This is a very interesting question: Should we, as technical writers, allow comments on our documentation pages? It’s interesting because it’s a multi-faceted question, and because people have such strong feelings about it. My quick answer is, “Yes”. Ha ha, but there’s always a “but” or two. Read on, and then I’d love to know what you think.
I’m a technical writer at a company called Atlassian. We write all our product documentation on a wiki. For example, here is the Confluence user’s guide. What’s more, we have configured the wiki permissions to allow anyone to add comments to the pages. (We also allow known contributors to update the pages – but that’s another story.) Every now and then, the question comes up for debate again: Is it a good thing to allow comments on the pages? Up to now, we have decided each time to keep the comments. (Well, except for the developer documentation. More below.)
We could rephrase the question like this:
Should we ask for feedback on the documentation? If so, are comments the best way of getting that feedback?
Or like this:
Should we allow everyone to comment on the documentation, or just known people?
What benefits do our customers get from being able to add and read comments on the documentation?
What benefits do we, as technical writers, get from the comments people add? And do we suffer any pain?
What benefits does the organization get from allowing people to add comments to the documentation?
And so on.
Examples of comments
On the Atlassian product documentation, we allow everyone to add comments. Even people who have not logged in to the wiki – their comments are recorded as “anonymous”.
Some comments are very relevant to the documentation itself. For example, the comments on this page about supported platforms in the Confluence administrator’s guide:
Other comments can be requests for help, or suggestions for new features or improvements in the product. Often a reader will add some information that will be useful to other readers. This one is on the page about configuring Tomcat’s URI encoding:
Advantages of allowing comments
A quick list:
- People tell us about errors or gaps in the documentation.
- People use the documentation as a tool to help each other.
- We learn about new ways that people are using our products, and sometimes even about new ways that they want to use the documentation.
- The documentation becomes an active hub of interesting information. Readers receive notifications when other people add comments, and so keep coming back to the documentation to see the latest. The documentation sticks in their minds as a good place to find what they need.
Disadvantages of allowing comments
Another quick list:
- Comments can make a page hard to read, if there are too many of them.
- People may add worthless comments, spam, or even nuisance comments.
- It is time-consuming, if not impossible, to respond to all the comments.
- It is time-consuming, if not impossible, to clean up the comments when they are no longer needed. (But we could automate this.)
Please add a comment 😉 to this blog post, telling me what I’ve missed in these two lists.
No more comments on the developer documentation
A few months ago, we moved all of the developer documentation to a different wiki, the Atlassian Developers site. By “developer documentation”, I mean the API reference guides, the plugin development tutorials, and all the stuff related to developing add-ons and extensions for our products.
The developer documentation is still on a wiki. In fact, it’s a Confluence wiki just like the product documentation. But we have customised the look and feel, and added some plugins. The thing to note, from the point of view of this post, is that we have turned off the page comments. Instead, there are two panels at the bottom of each page:
The “Atlassian Answers” panel shows a list of posts drawn from a discussion forum called Atlassian Answers. The panel is supplied by a plugin for the wiki that hosts the documentation. The plugin matches the labels on the documentation pages to the tags on the discussion forum. The matching process is not perfect. In particular, labels and tags are not the most reliable way of matching content from a discussion forum and a documentation site. We plan to improve this, by a smarter matching of page titles and content.
The “feedback” panel is supplied by another plugin. When a person clicks “Yes”, “Somewhat” or “No”, a dialog appears where they can give us more information. The plugin posts an email containing that feedback, which in turn triggers the creation of an issue on our JIRA issue tracker. The technical writers and developer relations team can then assess and react to the feedback.
Comparing comments and feedback forms
An advantage of comments over feedback forms is that readers can see and respond to each other’s comments. People can benefit from the advice of other readers. They can hold a conversation and help each other solve problems, quite independently of the documentation authors.
Comparing comments and discussion forums
An advantage that comments have over discussion forums is that the comments are right there on the relevant page. People do not need to go looking for them on a separate discussion site. The information in the comments complements what is on the page.
On the other hand, a discussion forum is in itself a repository of information. I guess, as a technical writer, I’d like to keep people’s attention on the documentation. I’d prefer it if the docs did not become a dead site, for reference only.
But what serves the customer better?
What do you think?
Heh heh, it’s a complex question. And now let me add this specific question to the list: Would you cry if we removed the ability to comment on the Atlassian documentation in particular? (This is just a general question. There are no definite plans at the moment to remove commenting.)
Let the comments begin. 🙂
A tweet from Pamela Fox tweaked my curiosity. She mentioned KISSinsights as a good tool for getting readers’ feedback on documentation. It looks pretty neat. I’m wondering what other, similar tools are available and whether technical writers have much experience with them.
A number of platforms offer inbuilt tools for getting readers’ feedback. Confluence offers comments and various feedback and rating plugins. Mindtouch and RoboHelp have their own feedback mechanisms, as do other platforms.
But I’m interested in external tools where you can craft a feedback form and then embed it into your documentation. KISSinsights is the tool mentioned by Pamela Fox. Once installed on your site, KISSinsights pops up a panel from the bottom of your page, asking the reader some questions. If you pay for a licence you can customise the questions, otherwise you get the questions that come with a standard KISSinsights installation. The KISSinsights FAQ page is pretty good.
Another example is Wufoo, recently acquired by SurveyMonkey. You can build a form on Wufoo and then grab the HTML to embed into your page. When readers fill in the form, the information is stored in the Wufoo database and you can extract the results from there.
Does anyone have good or bad experiences with these and other tools?