Saturday, October 13, 2012

Using a Wiki for Technical Documentation

If you still produce technical documentation as PDF files then let me introduce a very cool tool to you. It's called MediaWiki. It's the engine behind a little site you might have heard of, WikiPedia. It's pretty easy to get up and running, and is totally free.

Most people think of wikis as user generated content, but these are also handy for documentation projects where there are few authors but many readers. Most good documentation has two types of content: specifications and examples. The specifications explain how the thing works and are "locked down" as changes are restricted. The examples section is more free-flowing and it is desirable for users to add their own examples. The nice thing is that MediaWiki can be used for both. For specifications you can protect pages so that only a select group of users can make changes to them while at the same time leaving the example pages untouched.

Using a Wiki to Reduce Support Costs

In any product, a support call or email is typically "how do I do X?" and the user may or may not have actually tried to research the problem first. When receiving a request like that the knee-jerk reaction is to explain to the user in a response how to solve the problem. But that only works that one time, and the next time that someone has the same question you'll have to answer the question again. Now many companies turn to user forums, hoping in vain that users will search through the forums for the answer before asking again. But few do, as forums are often full of questions and rarely full of answers.

The better way to answer a support question is to answer the question by creating a Wiki page. This has several benefits. First, the next time that someone asks the same question you can answer the inquiry by sending the user a link to the article (whilst also kindly reminding him to RTFM first). Second, it's a little easier to find a Wiki article due to the organization and searchability of a Wiki site. Finally, it encourages others to add on to the page, increasing the quality of the answer.

Wiki Advantages

There are a few key advantages of using a Wiki to document a product rather than plain PDF files.


While you can add links in a PDF document, the Wiki format naturally lends itself to creating links, not just within the document but also to external links too. This can make it much easier for users. For a Zigbee Product Wiki, anytime I used a Zigbee term I made it a link to one page that explains what that term means. Hyperlinking can also reduce redundancy in documents.


Another benefit of the wiki format is that you can assign one or more categories to a page. This makes it easy for users to find related content. It's quite easy to do, and allows users to navigate the site easier.

Easier to Maintain

One of the challenges of maintaining traditional documentation is often "who has the most recent word file" for the document. There is also a huge barrier to making any changes, as then the file has to be re-generated and uploaded somewhere. With a Wiki you always have the most recent version of the document on hand. You can create protected pages where users cannot modify the content, which is great for interface specifications.

User Generated Content

How often have you read through a datasheet and thought "why didn't they include more examples?" What would be better is for users to create examples and add it to the page. The best example of this is the MySQL documentation where the user section is as valuable (if not more so) than the official section.


With PDF documentation of course you can include images, but with a Wiki you can include almost any type of media, including videos or other file formats. In the Zigbee Wiki I mentioned previously I wanted to explain to the reader how two ICs communicate. I included an image of a logic analyzer screenshot, but then I also included the logic analyzer capture file. Users can download this and then get in-depth information about how the ICs communicate.

Wrapping Up

So, the next time you need to create documentation for your project, consider using a Wiki. It will take a bit of thought to get up and running but will be much easier to maintain, in addition to the other benefits I mentioned above.

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