Category Archives: technical writing
As a technical writer, I’ve sometimes found it useful to write a short document describing an idea or a proposal. The target length for such a document is one page. Hence the name, one-pager. In some situations, a one-pager is a good alternative to a doc plan.
This post is about one-pagers used in the context of technical writing. In other contexts, a one-pager may be a pitch for a company or a student’s summary of a lecture.
Quip: An engineer pointed out that one of my one-pagers was technically a two-pager. (It was actually about one and a third pages long.) I responded that I could fix that by reducing the font size. 🙂
For me, the purpose of a one-pager is to express an idea and get input on the idea. For example, I’d write a one-pager when a doc plan would be too heavy-weight, but I want to get feedback before starting the documentation update.
A one-pager isn’t the place for a detailed design — that’d go in a doc plan or a design doc. (See my post about doc plans.) Rather, a one-pager is useful to coalesce my own thoughts about an idea, and to get feedback from my colleagues about the overall idea before I go ahead and implement it.
For example, I’d create a one-pager to propose one of the following:
- A new tutorial for a use case that we don’t yet cover in the documentation.
- A new type of tutorial that follows a different pattern from the other tutorials in the documentation set.
- A change of tone in a particular document or documentation set. I’d describe the tone of the current documentation, the effect that the tone is having on readers, the new tone that I’m proposing, and the reason for the change.
- An event, such as a doc sprint. I’d describe the purpose and format of the event in order to gauge support before plunging into further planning.
What does a one-pager look like? Well, firstly, it’s short and to the point. Because it’s so short, a one-pager often doesn’t include headings. My one-pagers tend to look like this:
Title (For example: One-pager: New tutorial type for Foo users)
Date and author
Goals: A business statement of the effect you want to achieve. (For example: customer retention, increased adoption, etc.)
A short, motivational callout, often in large text and a different style from the rest of the doc. (For example: We want to help customers use Foo when things go wrong.)
A succinct description of the idea or proposal. This is the main part of the one-pager. Start with a descriptive paragraph, followed by bullet points to capture the main points in your proposal. As well as being a useful short form, a bulleted list gives visual emphasis that this is the core of the one-pager.
In scope: Areas that are in scope for this proposal. If you don’t have anything to put here, leave out this section.
Out of scope: Any areas that are out of scope. The goal of this section is to ensure there are no misunderstandings between you and your stakeholders. If you don’t have anything to put here, leave out this section.
References: a list of relevant documents
Have you ever written a one-pager, or have you felt the need of such a document type in the past?
In a recent post about writing a doc plan or a design doc, I mentioned that it’s useful to conduct one or more walkthroughs of the doc plan or design doc before sending it out for review. Here are some tips on conducting a walkthrough.
During an in-person walkthrough, you can iron out potential misunderstandings. People can ask you questions, and you can get immediate feedback from people who may not find the time to review the doc in detail.
In other words, a walkthrough can help clear away the cobwebs! I took this photo recently while walking on a bush path.
Inviting people to a walkthrough
The first step is to decide who should attend your walkthrough. If you have the luxury of working with other technical writers, it’s useful to walk through the doc plan with one or more of them first. They’ll point out inconsistencies, missing pieces, and unclear sections for you, and help you crystalise your own understanding of the problem that your design is solving and iron out any wrinkles in the design.
Give yourself time to incorporate feedback from the technical writers before holding the next meeting.
Next up, invite your key stakeholders to another walkthrough. These people should be the ones who can give you input on the problem and on your design. For example, your product manager and the engineers responsible for the area of the system that your documentation will cover.
Schedule at least a full hour for the walkthrough. The time will shoot past once everyone starts discussing the use cases and design.
In the invitation, provide the link to your doc plan, but don’t expect people to read the doc plan before the meeting. Some of them may look at it, but you should assume that no-one has seen it properly.
Running the walkthrough
Your goal for the walkthrough is to ensure that people understand what you mean to convey in the doc plan. Until you’ve run the walkthrough, you can’t be sure that what people will get from reading the doc plan matches what you intended to say.
