Do less with more.
Do “documentation triage.”
All of these are concepts we’ve heard about, and have been tasked with understanding and implementing across our documentation practices. But what are they and why do they matter? And how will creating “Minimum Viable Documentation” impact what we do and how we do it?
We learned ages ago in the software development world that “perfect is the enemy of done.” That applies to writing as well. We can move participles and conjunctions around all day and still never achieve perfection. As a professor, I told every single one of my students, usually on day one, that they would never receive a 100% on any paper they submitted to me. I wholeheartedly believe that there is always room to improve. I think the best writers throughout the history of time would agree with me. As a teaching tool, I often used e. b. white’s “Once More to the Lake” as an example of how revisiting a piece of writing many years later can fundamentally shift it to the better without trying to change it in tone or style whatsoever.
So how do we create documentation that is good enough without sacrificing our standards?
The first step, according to esteemed technical writer Neal Kaplan is to “prioritize ruthlessly.” It’s vital to look at what actually needs to be documented, and focus on that. The rest is, as they say, gravy.
When we are early in our writing careers, and sometimes just when we are early in our writing projects, we think it is important to document everything. No step or function should be relegated to the trash heap. We fail to plan, and therefore plan to fail. When we look at documentation as a broad-sweeping need for users, we miss the point. We lament that no one reads the documentation, but we keep writing it. Why? Are we hoping users will do an about-face? They won’t. Ao as my high school English teacher reminded us time and again: plan your work and work your plan.
That planning is what Kaplan calls triage. I just call it good practice.
- Start planning long before you start writing.
2. Give every task an estimated level of effort – even if it’s a guess, start guessing.
3. Use documentation architecture – design your plan, and plan to grow.
4. Stand by your plan,but be open to changing it.
See how not all of those numbered items are aligned? I chose that architecture because the first one is vital, the others then follow. Plan. Plan. Plan. They are each important, though. Following these 4 will result in documentation that gets the job done, doesn’t leave bare spots, but isn’t full of extra bells and whistles.
You’d never hire a contractor to work on your house without an estimated level of effort. You want to know how long that project will take, how difficult it will be. Your contractor lets you know it will be a couple of days, or a couple of weeks. It is an estimate and it is not a firm commitment, but it sort of time-boxes the work to be done. It’s rarely spot-on. You might have an architect that shows you how fantastic a skylight would be, but once your contractor starts the work, he tells you that will be a challenge to complete based on the roof, the seal, whatever. So you nix the skylight.
Your contractor takes a dive into the work and then recognizes that perhaps you would prefer the sink on the other side of the room, or maybe you want a different fixture than the one you saw in the store. You can put your foot down based on time, cost, and aesthetics. It may be that the extra time required to purchase a new fixture will change the look of the room enough that the pivot was worth it.
On the other hand, maybe the new fixture is out of budget or will take too long to install. It’s something you can see having installed in a year or two, but it isn’t necessary right now. Okay, so you know that down the road you have some more work to do, but getting the standard fixture installed keeps you on time, on budget, and your rom is usable.
That is the key word in all of this. Usable.
Our “bare minimum” is hardly bare when our documentation is usable. Minimum viable documentation is choosing to follow the design plan your architect and contractor gave you, but adding all of the decorative touches later. You’ll have a fully functioning and attractive room with the key elements. You can add the flourish later, if you add it at all.
I’ve extended this metaphor about as far as I want to, and if I continue to write I will violate the basic principles of conciseness. Tell your teams that Minimum Viable Documentation is not the writing equivalent of a rough draft. It is the equivalent of writing a 2-page paper when you recognize that a dissertation is unnecessary. You can be sure that every comma, bullet, and number is correct if you write briefly. The viable minimum is so much better than the bare minimum, and worlds better than the alternative.