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WTFM: Write the Freaking Manual 299

Posted by timothy
from the so-to-speak dept.
theodp writes "Blogger Floopsy complains that he would love to RTFM, but can't do so if no one will WTFM. 'You spend hours, days, months, perhaps years refining your masterpiece,' Floopsy laments to creators of otherwise excellent programming language, framework, and projects. 'It is an expression of your life's work, heart and soul. Why, then, would you shortchange yourself by providing poor or no documentation for the rest of us?' One problem with new program languages, a wise CS instructor of mine noted in the early look-Ma-no-documentation days of C++, is that their creators are not typically professional writers and shy away from the effort it takes to produce even less-than-satisfactory manuals. But without these early efforts, he explained, the language or technology may never gain enough traction for the Big Dogs like O'Reilly to come in and write the professional-caliber books that are necessary for truly widespread adoption. So, how important is quality documentation to you as a creator or potential user of new technologies? And how useful do you find the documentation that tech giants like Google (Go), Twitter (Bootstrap), Facebook (iOS 6 Facebook Integration), Microsoft (Windows Store apps), and Apple (Create Apps for IOS 6) produce to promote their nascent technologies? Is it useful on its own, or do you have to turn to other 'store-bought' documentation to really understand how to get things done?"
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WTFM: Write the Freaking Manual

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  • Whenever i get a response of RTFM most of the time its either
    1 WTFM first (or update it with the new changes)

    2 The Kama Sutra covers the subject better

    Challenge for the SlashMind locate a current (2.6*) copy of the Blender manual in PDF format.

  • Examples (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomhath (637240) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:22PM (#41508439)
    First provide some *working* examples. Then some real documentation (not Java Docs).
    • Re:Examples (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Gorath99 (746654) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:31PM (#41508823)

      And then keep both the examples and docs up to date, for god's sake! The only thing worse than no documentation is useless documentation.

    • Re:Examples (Score:4, Insightful)

      by cheesybagel (670288) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:54PM (#41508925)
      Actually if it is an API we are talking about Javadocs work great. Examples are also nice. Real documentation? If the API cannot be understood just by reading the Javadocs then You Are Doing It Wrong! The API sucks.
      • by aaron552 (1621603)

        In general, yes. But if you spend any time using larger APIs, examples of "how to do basic task X" become much more important. Examples of usage are a key part of any (large) API documentation.

        For example, if the method foobar() in class Foo does what I want, how am I supposed to find it? Especially if the library has hundreds of classes spread across multiple namespaces.

      • Re:Examples (Score:5, Insightful)

        by TheRaven64 (641858) on Monday October 01, 2012 @04:08AM (#41511213) Journal

        Javadoc / doxygen style documentation is great for understanding the details. It is terrible for giving an overview. Look at the Cocoa documentation, for example. If you get all of the Headerdoc (Apple's doxygen equivalent) documentation, it comes to about 8,000 pages. You really, really, don't want to have to read all of that to know how to use the APIs - most people can't keep that much detail in their heads anyway. You want a few high-level overview documents that you can read in their entirety and then refer to the API documentation for reference.

        For an open source example, look at LLVM. They have doxygen docs and they have some high-level subsystem docs (e.g. 'How to write an LLVM backend'). The bits that are the easiest to work with are the bits that have both.

  • In addition... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:24PM (#41508455)

    to WTFM, please oh please oh please stop writing flowery, circumlocutious prose.

    Succinct... Precise... Concise...

    Bullet points, short paragraphs, and simple descriptions are fine in most circumstances; this is not an expository writing project. I don't want to have to wade through your awful prose to decipher what the hell you're trying to say.

    If I want to read a fucking story, I'll read a novel.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:24PM (#41508459)

    Real programmers don't document. If it was hard to write, it should be hard to understand. :-)
    You youngsters always want things "explained" - geesh.

    Seriously, get your hands dirty and work for it.