I’ve found the following format useful for a walkthrough of a doc plan:
- Start by explaining purpose of meeting: to give the attendees an overview of the doc plan and the design that it proposes, and to gather preliminary feedback. Let the attendees know that you’ll send the doc plan out for detailed review after the walkthrough.
- Describe the context of the doc plan: the problem that you’re looking to solve, and the customers who form your target audience.
- Show the outline (table of contents) of the doc plan, so that your attendees know the scope of the doc.
- If the doc plan is very long, decide beforehand which sections you’ll walk through in person. Often, the diagrams (user flow and information architecture) are most useful sections to cover in person. Also make sure you cover the timeline for delivery of the documentation.
- Actively solicit feedback at all stages of the meeting.
- Make copious notes, either as comments in the doc plan or in a separate document, during the meeting. Do this note taking yourself — don’t rely on others. Your attendees won’t mind your making notes, as it shows that you care about their feedback. Other note takers don’t have the depth of context that you have, and they may miss important items.
- After you’ve walked through the sections of the doc plan that you intend to cover, make sure you sit back, relax, and give everyone time to think about the bigger picture. Often the most useful feedback comes at this stage, when people know they’ve seen all that you want to show them, and they can think independently.
After the walkthrough
Update the doc plan to incorporate the feedback that you’ve received. If necessary, change your design to match your new understanding.
Finally, send the doc plan out for review, by email or using whatever channel your organisation uses for this type of review. Make sure you send it to all the people who attended your walkthroughs, as well as to other stakeholders and team members.
For a while, I’ve been thinking about the joys and pains of writing documentation plans (doc plans). It takes a long time to write a doc plan and get it approved. It’s time that you could spend writing the real docs — that is, the user guides, developer guides, API guides, and so on, that constitute our bread and butter as technical writers. Are doc plans worth the time we spend on them?
After careful thought, my conclusion is this:
In many cases, a doc plan does more than define the docs that need to be produced. The doc plan fine-tunes the engineering team’s goals for and design of the product itself. Sometimes, indeed, the doc plan represents the first time anyone has attempted to present a coherent picture of the product’s customers and their needs.
Hint: If your reviewers and approvers are primarily engineers, think about referring to your doc plan as a design doc instead of a doc plan. Engineers know the design doc pattern. They know the purpose of a design doc, and how to review it. This familiarity will make them more comfortable when reviewing your doc plan, and could therefore result in more useful and appropriate feedback.
How do you write a doc plan?
The first steps for writing a doc plan are the same as those for any other document:
Define the purpose and audience of the doc.
Before you start, think carefully about your goals. What you want to get out of the doc plan? What do you want your stakeholders to understand and approve?
If you can’t answer these questions, then maybe you don’t need a doc plan at all. Instead, would it be enough to jump straight into the documentation update and rely on the review and approval process for the documentation itself?
Writing a doc plan should be a purposeful and therefore enjoyable part of your tech writing process. You should feel excited about getting a good, clear decision and about honing your understanding of the problem that your documentation will solve. You should also feel excited about explaining your proposed solution to your stakeholders. If the process of writing the doc plan feels like a nuisance, then the process probably needs changing.
Here’s a summary of how to go about writing a doc plan. The process will probably look familiar, because it’s similar to writing other types of documentation:
- Define the purpose of and audience for your doc plan. I discussed this in detail in the paragraphs above, and it’s worth repeating here.
- Gather requirements by reading related docs and specifications.
- Talk to stakeholders, subject matter experts, and your own team.
- Scribble diagrams to cultivate your own understanding of the requirements. These diagrams will most likely be user flows that show how people will complete one or more tasks using the product that you’re documenting. Don’t throw these diagrams away! They may be useful in your doc plan.
- Scribble more diagrams to cultivate your proposed solution. These diagrams will most likely be conceptual illustrations of the information architecture in your documentation site, and user flows showing how people will find and read information in the documentation. Hang on to these diagrams too. They’ll almost certainly be a useful part of your doc plan.
- Plan the docs that you need, down to the page level, based on the above diagrams. Be aware that the detailed design is likely to change when you start building the docs. At this stage, the page-level detail is useful for estimating the amount of time required to complete the documentation update.
