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WritersUA 2011 – Using social media to get readers involved

This week I attended the WritersUA 2011 Conference for Software User Assistance in Long Beach, California. On Tuesday it was my turn to present a session, called “Getting your readers involved in the documentation”. This post summarises my talk and offers you the opportunity to download the presentation in PDF form.

At Atlassian, we’ve been using social media in various ways, to make our documentation a living, interactive hub where people can find the answers to their questions, talk to us, talk to each other, and use the documentation as a tool to help each other.

Download the presentation

If you like, you can download a copy of my presentation in PDF form. I’ve put a lot of information and references into the speaker’s notes too.

What’s in this post

The rest of this post is a summary of and discussion of my presentation, and of the condensed version that I showed people at the WritersUA peer showcase.

The social organisation

We know that organisations are becoming more social. Studies show that engaged customers buy more, are more likely to be satisfied with the product, and are more likely to help each other use the product.

In the same way, I’d like to propose that engaged readers will keep coming back to the documentation, are more likely to be happy with the documentation, and will use the docs as a tool to help each other.

The tools

The tools and ideas I discussed are:

  • Using a wiki as the documentation authoring and publishing tool – Confluence. In our documentation and in my presentation I’m using Confluence wiki. But most of the tools and ideas are transferable to online documentation on any platform.
    • Allowing readers to add comments to the documentation pages.
    • Allowing various groups of people to edit your documentation, including community authors, all the company staff, customers, the whole wide world.
    • Using wiki permissions to determine who can do what.
    • Monitoring the updates via RSS feeds and wiki watches.
  • Designing a contributor licence agreement, based on the Apache Contributor License Agreement, to protect the rights of all parties.
  • Adding a Creative Commons copyright licence to the documentation pages. Ours is a Creative Commons by Attribution licence, which means that anyone can use the documentation for any purpose they like, provided they acknowledge us as the source.
  • Using a web service that allows you to design an online feedback form, then grab the HTML to embed the form into your own documentation page – Wufoo. When people fill in information on your form, the data goes into the Wufoo database. You can then log in to Wufoo and see the results, get some statistics, and so on.
  • Linking to blog posts written by community developers and authors from within your documentation. For example, the JIRA Tips of the Trade, the Crowd Tips of the Trade and the Confluence Tips of the Trade.
  • Encouraging people to interact with your documentation via Twitter (Twitter.com).
    • Using Twitter as a medium for your release notes.
    • Encouraging people to tweet hints and tips about your products, and then taking it a step further and embedding a live stream of tweets on a documentation page. See the JIRA Tips via Twitter and the Confluence Tips via Twitter pages.
  • Rewarding contributors by giving them an online badge that they can add to their blogs or other social sites.
  • Organising a doc sprint. This is an event, similar to the book sprints of the opensource world, where a group of people get together for a specific period of time to write a specific set of documentation. We have held two doc sprints, with participants working in our offices and remotely all over the world. We plan to hold more.
  • Bringing back fond memories of a documentation-related event, and encouraging people to join in next time, by streaming photos of the event onto your documentation page directly from Flickr. Flickr is a web service where you can upload and share photographs with your community, friends and the world.
  • Building fun, a game, a challenge and interactivity into your documentation. I demonstrated at the Dragon Slayer documentation.

The Dragon Slayer Documentation

The Dragon Slayer documentation is a set of installation instructions that we created to solve a specific problem. Atlassian, the company I work for, has a great set of products that you can set up to work together as an integrated development suite. At the moment, though, the integration process is long and complex. In fact, it’s painful. The products were not originally created to work together, and we’re developing the integration incrementally. The setup process is getting easier all the time, because our developers are working to improve the process.

In the meantime, we needed some documentation that leads people through the setup process, to create a specific environment with some good simple examples of the integration possibilities. This documentation does not replace the existing installation and upgrade guides for each product. Instead, it’s an additional tool to get people started quickly when they want to set up the full suite of products.

What’s more, because the process is long and complex, we wanted to turn the pain into fun. So we challenge people to come a slay the dragon. The dragon is, of course, the setup process.

