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Writing a one-pager to pitch a doc idea

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?

How to conduct a walkthrough of a doc plan or design doc

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.

The power of a doc plan or design doc

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:

Doc plans are a technical writer’s power tool. We use them to craft a shared understanding between ourselves and our stakeholders. What’s more, as technical writers, we’re well qualified to write an excellent doc plan.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Gather requirements by reading related docs and specifications.
  3. Talk to stakeholders, subject matter experts, and your own team.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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)
  • Author
  • 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:

  1. Walk through the doc plan with another tech writer, if possible.
  2. 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.
  3. Incorporate any feedback from the walkthroughs.
  4. 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.
  5. Incorporate feedback from the review.
  6. Send the updated doc plan out again, and let people know you’re asking for approval. Give a deadline for the approval.
  7. 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.

Examples

Here are a few examples of doc plans provided by various people or groups:

Any more?

Do you have any examples of, or templates for, doc plans?

Related posts

Since publishing this post, I’ve written a couple of related posts:

What is Git cherry picking and how do you use it?

“Cherry pick a commit”. I’ve heard the phrase often. It sounds kind of endearing, yet scarily technical at the same time. What is cherry picking and why would you want to do it? One fine day I found that I needed it, and suddenly I appreciated the what and the why. So I figured out the how. I hope this post will help you towards the same understanding.

Here’s the scenario: I’d applied a change to the latest version of the Kubeflow docs. Specifically, the change added a banner and associated logic to inform readers if they’re reading an archived version of the docs. Now I needed to copy the same banner and logic to the older (archived) versions of the docs.

More details of the scenario

The screenshot below shows the banner that I wanted to add to all the archived versions of the docs:

The way we store archived versions of the Kubeflow docs is to make a branch of the current version (that is, a branch from the master). For example, here’s v0.6 of the docs, for which the source is in this branch on GitHub. The master branch contains the current version of the docs.

I’d added the banner and accompanying logic to the master branch in this pull request (PR). Now I needed to copy the code to all the archived branches. I didn’t want to have to copy/paste all my changes into the relevant files in every affected branch.

Enter cherry picking.

Picking sweet cherries

It’s useful to know that, when you’re using GitHub, cherry picking a commit is equivalent to cherry-picking a PR. GitHub squashes all the commits in a PR into a single commit when merging the PR into the code base.

What does a cherry-picked PR look like? No different from any other PR. It’s a collection of changes that you want to make, pointing to the branch on which you want to make them. For example, PR #1550 is a cherry pick of PR #1535, with a few extra changes added after cherry picking.

Below are the steps that I figured out to prepare and do the cherry picking. One thing to note in particular is that I had to do something different if my fork of the repository already contained a copy of the branch into which I intended to cherry pick.

The first step is to check out the master branch, which contains the updates that I want to copy to the archive branches:

git checkout master

Make sure my local working directory is up to date, by pulling all content from the remote master branch. (I’m working on a fork of the Kubeflow website repository. The convention is to give the name upstream to the repository from which you forked.)

git pull upstream master

Get a log of commits made to the master branch, to find the commit that I want to cherry pick:

git log upstream/master

A commit name consists of a long string of letters and numbers. Let’s say that I need the commit named e895a107edba5e68cc0e36fa3a05a687e806cc19.

Check to see which branches I have locally:

git branch -v

Also check my fork on GitHub to see which branches I already have there.

Now I’m ready to prepare the first archived branch for cherry picking. Let’s say I start with the version 0.6 branch of the docs, named v0.6-branch. If I don’t already have the branch on my fork, I need to get a copy of the branch from the remote master, and then push that copy up to my fork, so that I have a clean slate to apply the cherry pick to. So, I pull the branch down to my local working directory then push it up to my fork. In this example, the branch name is v0.6-branch:

git checkout master
git pull upstream v0.6-branch:v0.6-branch
git checkout v0.6-branch
git push origin v0.6-branch

(I’m working on a fork of the Kubeflow website repository. By default, the name of your fork of the repository is origin.)

In the cases where I do already have the branch on my fork, I need to copy the branch from my fork down to my local working directory, check that the branch is up to date by fetching updates from the main repository, then push the branch back up to my fork. In this example, the branch name is v0.5-branch:

git fetch origin v0.5-branch:v0.5-branch
git checkout v0.5-branch
git status
git fetch upstream v0.5-branch
git push origin v0.5-branch

Now I’m ready to cherry pick the changes I need. Remember, I’m cherry picking from master into an archive branch. Let’s say I want to cherry pick into the v0.6-branch:

git checkout v0.6-branch
git cherry-pick e895a107edba5e68cc0e36fa3a05a687e806cc19

The long string of letters and numbers is the name of the commit, which I obtained earlier by running git log.

The changes are now in my local copy of the branch. I can make extra changes if I want to. (For example, in my case I needed to update some metadata that relates specifically to the branch, including an archive flag used in the logic that determines whether to display the banner on the doc pages.)