- Put it all together as a doc plan. The next section has some guidance on what’s in a doc plan.
What’s in a doc plan?
What you put in your doc plan depends on what you want to get out of it. As discussed in the previous section, think about your goals for writing the doc plan. Those goals determine what you’ll include and what you’ll leave out.
Your organization probably has a template or two for doc plans. The internet offers some templates too. I’ve linked to a few templates and examples at the bottom of this post. In my experience, templates are useful as a starting point, but I almost always remove some sections and add others of my own, based on what I need for each particular doc plan.
Here are some useful sections to include in a doc plan:
- Title (for example: ProductFoo doc plan, or Doc plan for migration from Foo to Bar)
- Summary of the purpose of the doc plan (very short, just one or two sentences)
- Other metadata:
- Status (draft, under review, approved, etc)
- Date created
- Reviewers and approvers
- Other items that are specific to your environment, such as a short link to the doc plan, your team name, etc
- Introduction (context, including a reference to existing documentation if you’re proposing and update to an existing site, the project or product that the documentation applies to, and other background information)
- Goals and non-goals (a clear description of what you want the documentation updates to achieve, the scope of the documentation updates, and what’s out of scope)
- Use cases (also known as user flows; diagrams are useful here)
- Detailed design for each use case
- Structure of the documentation site (information architecture; diagrams are useful here)
- Description of the content required, down to the level of a page (deliverables)
- Implementation phases and timeline (estimates of when the content will be ready for publication, based on an assumed level of staffing)
- Measuring the results (metrics, user studies, and other ways of determining the effect of the documentation delivered)
- Dependencies and related projects
I’ve highlighted in bold the sections where we as tech writers may feel most comfortable and most excited. These are the sections most closely related to the design and creation of the documentation. Yet the other parts of the doc plan are equally important. In fact, they’re key to getting buy-in from our stakeholders.
How comprehensive does the doc plan need to be?
There’s a lot of other information that could go into a doc plan. For example:
- Risks, including assessment of potential impact and mitigation
- A detailed staffing plan (the writer(s) who’ll create the documentation)
- Alternative designs that you’ve considered and discarded
- A plan for translation/localisation of the content
- A log of updates that you’ve made to the doc plan
My recommendation is:
Include only what you need. If you’re not sure, cut it out.
If you’re starting from a template, remove sections that are not relevant. Keep your doc plan lean and mean. This will make for a faster review and approval process. People will feel happier about giving feedback on and signing off something that they understand. If there’s too much content, much of it irrelevant, people will lose track of, and lose confidence in, the bits that are important.
The resulting design, after you’ve incorporated people’s feedback, will be stronger.
What happens after you’ve drafted your doc plan?
After creating the first draft of the doc plan, the goal is to get other people to look at it and give you feedback. This feedback is essential, as it ensures that your understanding of the requirements is correct, and that the documentation that you’ll build will in fact satisfy the requirements.
I’ve found the following strategies useful:
- Walk through the doc plan with another tech writer, if possible.
- Walk through the doc plan with your stakeholders. I’ve found that an in-person walkthrough is very helpful, rather than immediately sending the doc plan out for review through email or other asynchronous means. During the walkthrough, you can iron out potential misunderstandings. People can ask you questions, and you can get immediate feedback from people who may not find the time to review the doc plan in detail.
- Incorporate any feedback from the walkthroughs.
- Send the doc plan out for review. Include the people who attended the in-person walkthroughs and all other relevant stakeholders. Set a deadline for review comments. A week is usually a good amount of time.
- Incorporate feedback from the review.
- Send the updated doc plan out again, and let people know you’re asking for approval. Give a deadline for the approval.
- Prod people until you have the approval you need.
Now you can start the most exciting phase of all: creating or updating the documentation!
Do you need to keep your doc plan up to date after the documentation is published?
After you’ve published the documentation, do you need to ensure that your doc plan stays in line with further updates? The answer depends on the processes in your specific business environment, but in general I’d say no. A doc plan does have value after the updates are done and dusted, as it shows the reason for the update and the overall design. In most situations, however, a doc plan is an artefact of the consultation, design, and review period of the documentation update. There’s no need to continue updating the plan after the documentation is published. The documentation site itself is the source of truth for current information about the documentation design.