A summary of the Dragon Slayer docs:

  • There are 9 stages, corresponding to 9 pages. Each stage consists of many steps.
  • We’ve taken pains sure ensure that the fun stuff is at the top and bottom of the pages. In between is good, solid technical writing – “how to” steps that we test rigorously, end-to-end, before making any updates, to ensure that the entire environment will work.
  • There’s a pretty picture and some funny words (shamelessly cribbed from various online translations of Dante) at the top of each page.
  • At the bottom of each page, we congratulate you on your victory and tell you what you have achieved so far.
  • When you start out on the dragon quest, you meet Sir Charlie of Atlassian, whom you will recognise as the dude in the Atlassian logo. He is scantily clad and has only a staff to ward off the dragon.
  • As you go through the stages, Charlie acquires armour and a sword, so that he is well equipped by the time he meets the dragon in stage 9.
  • When you finish the dragon quest, you get a T-shirt. (A real one.)
  • During the quest, you can intereact with other dragon slayers via Twitter. We’ve crafted some funny tweets that are a call to action. If you click the “Tweet” link, we prepopulate your tweet box with those words. You can delete or change them before tweeting. We also embed a live stream of tweets on the Dragon Slayer front page, so that people can see which dragon slayers are out there right now.
  • Each page also has a number of links to the dragon slayers’ forum, where you can discuss any problems you encounter and swap ideas with other people going through the procedures at the same time as you.

The plan is that the Dragon Slayer documentation will morph into a set of quick, simple steps. The dragon may disappear entirely. Or maybe not. Watch this space. ;)

The WritersUA peer showcase

I presented a condensed version of the presentation at the WritersUA peer showcase on the last day of the conference. What happens at the peer showcase is that you sit at a table for two hours, and people drop by in groups or individually to see your project. So you need just a short demonstration. I focused on our use of Twitter in and around the documentation, and specifically on the Dragon Slayer documentation.

I was completely overjoyed when I won the award for the most innovative peer showcase project at the 2011 Conference for Software UA. Thank you so much to everyone who voted for our project, and to Atlassian for giving the technical writers the opportunity to do such fun stuff in our documentation.

WritersUA Peer Showcase trophy

Bye

I hope you find the attached presentation useful. Let me know what you think, and if you’re doing something similar.

Hints and tips via Twitter

Twitter is ubiquitous. People will read tweets because they’re short and punchy and because they go where we go. Rumour has it that, in contrast, people don’t read manuals. :)  We’ve been trying a few different ways of using Twitter’s sweetness in and around our documentation. Our latest experiment is called “Tips via Twitter”. I’m interested to see how it will work out.

We’re encouraging people to tweet hints and tips about our products. What’s more, we publish a live Twitter stream on a page in the documentation. This is what it looks like:

Hints and tips via Twitter

Hints and tips via Twitter

Kicking off the project

We’ve started with one of our products called Confluence wiki. On the screenshot above, the blue section labelled “ConfluenceTips” is actually a constantly-rolling stream of tweets. You can see it in action on the “Tips via Twitter” page in the Confluence documentation.

The idea is that people will enjoy sharing their hints and tips in an interactive Twitter stream, and will enjoy seeing their tips appear in the documentation. We’re trying the experiment for Confluence first – so we’re inviting people to tweet tips about the wiki. If it works out, then we’ll do it for another of our products, an issue tracker called JIRA.

Tweet tweet

If you like, you could tweet a hint about Confluence right now, and see it appear on the documentation page. Log in to Twitter, then click this Twitter link to get you started. Replace the words “My tip” with your hint. Be nice now! ;)

Embedding the Twitter stream

I’ve used the Confluence Widget Connector (that’s a wiki macro) to embed the stream of tweets into the page. The stream of tweets is the result of a Twitter search: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=ConfluenceTips

This is the wiki markup for the Widget Connector, as I’ve used it on the “Tips via Twitter” documentation page:

{widget:url=http://search.twitter.com/search?q=ConfluenceTips|width=500|height=1000}

Things that may go wrong

There are a few things that may go wonky with this experiment.

The most obvious is that maybe nobody will tweet. If that happens, the stream will dry up and we’ll have a big empty box on the documentation page. Luckily, we have a keen tweeter called @ConfluenceTips whose tweets show up in the search results too. Thank you @ConfluenceTips! I’ve also created a set of tweets that I used to seed the stream when I announced the experiment to the world. I’m hoping this will help to encourage other tweeters and give them an idea of what a tweeted tip may look like.

Another problem may be that people start tweeting weird or bothersome messages. I’ll be monitoring the stream. If necessary, I’ll remove it from the documentation page.

Anyone else tweeting hints and tips?

Let me know if you’re using Twitter for hints and tips, maybe publishing them in the documentation too, or doing something else totally cool.

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