    • Funny with a touch of truth, but it doesn't work so well in the world of multiple platforms and languages competing with each other for adoption. For instance, if am am the manger of a company writing a mobile app, and the iOS manual is clean and easy to read with no issue, and the Android manual is cryptic and would take gobs of trial & error to get working, iOS is language is the platform the app will be written for first and best, and we'll get around to the Android one later, if at all. I'm not sa
  • by xtal (49134) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:25PM (#41508461) Homepage

    I consider it no accident that the defacto standard language C (aka, "portable assembler") has a lot to do with not only it being the language of choice for UNIX, but the fact that it was accompanied by one of the masterpieces of programming documentation - "The C Programming Language" - By K&R, who most know also designed and developed the language itself.

    Your ideas are no good if they can't be communicated to others. Often, inability to communicate good ideas is more an indicator the ideas aren't that good, than the documentation is lacking.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by znigelz (2005916)
      I second this post. K&R is the evolution of the C specification, and some versions of C compilers were written entirely from the book itself. C++ was developed in 1979, but not released to the public until 1983 (the year I was born, coincidence? I think not). Bjarne Stroustrup worked for Bell labs. Bell kept the official documentation, "The C++ Programming Language", under wraps until 1985. Wow, two whole years (though I'm sure too long for some of your old wizards). It is without question the best meta
      • but his ideas were great, and no one can argue against it.

        There are plenty of people who can argue against the design choices in C++, and plenty of people who think his ideas don't translate very well into large scale maintainable systems. He's made a huge computer to computer science, but that does not mean he hasn't made a few mistakes along the way.

        No language is as dominant and most crucial to the world's infrastructure

        Only if you are one of those people who refuse to acknoweldge the existence of C.

      • by Longjmp (632577)
        I started programming in C mid 80s. K&R C that is. No type-checking etc, "lint" was your friend.
        Late 80's I read about C++ and there were two thoughts that came to my mind simultaneously:

        a) C++ is a wonderful language to write efficient, fast and comprehensive code.
        b) C++ is a wonderful language to write extremely bloated, slow and unmaintainable code.

        Take your pick.
        • by aaron552 (1621603)
          The two aren't mutually exclusive. For example, I've seen fast, yet bloated and unmaintainable C++.
    • by blade8086 (183911)

      Not to mention that UNIX's 1st 'official' funding at bell labs was to develop TYPESETTING applications for DOCUMENTS

      (see nroff - which is used to render man pages.. aka TFM of RTFM on a unix system)

    • by Ksevio (865461) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:44PM (#41509207) Homepage
      K&R was a great documentation in the days where it worked best to have a book next to the keyboard - Just the function reference saved me plenty of time. I'd say a more modern equivalent is with PHP. Sure the language isn't that great - it has all sorts of weird quirks and inconsistencies- but the documentation is exceptional. Almost all of the pages have a good description, an example, links to related functions, and a comment area where other people can extend it. There's no way PHP would have become as popular with documentation like Java
  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:27PM (#41508481)
    it doesn't exist. OK so a bad tagline but I've encountered so many devices, systems, etc. with no documentation. Now I can understand if someone throws together a contraption late at night, then have a few hours sleep, next morning they move on to their next gadget. However, I have little tolerance of people bragging of how great their thing is, everyone else's systems are inferior, etc, etc, etc but they have no paperwork. Or else they have tons and tons (but in PDF format to not cut down a huge forest) which basically is same as none existance because you will be dead of old age by the time you get through all that material. If they don't have much documentation then be honest about it. There are a lot of smart people that design and build neat stuff, their strengths are not in well written documents. That's when you bring in applications engineers and tech writers.
    • by fm6 (162816)

      It's a perfectly good tagline, one I've used myself many times. Though to be consistent,you should say "it don't exist".

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:30PM (#41508509) Homepage

    I once tried Inkscape and realized in disgust that the "manual" was a wiki.

    When I was working in aerospace, we would often write the manual first, then implement. This forces developers to deal with ugly problems cleanly, rather than having some elaborate after-the-fact explanation of how to work around some limitation.

    • by menno_h (2670089) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:37PM (#41508573) Homepage

      When I was working in aerospace, we would often write the manual first, then implement. This forces developers to deal with ugly problems cleanly, rather than having some elaborate after-the-fact explanation of how to work around some limitation.

      Also, this gives you a design plan that you can follow while coding.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      The problem is not when it's a wiki, but when there are only like 3 articles in it.

