some backstory behind it like with the Green Sarge and Evil Physics Monkey. Each homework though would have a theme and have problems that described the adventures of characters ranging from Marvin the Martian to Marvin the Depressed Robot. While the actual grunt work was just as boring, it was nice to get a few yuks out of a homework assignment when spending a late evening in the computer lab.

      Okay, so that isn'
    • by Cervantes (612861)

      Q) At what velocity must the Evil Physics Monkey fire himself head-on into the Green Army supply train in order to stop it? The Train has a mass of 80,000kg and is traveling at 50km/h. The Evil Physics Monkey has a mass of 100kg. The EPM's scimitar has a mass of 15kg, recalculate the problem assuming that the EPM has carried his scimitar into battle with the Green Army supply train. Assume structural and soft-tissue damages are not a factor.

      Well, the clear answer is 0.99C. After all, the question implies we want to stop the forward momentum of the supply train. It shouldn't matter if we cause a little reverse momentum too.

  • ummm, yeah (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:36PM (#20134221)
    So, you guys think that by making documentation that's already difficult to read even more difficult to read, that you'll get more people to read it? Can I have some of whatever you're smoking?
  • by Himring (646324) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:37PM (#20134235) Homepage Journal
    Will making documentation more entertaining actually work to get people to read it?

    The Germans thought so:

    http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2007/02/wwii-nazis -tank-manuals-unexpectedly.html [darkroastedblend.com]

  • it depends. By all means make it an interesting narrative. But don't expect the user to read the entire manual. Most people will use the manual as a reference, looking up only the section they need. The manual needs to be usable in this case as well.

    Puzzles I'd avoid. I had a few textbooks that introduced new concepts using puzzles. Math textbooks were particularly bad in this regard. Left me stumped on more than one occasion, which is bloody annoying.
  • by dgp (11045) on Monday August 06, 2007 @04:41PM (#20134265) Journal
    the king of off-beat technical documentation is Why's Poignant Guide to ruby [poignantguide.net].
    • by drew (2081)
      I'm not sure. It's been a while since I read either, but I think the original edition of "Programming Perl" (pink cover, if you can find it) probably tops it. There was an entire chapter devoted to Perl Poetry, and an example chapter where Job (of Biblical fame) used Perl and CTBCPP (Clay Tablet by Carrier Pigeon Protocol) to inventory his goods.

      On the other hand, 1st edition Programming Perl is so old (pre- Perl 5) that any information it contains is probably useless for anything other than entertainment
  • For documentation in general, I wish it could be targeted more to the likely reader.
    Just put a list of the skills required to understand the following documentation at the start, and concentrate on the issue.
    Short and brutal :)

  • If you expect your audience to be non-native speakers, you've got to be very careful with your language. Word play, slang, cultural terms (incl. sports metaphors, for example) are hard to translate and many non-native speakers won't understand what you're saying. This is an issue both when you're supplying just an English manual, and when you get a translator to create a localised version of the manual.
  • will making documentation more entertaining actually work to get people to read it?
    see: http://poignantguide.net/ruby/ [poignantguide.net]

    For fun? yes. For work? not really a choice there!
  • The last documentation I read needed a Z machine interpreter.
    Took me hours just to get through the maze.
  • Yes, but does it run Linux?
  • A lot of posters are complaining that the author has been to clever, that it won't help convince people to read the documentation, that people shouldn't have to search for it. These posters need to look more closely at the situation.

    Let's take a look for this super hidden documentation. Here's the opening, cleverly hidden as a comment as the very first thing in the file named lguest.c [kernel.org]. That seems a pretty freaking obvious place to put an introduction to the system. For all the article's spin, all the

  • ...It seems to be a sort of script which can output various comments and sourcecode lines in a certain order. I think the technical part is nicely done: in this way, you can get a neat walkthrough of how the code works with the up-to-date, real code interspersed with the documentation. For example: if the routine can use a certain macro, the script can be written to explain the macro directly from the header file in which is defined. That's nice, I always hated to look them up myself. (So, for the people wh
  • Anyone else remember The Fortran Coloring Book [gwu.edu] by Dr. Roger Kaufman back in the '70s?

    That was some entertaining documentation. Or rather, an entertaining tutorial.
  • If you're a technie trying to get the thing running, then no. Obviously we need to know the features, options, caveats, etc., both in a linear/chapter form (e.g. how to install and maintain system), and we need a good search system to find specific things in the documentation.

    If you're an end-user who's trying to learn to use the system, then the idea has potential. I know many techies are all about "read the f'ing manual" but seriously, many end-users won't bother even looking up the quick hint sheets, nev
  • Perhaps a manual is the wrong format for the information. Chunk it up into bite-size bits by topic and make it accessible from a command line instead of over there on the books shelf and you'll find Linux/Unix users reading the important bits. You'll find the manual/man pages grow in number because it's easier to write a three to four page chunk than an entire manual. So eventually it'll be like a Linux wikipedia in your distro with corrections and everything which are not really practical in an old style
  • It appears to be working... I mean, when was the last time you read an article that was written about product documentation?
    (Would this be considered meta-data?)

    -joel
  • ...documentation is simple and direct, common and consistent format that can also be used to apply at least examples (doing is half of learning process).

    Everyone knows how to use a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and can figure out specifics of more common but slightly varying document structures like catalogs, etc...

    The more common and consistent such a format is the faster people will pick up on what is communicated in the documentation.

    An old style common format is the unix man pages...as an example.

    Another
  • If the linux kernel had any up to date documentation at all... or even just comments.
  • Answer: Yes. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by richie2000 (159732) <rickard.olsson@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 07, 2007 @04:40AM (#20139469) Homepage Journal

    will making documentation more entertaining actually work to get people to read it?
    Yes. I tried this out with the TenFour TFS Gateway manuals back in 1998. When I added humour to virtually all examples given, support incidents clearly went down. In spite of this, I was ordered to take them back out since they could be perceived as being "un-serious".

    An example from the cc:Mail section:

    The TFS post office can not be used for addressing. Mail sent directly to the TFS (gatelink) post office
    without having been addressed to a routing post office will go to e-mail heaven immediately. It would
    not be delivered if you put 40,000 volts through it.
    This was a big problem. People constantly addressed e-mail to the gatelink PO and they went in the bit-bucket. When I added that snippet to the manual, these problems went way down for new installs. I worked in support as well as doing the docs, so I knew the incidence rates.

UNIX was half a billion (500000000) seconds old on Tue Nov 5 00:53:20 1985 GMT (measuring since the time(2) epoch). -- Andy Tannenbaum

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