When I’m happy with the cherry-picked updates and any other changes I’ve made, I push the updated branch up to my fork:

git push origin v0.6-branch

Then I create a PR and specify the base branch to be the name of the branch into which I’m cherry picking the changes. In the case of the above example, the base branch should be “v0.6-branch”. The screenshot below shows the base option, currently pointing to “master”, on the GitHub UI when creating a PR:

Can the cherries turn sour?

In the above scenario, I used cherry picking to apply a change going backwards in time. The requirement was to apply an update to older versions of the docs, which as a rule we don’t update very often. I didn’t cherry pick from a feature branch into the master branch. There are plenty of warnings on the web about things that could go wrong when you cherry pick. I found this post by Rob Friesel helpful in providing context in a non-scary way.

How did I make the banner itself?

That’s another story. 🙂

How to add a banner to website pages using Hugo

A while back, I needed to display a banner on every page of a documentation website. Furthermore, I wanted the banner to appear only under specific conditions. We use Hugo as the static site generator for the website. Here’s what I figured out, using Hugo templates.

I wanted to add a banner to the archived versions of the Kubeflow documentation, such as v0.7 and v0.6, letting readers know that they’re viewing an unmaintained version and pointing them to the latest docs.

Here’s an example of such a banner:

In Kubeflow’s case, the purpose of the banner is to catch people who enter the archived documentation from a web search and make sure they realise that a more up-to-date set of docs is available.

Summary: Adding a banner to a page with Hugo templating

In essence, you need to do the following:

  • Figure out which Hugo layout file is responsible for the base layout of your pages. In the case of the Kubeflow docs, the responsible layout file is at layouts/docs/baseof.html. You can see an example of the layout file in the Docsy theme: layouts/docs/baseof.html. (Kubeflow uses Docsy on top of Hugo.)
  • Add the code for your banner to the layout file. Or, even better, create a partial layout, often called just a partial. A partial is a snippet of code written in Hugo’s templating language. Put the code for your banner into the partial, then call the partial from the base layout. For the Kubeflow version banner, the code sits in a Hugo partial named version-banner.html.

There’s an explanation of the code later in this post.

Making the banner’s appearance conditional

In order to offer docs for multiple versions of Kubeflow, we have a number of websites, one for each major version of the product. The overall configuration of the websites for the different versions is the same. For example, we have the current Kubeflow documentation, and archived versions 0.7 and 0.6.

I wanted to make sure we had to do only minimal extra configuration to cause the banner to appear on the archived doc sets. I didn’t want to have to edit the layouts each time we create an archive. A good solution seemed to be a parameter that we can set in the site’s configuration file.

How it works – first the configuration settings

The parameter that controls the appearance/non-appearance of the banner is named archived_version. If the parameter is set to true, the banner appears on the website. The parameter value is false for the main doc site, kubeflow.org. When we create an archived version of the docs, we set the parameter to true.

The parameter is defined in the site configuration file, config.toml. The configuration file also contains a version number and the URL for the latest version of the docs. Both these fields are used in the banner text.

Here’s a snippet showing the relevant part of the configuration file:

# The major.minor version tag for the version of the docs represented in this
# branch of the repository. Used in the "version-banner" partial to display a
# version number for this doc set.
version = "v1.0"

# Flag used in the "version-banner" partial to decide whether to display a
# banner on every page indicating that this is an archived version of the docs.
archived_version = false

# A link to latest version of the docs. Used in the "version-banner" partial to
# point people to the main doc site.
url_latest_version = "https://kubeflow.org/docs/"

How it works – the content and logic

For the Kubeflow website, a Hugo layout file is responsible for the base layout of the documentation pages:layouts/docs/baseof.html. You can see an example of the layout file in the Docsy theme: layouts/docs/baseof.html. (Kubeflow uses Docsy on top of Hugo.)

I inserted the following line into the base layout:

{{ partial "version-banner.html" . }}

The above line calls a Hugo partial named version-banner.html. The partial contains the banner content and logic. (I’ve contributed the logic for the version banner to Docsy, which is why the URL leads to the Docsy repository.)

Below is a screenshot of the content of the partial. Unfortunately I can’t paste the code, because WordPress strips out all HTML:

You can copy the code from the partial: version-banner.html.

The code does the following:

  • Check the value of the archived_version parameter. If true, continue to the next step.
  • Get the value of the url_latest_version parameter, for use in the banner content when giving readers a link to the latest version of the docs.
  • Get the value of the version parameter, for use in the banner content when showing readers the version of the website that they’re viewing.
  • Create an HTML div containing the styling and content for the banner.

Here’s the screenshot of the banner again, so that you can compare it to the HTML div:

Docs or it didn’t happen

I created a user guide for other people who want to use the banner logic on their sites using the Docsy theme: How to display a banner on archived doc sites.

I also updated the release procedures for the Kubeflow engineering/docs team, explaining that we must set the archived_version parameter to true when archiving a website version.

In closing

I hope this post is useful to you, if you find that you need to add a banner to a website using Hugo templating!

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