      • Oh, so horribly true. Especially when those three articles are incomplete, inaccurate, or years out of date.

    • by fm6 (162816)

      As a tech writer, I've been fighting a losing battle against the wiki-docs approach for years. Nobody seems to grasp that Wikis undo a couple decades of progress in writing well-structured, process-driven docs. Confluence even pushes its own wiki as docs tool. Needless to say, documentation is the weak point in Confluence's otherwise excellent products.

      The design-by-document approach just isn't going to fly in this age of minimalist organization and agile development.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by cheesybagel (670288)
        Wiki documentation can be great if the people editing the wiki aren't a bunch of morons. Make of that what you will.
      • by mdfst13 (664665)

        The design-by-document approach just isn't going to fly in this age of minimalist organization and agile development.

        There is no reason why you can't write the documents first in agile development. You just can't finish the documentation before starting coding. You can write documentation of the next set of code to be written before writing it. Agile mixes well with extreme, test first programming. Do the documentation the same way. Write a bit of documentation; write the tests that match it; write the code to make the tests work. Repeat until finished. At that time, you will have complete documentation, a test sui

      • by AntEater (16627)

        The design-by-document approach just isn't going to fly in this age of minimalist organization and agile development.

        That's really too bad. At this point in my life/career, I'd rather be doing documentation than slapping some junk together that will need to be fixed two times over once it is in the users' hands just because of someone's arbitrary deadline.

        Regarding the parent coment, I've seen way too many open source projects that use a wiki that is both very poorly structured and inadequately populated as a substitute for documentation/manual.

        • by fm6 (162816)

          I have an interesting relationship with Agile. Such projects tend to be reluctant to hire me as a tech writer. They look at my resume, full of experience at big, bureaucratic organizations like Sun, and also at my gray hairs, and assume I'll never adapt to their more informal methods.

          But in fact I find Agile pretty refreshing. I've sat through too many boring, endless meetings and seen too many projects fall victim to politics and Paralysis by Analysis not to see the merits of Agile. It's adaptive, it respo

      • Wikis are great as a communications tool between developers and documentation writers on an open source project. A lot of developers have English as a second language, so really don't want to be writing English documentation. Of the English speakers, many are not very good at writing informative documentation. Get them to stick their notes on a wiki, however, and you have an up-to-date reference for the docs team to work from.
    • by Tsu Dho Nimh (663417) <abacaxiNO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:28PM (#41509103)

      When I was working in aerospace, we would often write the manual first, then implement. This forces developers to deal with ugly problems cleanly, rather than having some elaborate after-the-fact explanation of how to work around some limitation.

      I used to get paid to WTFMs. If there was a good functional specification for the hardware or software, I could have the first draft done about the same time the early testing started, and much of it was lifted from the specs. You don't have to see it working to describe what it is supposed to do.

      If I had to WTFM for something with a bad spec or no spec, something that was being developed ad hoc ... it took a lot longer.

    • by dylan_- (1661)

      I once tried Inkscape and realized in disgust that the "manual" was a wiki.

      No, it's not. What gave you that idea?

      What you really need to try, though, are the Tutorials. They're under the Help menu and actually consist of SVG documents opened in a normal Inkscape window. It's simple yet brilliant -- when talking about a feature it simply suggests you try it there and then on that document. You should give it a try. Inkscape is an example of documentation done *right*!

  • by Kjella (173770) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:32PM (#41508519) Homepage

    The first assumption is that you're actually writing it for somebody else and not yourself. In many cases if you've scratched your own itch, then you're happy and any comments are notes to self, not documentation for others. The second assumption is that you could, that it's only a lack of willpower. To many people coding a piece of software makes the logic of it so apparently obvious that they don't understand why it needs documentation, at least not any that's useful to anyone with a black box understanding of the code. The third assumption is that they're not once bitten, twice shy from useless or even misleading documentation and just decided that the code is the ultimate truth of what the code does and don't want to make any external document that won't stay in sync.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:33PM (#41508525)

    I've met quite a few coders who are disdainful of documentation, citing many of the reasons that coders give for being disdainful of comments. - It gets out of date quickly, there's a good chance it doesn't match the actual behavior, etc. "If I want to know what's going on, I have to read the code anyway, so what's the point?" There's also a very slight alpha-hacker subtext, with the philosophy of "if you can't read code, you're not worthy enough to be using this program in the first place". As well as the "works for me" viewpoint - the coder who wrote it doesn't need any documentation to understand it, so why is it necessary?