Here are a few examples of doc plans provided by various people or groups:
Do you have any examples of, or templates for, doc plans?
Since publishing this post, I’ve written a couple of related posts:
Google has published a few technical writing classes, which are available for people to attend and/or teach. I’ll be running one of the classes next week, at a time that’s convenient for the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. If you’re an engineer or software developer who wants to improve your technical writing skills, then this course is designed for you. The course is also useful for technical writers and others who want to brush up their tech writing skills and/or tech the class at a future date.
The dates and times of all upcoming classes are published on the Google Developers Technical Writing site. The classes are run by various people, including Googlers and others.
Here are the details of the class that I’m running:
Class title: Technical Writing One
Date: Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Time: 8:30am – 11:00am IST (India Standard Time: UTC +5.30)
11:00am – 13:30pm SGT (Singapore Time: UTC +8)
14:00pm – 16:30pm AEDT (Australian Eastern Daylight Time: UTC +11)
Meeting link: Click to join class
Class format: Instructor led, online, free of charge. Participants work with partners (online) on the class exercises.
Prework: Read the pre-class material.
The Tech Writing One course was developed by technical writers at Google to train engineers and others in the principles of effective technical writing. It’s fun and interactive. The combination of pre-class reading followed by in-class exercises and discussions works well to help the participants retain what they’ve learned.
To join the class, click the above link at the time of the class. I hope to see you there! If you’d like to let me know you’re coming, feel free to add a comment to this blog post.
Soothing Musings with Sarah is a new way of communicating for me. Using a blend of beauty, information, and story-telling, my goal is to share a sense of calm in a few short minutes. This post describes where the idea came from and introduces the latest musing, called The Humble Mushroom. I hope you enjoy the post and the musing.
It all started from a realisation that walking in the Australian bush is, for me, a very soothing experience. I see the creatures carrying on their lives, short though those lives may be, as if there’s no need to worry about tomorrow. Birds and reptiles and animals, wild and beautiful, go about their business around me, accepting me as part of their world.
Every little sound is an indication of life. It’s a possum nibbling a leaf, or a parrot gnawing at a seed pod, or a branch rubbing against a tree trunk. Swamp wallabies bound-pound away then turn to examine me, ears and paws raised. An echidna hides its nose under a bush, convinced I can’t see the rest of its body, then peers out when I’ve been quiet for a couple of minutes and bumbles over to investigate my feet. A lace monitor lizard, longer than I am tall, waddles across my path then climbs a tree, tasting the air with flickering tongue.
In the early morning, all the creatures are out and about. In the middle of the hot day, the bush is quiet while everyone rests. When rain threatens, the cockatoos scold the universe with glee. Day turns to night, ushering in the Tawny Frogmouths and the shy bandicoots.
Life goes on. For me, it’s the comfort of the inevitable.
I wanted to find a way to capture and share the feeling of calm that I get as soon as I walk onto a bush path. One day, someone asked me to put together a lightning talk. on a topic of my choice. I thought, perhaps I could do a talk that was short on words and high in atmosphere. A soupçon of information, some beautiful images, and a ton of calm.
And thus Soothing Musings with Sarah was born. By design, each musing is just a few minutes long.
The humble mushroom, with music by Philip Horwitz
Now, I’m delighted to share the latest musing, The humble mushroom. This musing includes a gorgeous musical interlude by Philip Horwitz.
Over the course of a few months recently, I wandered through the forests and woodlands near my home, eyes on the undergrowth, looking for fungus. I was amazed at how many different kinds of mushrooms I found and how beautiful they are. All the photos in The humble mushroom are from a tiny area of Australia.
Click the image below, sit back, listen to some stories about mushrooms, then relax into the musical interlude.
For those who want to experiment
Would you like to put something similar together? This communication style may even be useful for some types of technical documentation. I recently wrote some guidelines on how to record yourself in a webcam view and show a presentation at the same time.