Do you hate documentation? You have to create it, keep it up-to-date, use it, make sure that other people use it. And there’s always the risk that you spend more time maintaining it than you spend working on the actual project.
I adore and (attempt to) follow the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition—we’re a bit behind the times). I know it’s 1026 pages on topics like when to use a period at the end of a list item. That’s the beauty of it. The marvelous, talented, dedicated editors at the Chicago Manual of Style have spent countless hours determining when to use a period at the end of a list item. I don’t have to.
That’s the power of documentation. Whether it’s an issue of style, or steps to perform a procedure, or which file structure to use, if the decision is documented and followed, that’s a decision that you don’t have to spend time on again—and one that will be applied consistently across a project (or multiple projects).
How do you ensure that you get the benefits of documentation without the hate? The following three suggestions will help.
Bring Everyone on Board
When creating, sharing, or maintaining documentation, invite potential users to be part of the process. If the issues that people have aren’t considered, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to convince them to use it. On the other hand, if people see that their concerns are addressed, they’re more likely to embrace it. Does it take more time to bring more people into the decision process? Yes. Is it more effort? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Make It Easy to Access
Make sure that documentation is easy to find. If people can only access the latest version on a document server that requires a separate login, which can only be submitted if they are using an active VPN connection… well, people are more likely to go from memory. Security can be a concern, of course—there needs to be a balance. The easier documentation is to find, however, the more likely it will be used.
Ensure that Everyone Follows It
You only get the benefits of documentation if it’s followed. Even if you make documentation as easy to find as humanly possible, it’s almost always going to be quicker for people to guess at the right answer. It’s best if someone consistently follows up on implementation (and lets people know it’s not personal—there’s always follow-up on the processes). If people know that someone is checking, they are substantially more likely to follow through. And, as a bonus, you’ll be able to identify trouble spots and address them, making documentation more effective in the long run.
Creating and maintaining documentation will take time. The key is documenting things in such a way that the benefits—and they can be substantial—outweigh the cost.
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