    It's sometimes difficult to convince a coder that there are people out there who are competent, intelligent, successful people but who have no interest in plowing through 1000+ lines of code in order to find out which flag they should use to get .png output. To someone who gets a frisson of pleasure at deciphering a wall of obfuscated Perl, it's a foreign concept that there are people out there that have other things they'd rather be doing.

     

  • by russotto (537200) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:37PM (#41508571) Journal

    I wrote the fine code, YOU write the fine manual. Do I look like a tech writer? No, I do not. (They generally dress better but are more disheveled, which may have to do with the contents of their hip flask)

    • by fm6 (162816)

      Fine, I'll write your manual for you. Shall we discuss money?

      What, no money for docs? Never mind!

      • by rs79 (71822)

        Tell you what, write the manual and get a 90% refund on the price of the free software you're using.

        • by fm6 (162816)

          I was making a joke about the fact that commercial softwre projects rarely consider documentation a high priority. If you have an interesing Open Source project that needs a tech writer and dioesn't have the resources to pay one, I'd certainly consider donating a reasonable amount of my time.

    • Sure thing. However, before I start I'd better get completely familiar with your wonderful program in order to correctly explain it's operation, so I'll just have a good read of the manu... oh, wait...

  • by sandytaru (1158959) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:47PM (#41508607) Journal
    Former English and journalism majors, who are not always the best programmers but are very very good at explaining how a program works (or ought to work), should be inside every IT company and department on the planet. When I'm not monitoring servers (e.g. watching paint dry), which is my formal job description, I'm writing down everything from internal business processes to how-to installation guides on software for specific networks. My happy place is about fifty pages deep in a Word file.
    • by fm6 (162816) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:44PM (#41508879) Homepage Journal

      I'm appreciative of your positive comments about my profession, but you overstate the contribution of English and journalism types. There are indeed many good tech writers with that background, but there are also English types who drift into it because they can't get work doing anything else, and produce cruddy docs based on too-fancy prose styles and lack of serious interest in technology.

      Many good technical writers have technical backgrounds. I myself am a college dropout who wanted to be a computer scientist but didn't have the intellectual chops for it. Others I've known have been retooled scientists, humanities professors, and MBA types. The one constant is that you need the ability to explain complicated ideas simply (for which traditional training in writing doesn't always prepare you), a certain amount of simple curiousity, and the ability to ask the right "stupid" questions.

      BTW, anybody needs some APIs documented? User manuals? Installations guides? I get off my current assignment in about a month, If you have an interesing open-source project, I will consider donating some of my time.

      • by sandytaru (1158959) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:12PM (#41509017) Journal
        I actually started out a physics major in college, and drifted over into English because Honors Calculus II with Theory kicked my hiney. (All my own fault: I spent my labs spinning equations around the axis and looking at the pretty pictures instead of learning the math behind it.) Not all English majors are automatically technologically deficient, especially ones who opted for a rigorous science and technology curriculum for their electives. I somehow finished with a minor in botany, which did nothing to help me find a job but everything to help me understand lab science and its specialized jargon.
        • by fm6 (162816)

          Never said that all English majors are technically deficient. And even the majority that are sometimes make good tech writers. But I've known a lot of really bad tech writers who thought their English degrees qualified them to write about anything, There are mental skills in tech writing that are a lot more important than the ability to interpret the metaphors of William Faulkner.

    • Yeah whatever, I've read enough writing from technical writers to know that on average they suck.

