Friday, February 18, 2005

Extremely Helpful

Ron Jefferies suggests that you can write user documentation in an XP project, lagging only couple of iterations behind (here). Ellen Ferlazzo agrees and goes a step further, here, and says that it can be done at the same time as the part of the system it supports is being developed.
I agree.

One of the design goals of our current project is that it should be useable without a manual. Definately no manual. It needs to support our customers in a "really natural way", and manuals don't suggest natural. It does though, have help. That help isn't written by technical authors, it's written by the customers.

They're pretty good about writing the help, it's definately good, well thought out stuff, and it's updated pretty regularly. It's not too far behind us most the time, but at the start of the release iteration, things are usually pretty slack.

But the articles got me thinking. If the system's natural to use, then we should need a pretty small amount of help. There can't be a lot of it, or you're really shipping a large manual in small chunks. And if the system's to meet their "natural way" user interface, then should the help be more about how to use the tool to support the job more than how to use the system itself.
And then I thought... isn't the story really a description of the part of the job that this little bit of the system's supporting?

So what has this got to do with Ron and Ellen?

Well, the stories and the help are intrinsicly linked. And the customers are writing both. If they can be writing the help at the same time as, or even before we're developing the stories, then that'll help them understand what they want. This could help them guide us better in producing the system they need.

Getting customers to think about this 'job support' kind of help could also be useful in getting the customer away from thinking about user interface design and concentrating on what is actually going on in this part of the system.

If the help is difficult to write, or needs lengthy explainations then maybe the understanding of the story isn't quite there yet.
If the help doesn't make things obvious, then maybe there's some rework to be done on the user interface.

Of course it's difficult to measure the success of your help when you're so close to the project. So maybe it's worth getting customers from outside the team to take a look at the project pretty regularly. This is your test for your help. Give them the help, and no training and see what happens. Find out where users make mistakes and fix the problems that caused them (both system and help). You've got a production quality system, and you've got production quality help, so this should be easy to do. And the real customers do like to see what they're getting next...


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