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I got dragons and tweets in my documents

You may think you have problems, with the odd misplaced apostrophe or errant semi-colon in your documents. Well, there are dragons prowling around mine, and tweeting dragon slayers too!

A few weeks ago some smart Atlassians had the idea of making it feel like fun to set up a number of our applications as an integrated Atlassian suite. (I work at Atlassian, makers of Confluence wiki, JIRA bug tracker, and other applications for software developers.)

We’ve known for a while that it’s, uh, difficult to integrate our apps. In fact, people have used somewhat stronger words to describe the process. The problem is that the applications were developed separately, and not originally intended to talk to each other. But now we’re working towards providing an integrated platform. So, a group of Atlassians mused, why don’t we turn the setup task into a challenge and offer our doughty customers and other brave souls a reward when they get to the end?

And so the “Here Be Dragons” project was born. At heart it’s a set of documents that leads people, or “dragon slayers”, through the process of integrating six Atlassian applications. It’s also a quest, where the hero acquires better armour and more strength as he passes each of the eight stages. And behind the scenes it’s serious stuff, because it’s given us a good idea of exactly what we need to improve to make the integration process painless.

The documentation

We needed a stalwart set of documents to lead people through a typical installation and integration process, with detailed step-by-step instructions and even exact values to put into each configuration field. The idea is that people can set up their suite and get it working on the basic configuration, and tailor it later to their specific needs. I was the lucky technical writer given the job of writing the documents. It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, and one of the most unusual documentation jobs I’ve ever done.

It was a collaborative effort, with me writing the documents, testing each step in Windows as I went along and making deductions about the UNIX steps. Other people moved in to test the UNIX side of things. Jason from our Design team did the awesome art work for the documents and the T-shirt. Yes, of course there’s a T-shirt! Other technical writers, QA people and product managers contributed their knowledge of specific applications. Now Charlie the Dragon Slayer lives and breathes. (“Charlie” is the affectionate name given to the dude in the Atlassian logo. He also plays a major part in the Dragons documents.)

Twitter integration in the documents

I also added Twitter to the mix. Each page of the “Here Be Dragons” document offers our dragon slayers the chance to tweet their status, and pre-populates the tweets with suggested words. It was great fun composing the tweets and it’s even more fun now, watching the tweets pop up in the Twitter stream.

On Thursday morning a few brave souls and true had already started out on their dragon quest:

I got dragons in my documents

I got dragons and tweets in my documents

Pre-populating Twitter tweets

You can set up a hyperlink for people to click, that will open Twitter in their web browser and put some words into their Twitter message. If they haven’t yet logged in, Twitter will prompt them to log in. They can choose to edit the words, or just leave them as they are. They then send the tweet by clicking the Twitter “Update” button as usual.

All you need to do is add an HTML link pointing to the person’s Twitter “home” page and specifying a “status” parameter in the URL. Something like this:

<a href=”http://twitter.com/home?status=Hallo World”>Say hallo to the twittersphere</a>.

Here it is as a link:

Say hallo to the twittersphere.

If your message includes funny characters like a # sign, then you will need to URL-encode the message. For example, if you wanted to pre-populate a tweet with “Hallo World #testing” you would use this:

<a href=”http%3A%2F%2Ftwitter.com%2Fhome%3Fstatus%3DHallo+World+%23testing”>Say hallo to the twittersphere</a>.

Here’s a web site that will URL-encode your text for you.

Is “Here Be Dragons” really technical documentation?

Yes it is. The quest, tweets and pretty pictures happen around the edges. The central part of each document is hard-core technical how-to. 🙂

Scott Nesbitt has written an interesting post on the DMN blog about making user documentation more usable and user friendly. A dragon quest is a bit extreme, and it’s not something you get the opportunity to do often. But I agree with Scott that there’s a place for a lighter touch in much of the online documentation we write. It’s a delicate balance. On the one hand, it’s important that the writing style does not annoy or offend the reader and does not detract from the content. We also need to be aware of people whose first language is not the one we’re writing in. On the other hand, the occasional touch of humour or personality can focus the reader’s attention onto the page.

Dragons was a fun project. My other technical documentation assignments will seem a bit tame for a while. 😉

The URLEncode and URLDecode Page

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