      A good technical writer is worth his weight in gold. A bad technical writer is worse than just reading the header files/javadocs/whatever, and most are bad.
  • talk to your PC (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Simonetta (207550) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:50PM (#41508625)

    Get a simple microphone like the blue-tooth-like headsets. Beg, borrow, or steal a speech-to-text program. (there's one buried in newer versions of MS Word) Train it. (for the S2T program in Word, you read the first few chapters of 'The Wizard of Oz' from the display on the PC screen).
        Now open a text file for your speech to go into and the software (or whatever) that you are trying to document. Describe what is displayed on the screen. Pretend that there is a beautiful woman next to you who is totally fascinated in the smallest most exact details of your program, and is totally in love with the sound of your voice describing it to her. If this is too much of a stretch then put a picture of your favorite gorgeous actress next to your PC, stare into her eyes, and describe your program to her.
          When you have a long and detailed text file describing your software project, close it and attach it to your source. Do this even if it means putting the whole thing in one long comment block and pasting it to the end of your Main file.
        Ignore all sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar mistakes in the file. You'll go crazy trying to repair them and most of the people who be needing this documentation will be so happy to have *anything* that they will overlook all the sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar mistakes in the file.
        If you don't speak English well enough to make the speech-to-text comprehend your words then either get a native English speaker to do all the steps above or use a Speech-to-text program that works with your native language. (if there are no speech-to-text programs that works with your native language, quit your present job and form a company is that based solely on making and selling such a program. Make it open-source free and have some NGO or your local Ministry of Culture pick up the cost). The people who are going to be reading the documentation in order to understand your program will either use a PC-based language translation program on your text file or hire someone at minimum wage to read your file and to translate it into more-or-less English.

        Read everything written above and Just-eF'ing-Do-It. Don't tell anyone that you did it. Just slip your rambling text 'documentation' file into the final shipping product disk or Zip file and let it be your little secret.
        Believe me, everyone who buys or uses your software will be glad that you did this. If you get fired, then become a consultant and teach other companys how to do exactly the steps described above and make twice as much money that you were before at the dingbat cement-head company that fired you.
        Just do it. Remember, every major advance in computer science made in the past 30 years was at one time called 'the stupidest fucking thing that I've ever heard' by Bill Gates. Speaking documentation to your PC seems stupid, but it gets the docs created when nothing else seems to work quite as well.

    • by pnot (96038)

      That's a really interesting approach. Are there any examples of it in the wild? I'd be keen to see what one of these narratives looks like.

    • put a picture of your favorite gorgeous actress next to your PC, stare into her eyes, and describe your program to her.

      Yeah, I'm just worried that my documentation of... software might end up x-rated.

      (Though on a serious note, I've considered dictating before, and after your post I might actually just follow your advice and "Just do it.". Though I would try to correct the punctuation afterwards anyway.)

  • Three reasons (Score:4, Insightful)

    by griego (1108909) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @05:51PM (#41508635)

    I can think of three reasons why nobody WTFM:

    1. It's hard. Would you want to write a manual for Excel or 3ds Max? I wouldn't. Where to begin and how to organize it?
    2. It's time consuming. Software is bigger than ever, at least on the desktop.
    3. It's not sexy.

  • by Celarent Darii (1561999) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:01PM (#41508685)
    It is very rare for a good programmer to be also a good writer. Heck in any job it is rare to find someone with two good skill sets. Even with the two skill sets you often only have time to do something well. I would have to say though when then planets align and the good programmer is also a good writer, usually some sort of standard results from it, and lots of progress is made in the field. Also, some projects don't really warrant the time to make extensive documentation. I wrote tons of LISP code that never had much of documentation because it didn't really need it and simply got the job done. I'm sure many projects never get past the stage of documentation on a need to know basis.
    • by Misagon (1135)

      A programmer does not have to be a good writer, but a good programmer is a person who has good organizational skills, someone who can write lists of topics and subtopics that the documentation should include.
      A good programmer is also good at reading and spotting errors in code .. and in documentation.

      Therefore, a programmer could very well cooperate with a professional writer, where the writer does not have to be a good programmer:
      The programmer could start writing a terse, stilted documentation. The writer

    • It is very rare for a good programmer to be also a good writer.

      Maybe - but if the programmer does not write any description of what he has done, then someone who is a good writer has no chance at all. So: when you write the code, write (in English/...) what it is trying to achieve, why it is doing it and how it fits in with other code/programs.

