Ever worked at a company (or on a codebase, or whatever) where it seemed like, no matter what the question was, the answer was written down somewhere you could easily find it? Most people haven’t, sadly, but they do exist, and I can assure you that it is an absolute pleasure.
On the other hand, practically everyone has experienced completely undocumented systems and processes, where knowledge is shared by word-of-mouth, or lost every time someone quits.
Why are there so many more undocumented systems than documented ones out there, and how can we cause more well-documented systems to exist? The answer isn’t “people are lazy”, and the solution is simple – though not easy.
Why Johnny Doesn’t Read
When someone needs to know something, they might go look for some documentation, or they might ask someone else or just guess wildly. The behaviour “look for documentation” is often reinforced negatively, by the result “documentation doesn’t exist”.
At the same time, the behaviours “ask someone” and “guess wildly” are positively reinforced, by the results “I get my question answered” and/or “at least I can get on with my work”. Over time, people optimise their behaviour by skipping the “look for documentation” step, and just go straight to asking other people (or guessing wildly).
Why Johnny Doesn’t Write
When someone writes documentation, they’re hoping that people will read it and not have to ask them questions in order to be productive and do the right thing. Hence, the behaviour “write documentation” is negatively reinforced by the results “I still get asked questions”, and “nobody does things the right way around here, dammit!”
Worse, though, is that there is very little positive reinforcement for the author: when someone does read the docs, and thus doesn’t ask a question, the author almost certainly doesn’t know they dodged a bullet. Similarly, when someone does things the right way, it’s unlikely that anyone will notice. It’s only the mistakes that catch the attention.
Given that the experience of writing documentation tends to skew towards the negative, it’s not surprising that eventually, the time spent writing documentation is reallocated to other, more utility-producing activities.
The combination of these two situations is self-reinforcing. While a suitably motivated reader might start by strictly looking for documentation, or an author initially be enthused to always fully documenting their work, over time the “reflex” will be for readers to just go ask someone, because “there’s never any documentation!”, and for authors to not write documentation because “nobody bothers to read what I write anyway!”.
It is important to recognise that this iterative feedback loop is the “natural state” of the reader/author ecosystem, resulting in something akin to thermodynamic entropy. To avoid the system descending into chaos, energy needs to be constantly applied to keep the system in order.
Effective methods for avoiding the vicious circle can be derived from the things that cause it. Change the forces that apply themselves to readers and authors, and they will behave differently.
On the reader’s side, the most effective way to encourage people to read documentation is for it to consistently exist. This means that those in control of a project or system mustn’t consider something “done” until the documentation is in a good state. Patches shouldn’t be landed, and releases shouldn’t be made, unless the documentation is altered to match the functional changes being made. Yes, this requires discipline, which is just a form of energy application to prevent entropic decay.
Writing documentation should be an explicit and well-understood part of somebody’s job description. Whoever is responsible for documentation needs to be given the time to do it properly. Writing well takes time and mental energy, and that time needs to be factored into the plans. Never forget that skimping on documentation, like short-changing QA or customer support, is a false economy that will cost more in the long term than it saves in the short term.
Even if the documentation exists, though, some people are going to tend towards asking people rather than consulting the documentation. This isn’t a moral failing on their part, but only happens when they believe that asking someone is more beneficial to them than going to the documentation. To change the behaviour, you need to change the belief.
You could change the belief by increasing the “cost” of asking. You could fire (or hellban) anyone who ever asks a question that is answered in the documentation. But you shouldn’t. You could yell “RTFM!” at everyone who asks a question. Thankfully that’s one acronym that’s falling out of favour.
Alternately, you can reduce the “cost” of getting the answer from the documentation. Possibly the largest single productivity boost for programmers, for example, has been the existence of Google. Whatever your problem, there’s a pretty good chance that a search or two will find a solution. For your private documentation, you probably don’t have the power of Google available, but decent full-text search systems are available. Use them.
Finally, authors would benefit from more positive reinforcement. If you find good documentation, let the author know! It requires a lot of effort (comparatively) to look up an author’s contact details and send them a nice e-mail. The “like” button is a more low-energy way of achieving a similar outcome – you click the button, and the author gets a warm, fuzzy feeling. If your internal documentation system doesn’t have some way to “close the loop” and let readers easily give authors a bit of kudos, fix it so it does.
Heck, even if authors just know that a page they wrote was loaded
in the past week, that’s better than the current situation, in which
deafening silence persists, punctuated by the occasional plaintive cry of
“Hey, do you know how to…?”.
Do you have any other ideas for how to encourage readers to read, and for authors to write?