Posts Tagged ‘Help systems’


Adventures in Scenario-Based Documentation

August 16, 2011

Back in June, I posted about a new initiative my technical writing team planned to adopt. It’s called Scenario-Based Content, a strategy that fits our work as technical communicators into the abbreviated schedules typical in an Agile project.

If you read the June post, you’ll remember I was perplexed by the idea. I wasn’t sure how Scenario-Based Content was any different from the task-based content we were already developing.

In the time since June, we’ve had some training and opportunity to practice during a certification process, which I just completed today. My impression? Scenario-Based Content just may be the answer to several questions.

How are Scenarios Different from Tasks?

Scenarios should align with user stories. For example, “I want to recover my protected server from a disaster even though I don’t have the disaster recovery option.”

This user story was my certification project. The solution to recovering this server is not a single task. Rather, it is about ten tasks, about half of which are optional, depending on outcomes of prior tasks, as well as on the specific configuration of the environment where the disaster occurred. All of these tasks were already written and included in our product’s Admin Guide. But we never addressed how users might actually read those tasks or we’d have know how difficult they were to follow.

I took apart the monster section and organized it into baby tasks. My first requirement for certification was to design a flow chart that explains the scenario. This, as it turns out, was crucial for my own understanding of the process.

The process, as originally written, had so many conditions, I kept losing my place. Distilling it down to something that could be expressed by a standard diamond decision shape required nesting conditions, which in turn, showed me where to break out the various optional procedures.

Armed with a list of baby procedures, it occurred to me that I needed a mechanism for guiding readers back to the main path through the flow chart. I added a What Should I Do Next section to every task in the scenario.

Can Scenario Documentation Truly Fit Inside an Agile Cycle? 

I was skeptical about this until I tried it for myself. At the same time I was practicing for my certification, I was also assigned to a new product team. This new product has several sprints already scheduled. I read the user stories planned for each sprint and began setting up scenario content shells ( I don’t have a working UI yet). Right now, I have three major scenario shells, which I may further break down, once I see how complex the UI is that supports them.

What astonished me was how much of this new product I already understand and it was just kicked off. With our old process, I wouldn’t have reached this point until several months into the year-long production cycle.

Will Scenarios Document the Whole System?

In a comment left after my June post, “Techquestioner” said scenarios may not show you the whole system. I think this is true to a large extent but hasten to add I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s why:

The Admin Guide for one of my products is nearly a thousand pages. How frequently do technical communicators lament the fact that no one is reading our work? This is due primarily to our insistence that every detail be covered. The problem with that approach is most people will never have need for all of those details. For example, my product works on all Windows operating systems dating back to XP. But if some users are running Windows 7, they have no need for all the XP details.

Sure, we could debate publishing baby books for each OS version over the merits of single-sourcing, but the point remains the same – we’re giving them too much information.

Scenario-Based Documentation focuses ONLY on the information needed to solve the problem described in a very specific user story. If there are twenty fields on a UI dialog, but only three of them are needed in a particular scenario, then only those three are documented. The balance will be documented in some other scenario until, eventually, all fields are documented.

Aren’t We Doing Double Work? 

Got me there. Here’s one problem with Scenario-Based Content: Help Systems are still UI-centric. If I click a Help button on a screen, it means I need help on that screen. I don’t want to have to click through a dozen scenarios until I find the one that contains the instructions for completing the one field I need.

So I still see us documenting software screens separately for Context-Sensitive Help systems in addition to Scenario-Based Content development.

Based on what I’ve practiced and applied so far, I like the Scenario-Based Content approach.

How are you documenting software in Agile environments? How are you addressing the problem of fitting UI-centric Help screens into a scenario-based model of development?