      Even better: write the documentation first and then the code. There are times that I have done that, realised by trying to explain what it has to do that my spec was not quite right, fixed the spec and documentation - the code pr

  • Knuth's source for TeX and METAFONT does this (he created the technique to enable him to write the system).

    I've found (re)writing a program as a literate program results in a much cleaner representation of the code and algorithms and a clearer, more understandable manual.

    DEK has since written an entire book on the concept (_Literate Programming_ a CLSI series book) a decade ago, but one seldom sees source so provided.

    There are some really cool example programs which're quite interesting (and educational) to

  • Where's the money? (Score:4, Informative)

    by tommituura (1346233) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:12PM (#41508737)

    A cynical answer is that even if the language or framework author/project head was a technical writer worth his or her salt, it makes more sense to write a book and sell it. Because asking money for the language (compiler/interpreter+libraries) itself is not going to fly in the flooded market of programming languages unless it is really really good and only very few of them are actually that good. Maybe not even then, because the price tag of non-zero value is poison for easy availability which is a must if you want someone to look into your project or language on his or her free time. With frameworks you might get more leeway but not much, especially not if you count on having a hobbyist/hacker community to flourish. Of course, getting someone like O'Reilly to greenlight your book about your own virtually-unknown language or framework might prove to be tad difficult too... Of course, if you're someone like Apple or Facebook or Microsoft or Google who offer a platform with sizable userbase with monetization prospects, this isn't really a problem.

    And then there is the fact as noted in submission that writing a good manual takes a different skill set than designing and implementing a good programming language. If you don't have it, someone else has to take up that work if it's going to be of any use. And for that to happen, the language or project has to exist in some kind of usable, stable state long enough for those "outsiders" to actually study and learn how this thing actually works.

    Which brings me to the last point. The really good books about a given programming language or framework give also "learned in real world use" insights about the pitfalls, deficiencies and suggested "usecases to avoid and the usecases to strive for" of the language which might only be discovered afterwards. This also might or might not be easier for someone who is not intimately knowledgeable with the inner workings of the language or framework by the virtue of being the one who created it. You kind of become blind for the real merits and sore spots in your own work, so to speak.

    And fwiw, I actually have no problem with the idea of paying for a book to help me learn a language / framework I want to know how to use. I have even done that! I do, sometimes, lament the fact that online documentation is lacking because looking up things is usually easier on those than on dead tree (or PDF files simulating dead tree).

    I do share some of the sentiments of TFA though. Most infuriating is when there's a "quick and easy tutorial"... which also doesn't cover very much beyond the simplest of use cases and then theres a very terse api reference. And virtually nothing in between. At that point I usually ask myself "do I really have to / want to (+ have time to) learn this thing, and is there a good book on it?"

    • It's a catch-22... If you want people to understand your language then you'd better have a good, comprehensive (and preferably in book form) manual, but you won't make any money off that book and language until it becomes popular.
  • by Tanuki64 (989726) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:13PM (#41508743)

    I am a freelancer, I am doing what the customer pays me for. I also write open source software in my free time. You don't like it? I don't care. I don't do it for you. I write it for me. I don't need a manual for my own code. So why do I publish my code at all? Why not? Maybe it is useful for someone. I just don't feel any obligation to make it useful for anyone but me.

    • by techno-vampire (666512) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:10PM (#41509007) Homepage
      I just don't feel any obligation to make it useful for anyone but me.

      I'm sorry to say it, but if that's the way you feel, there's very little chance that anybody will ever get any use out of your code. Most people are only interested in using programs, not in fighting their way through the code trying to learn how to use it and for many people, if it doesn't come with instructions on how to get it working, it's not worth installing. At one time, that was mostly a Windows attitude, but there are more and more Linux users today who expect at least a little documentation, and as time goes on, their numbers are only going to grow.
  • by MarkvW (1037596) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:18PM (#41508771)

    I'd love to work on a manual for something I'm really interested in, like Blender, but I doubt that any developer would have the patience to teach me what he knows--all the while trusting that I am going to complete what I set out to do.

    It's a problem.

