What does Stack Overflow’s new documentation feature mean for tech writing?

Stack Overflow has recently announced the public beta release of its new documentation feature. That is, Stack Overflow now provides a platform for crowd-sourced documentation relating to any number of products, for the people, by the people.

For those of us managing the docs for widely-used products in particular, this means our customers may soon have access to an alternative, crowd-sourced documentation set.

What an awesome experiment for us as technical writers to follow! We’ll be able to see at first hand what our customers know they need, in terms of information about our products. Because this is Stack Overflow, the documented products are likely to be APIs, SDKs, and other developer-focused tools and technologies.

What if the documentation on Stack Overflow turns out to be voluminous and extremely useful – where would that leave us as technical writers working on proprietary doc sets? I think it will give us the opportunity to streamline our content, focusing even more than we do now on ensuring our information is up to date, and that our information architecture is the best we can make it.

In other words, we can ensure our target audiences can find what they need, even when they don’t know yet what that is.

Technical writing is hard. Information architecture is hard. The Q&A side of Stack Overflow works extremely well, because it focuses on short snippets of content that answer a particular question. It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how well the new documentation feature works, with the more narrative demands of technical documentation.

An issue I foresee is that people will be tempted to kick off a topic, and then tire half way through and end up providing a link to the official documentation. Is that a bad thing? Tech writing know-how says our readers find it disconcerting to have to click around to find their information. It’s OK in a Q&A format, but not so good in a tutorial or step-by-step guide.

I really like Stack Overflow’s focus on sample-driven documentation!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this development. Where do you think it’ll go within the next few months, and how about within the next two years? Will it fizzle into nothingness, or explode into something huge and beautiful? Will the original Q&A form of Stack Overflow merge into the new documentation form, becoming something new?

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 22 July 2016, in APIs, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. This definitely won’t be fizzling. It will explode, but hopefully it can avoid turning into a total wasteland. It will be interesting to watch how the organization of the site changes, because it is currently without any sort of TOC or other traditional form of navigation. That’s probably a great thing, because it could lead to a very novel way of structuring things.

    • Hallo David, That’s a very good point. I’m interested in the information architecture too, and on a related note, how well Stack Overflow will reward people who organise existing content, as opposed to creating new topics.

  2. Hi, Sarah. I love your enthusiasm, and I agree with David that this probably won’t fizzle. If it does fizzle it’ll because of limited findability: David alluded to TOCs and traditional navigation, but search will play a big role as well. Not only do technical writers have an opportunity to create and aggregate great content, we also have an opportunity to tackle and overcome the problem of findability.

  3. Sarah,

    This appears mid-way through the link you provided to the announcement and kind of sums up the whole platform very accurately “It’s need-driven and self-healing. The best, most diligent technical writer out there still can’t beat thousands of actual users trying to learn a function or concept while writing real code. They’ll determine what topics or examples are needed most. And whenever something fails to explain something clearly, they can ask for it to be improved.”

    Now, only if we could get some companies to look at their documentation in this fashion consistently.


    • Hallo Swapnil
      That’s a great quote! I think, for us as technical writers, the docs on Stack Overflow will be a great resource for exactly that reason: a few tech writers in a company can’t hope to match the thousands of actual users picking what they need. We use all sorts of things to find out what our customers need, and the docs on Stack Overflow may become another valuable resource to that aim.

  4. Tamsin Douglas

    Have you seen Cheatography? Another venue for documentation created by self-professed SMEs on particular topics: https://www.cheatography.com/explore/popular/

  1. Pingback: Information architecture of Stack Overflow’s documentation feature | ffeathers

  2. Pingback: Stack Overflow’s documentation should be called samples | ffeathers

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