  • 3 page getting started guide, sell a 3 x £50 books instead of inculding a manual
  • I have come across many software projects where TFM is either a set of examples, none of which match what I am trying to do and lack sufficient explanation of the examples for them to be usefully extrapolated to other use cases, or a description of the syntax of the input files with no examples of how to use it (so the semantics of the input files are not explained).

    Both examples and explanation are needed.
  • And I'm not going to address the examples either. At least, not exactly. I use Google's Protocol Buffers in a project, and figured out how to use it from Google's documentation. Except I still haven't figure out how to use the ZeroCopy classes. The documentation is that bad. It's horrific. It exists, and tells you the first dozen things you need to know. Then it STOPS. And doesn't tell you anything else. I swear Google puts it up as a test. If you can figure out how to use it from their docs, you

    • We ordered a $2,000 Linux based backup server, which came with exactly 11 pages of setup documentation, most of which is screenshots. It included such gems as, "Now set up the network" and had a screenshot of the link to the networking page. Then it went on to the next section. While most of the fields on that page were self explanatory, there was no mention of the fact that only one NIC was supposed to be set up; the second is set up only if/when you need to run a virtual server as the backup, and not o
  • The forces that brought about written documentation were:

    1. Computer RAM too small to hold a document, lack of multitasking (in DOS days), and lack of screen resolution/real estate (even pre-dual monitor days, which was only 2-5 years ago).

    2. Release cycle of software was annual or longer, rather than automaticaly patched daily from the Internet.

    None of those is true any longer. Software should be self-explanitory. And if it's not, there is now an alternative:

    YouTube

    It's fairly simple to run a screen capt

    • by Psider (2734563)
      Ugh, I hate vids. They take sooooo long to get to the point. Give me a good doc I can scan to find just the bit I need. They do have a place, but they should NOT be the only form of documentation.
  • by Gadget_Guy (627405) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @06:45PM (#41508883)

    The problem isn't just with manuals. It starts with a website. As a programmer, you might rely on other people to write your documentation but those people will never even learn your product without knowing what the hell it does.

    I have lost track of the number of times that I have stumbled upon a project's website only to be confronted with a changelog rather than a description of the product. There have been some (mostly open source) programs where I have eventually left the site without ever finding out what the software was actually for.

    Every webpage should have a short statement of what the project is designed to do, along with what OS it runs on. You don't have to be a great tech writer to do it, just imagine what a complete newbie would want to see the first time they happen across your site.

    Don't assume that your audience are also programmers and you might just get people interested who can actually write your documentation for you.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:19PM (#41509055)

    We used to put older programmers out to pasture writing documentation. Despite their cranky "Get off my lawn!" disposition, they were very good at it, like grandfathers telling a story:

    "Children, let me tell you a story from a long time ago, in a far away place, about an associative array of function pointers . . . "

    But now we lay off the older programmers.

    And now we outsource the younger programmers, so they won't even get to be older programmers.

    So there's your documentation for you, right there.

  • by Zadaz (950521) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:23PM (#41509075)

    When I need to evaluate some new tech, be it an API, language, tool, or just about anything else, the first thing I look at is the documentation, after that I look at the community support. Because I know I'm going to get stuck at some point and I need to know that there will be a way out. Even if another tool will technically be a better fit for what I'm trying to do, I'll still give it a pass in favor of a tool that I know what it can and can't do.

    Not that good docs are easy, they're not. They take lots of time, even for bad ones, but if you want to see adoption you need docs that include usage examples. This is primarily why Open Hardware companies have been growing like crazy while Radio Shack stagnates. They don't just sell a 555 timer, they provide dozens of free tutorials showing all the cool shit you can make with it.

  • by SplashMyBandit (1543257) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:37PM (#41509161)

    Most developers hate writing technical documentation, and when they do they organize it poorly. I was trained in the "Information Mapping" school of tech writing that is based on the psychological aspects of learning and human working memory. The Information Mapping style has numerous benefits:

    • * the information you want to convey can be broken into seven types
    • * information 'chunked' into parts that are easy for the reader to digest
    • * documentation is designed that you can skip to the part you need without having read much of the rest of the documentation
    • * it is easy for the writer as they simply follow the information mapping process, you don't have to think too hard to start writing, unlike when you try to write without any structure, and
    • * the documentation that is produced has little prose, so is quick to relatively produce.

    Once you have the basics of Information Mapping then as you grow you get better at quickly structuring everything as well as writing examples and unambiguous sentences that can help your learners to avoid many pitfalls.

    So, I believe the premise of this thread is correct, many manuals either don't exist or are poor from a learning perspective. The most surprising thing I found when I learned Information Mapping (only takes a day to go through, since it is far easier than learning a programming language, and from then on it is just putting it in to practice) was how easy and effective it is. nb: I don't get kickbacks or anything from Info Mapping, it just happens to be the best and most time-efficient tech writing technique I've seen, so I hope me mentioning it helps someone else who wants to learn to be a great developer (which involves being a great communicator too).

    ps: info mapping is about structure and content selection, unfortunately it doesn't help with my typing or (lazy) proof-reading :)

    • Wow, you might want to work on writing sentences that don't put people to sleep. That was a hard post to read.
  • Almost every university has a technical writing department. Those students often need real-world projects for their classes.

    Call the professors and ask them if they would like some real-world software for their students to document.

  • by kilodelta (843627) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @07:45PM (#41509219) Homepage
    Documentation - I don't care where I've worked, it has always taken seat WAY in the back.

    So for anything I learned about the software we used I'd write up how-to guides. This got all the way up to the company president who asked how I did it. I told him that for anything I was learning about, I took notes and documented. If it was something I wrote, I made sure to comment, notes, and then create a quick guide for it.

    We can all write. You just need to take the time to do so.
    • At our work everything is documented. For every process we have at least 27 different documents, all inacurate or out of date in slightly different but important ways. And of course, they are impossible to find when you need them.

      Individually, I have managed to find a way around this mess with my own scripts: I just write a detailed usage description if the script is run without arguments, along with examples if the syntax is complex. Since the documentation is actually part of the script, it is always

      • by kilodelta (843627)
        Yeah - part of the reason I left that job was a new administration came in and decided documentation wasn't worth it. I voted with my feet.
  • by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @08:00PM (#41509279)

    Here's a simple list that will keep any unfortunate enough to have to read your "documentation" from tearing their hair out. (I'm looking at you, Microsoft!).

    1) Table of contents. Learn to love them.
    2) Guess what kids?! Not everyone has immediate access to an internet connection all the time, so no, your cute little wiki page won't cut it as documentation for anything.
    3) Index words. They require brains not automation.
    4) Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, discuss a function, property, or other programming language characteristic, no matter how obscure, without being more than ONE click away from a working code sample that demonstrates that function. Ever. Really. The concept is almost never the problem. Idiosyncratic syntax is.
    5) All code samples should be as simple as possible, demonstrating ONLY the behaviour of the function, property or feature under discussion. Embedding your single 2 lines of demonstration in 50 lines of irrelevance only proves you know how to cut and paste.
    6) Don't be lazy.

  • Programmers avoid writing documentation, because documentation is hard. They just got done working, working to write the program, and that was hard work. Now it is time to do the job all over again, in a different language: English. Someone may say the program was harder. I say, only slightly.

    As many have said before, good documentation summarizes not only what the program does, but why. The why part is new. You didn't have to program the why part, just the what part. The computer doesn't care why. So you d

  • ... is a "Hello, world" example and vi. Then get out of my way, punk.

  • Now, see, when I started screwing around with embedded Linux-based single-board computers, I had lots of questions and documentation was not aimed at the newbie. So, naturally, I asked a lot of questions. More often than not, my questions were answered by "did you try Google?" or more obnoxiously, "If I told you how to do X, you'd be standing on the shoulders of giants."

    Ironically, I find that even in cases where publishing a book for newbies can be justified, once you're past the newbie stage there is ra

  • I'm getting annoyed with video tutorials.

    More and more often, when I search for documentation, I get links to videos, mostly YouTube videos. At best, these are inefficient; if you really need to explain details of the GUI, you should be able to do it with a few screenshots, but videos involve someone who is almost certainly not a professional voice actor reading technical information aloud, in a format that is difficult to review or index, and doesn't allow for copy-and-paste of URLs or command lines.

    It's w

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