Ensuring documentation coverage with each software release
Getting a good handle on your release process — such as understanding the cadence of releases, how features are tracked and tagged in different phases, and other checkpoints prior to the release signoff — is central to thriving in any documentation role. Providing doc coverage for each release ensures you don’t accrue documentation debt, and it boosts user satisfaction for the new features being released.
- Key details to understand about your release process
- Checking for doc coverage
- What needs docs?
- Teaching others about the need for docs
- Expanding the doc coverage with a doc quality measure
Key details to understand about your release process
To integrate into your release process, try to get a better understanding of the following:
- How to view the release roadmap. The roadmap allows you to anticipate what’s coming 6+ months down the line. Look for those big tickets that will require more than a few paragraphs of content. You want to avoid being ambushed one week before release with a last-minute request that puts you into crisis mode. Some tickets might require an afternoon of work, while others require integration into a team’s meetings over the course of several weeks.
- Understand the definition of done. How do product teams qualify their feature for release? Surely QA must sign off on the feature, but is there a docs requirement prior to release as well? First, look for any definition of done embraced by your product group. Is documentation included? If not, look for ways to insert docs into the process, even if informally.
- Where to see dashboards and tracking mechanisms. What sites, tools, or documents are used to track what’s planned for upcoming releases, and how do you adjust the toggles on these dashboards to look at the next few releases? Each company has its own tools for this, and they aren’t always obvious to those outside of product management. Features might start as idea pitches before being moved to another tracking mechanism, each with their own statuses and workflows, timelines, checkpoints, and other details.
Checking for doc coverage
When you see the release items surface on the horizon, look through each item included in the release and assess whether you have doc coverage. If you have a goal for 100% doc coverage for each release, you could score the doc coverage against all items in the release. For example, suppose you have six new features being released in the next version. Can you indicate a changelist or other commit that covers each of the features being released? When you start tracking doc coverage meticulously like this, it forces you to account for each necessary update.
What needs docs?
What items in the release actually need docs? Basically, if there’s a release, it means something changed. These changes usually need documentation. However, sometimes the changes are backend fixes and optimizations that don’t affect users. Maybe the dev team spent a month fixing technical debt around spaghetti code, and there’s no need to document anything for external users. If so, great, you can avoid doc coverage for that release item.
Another scenario that might not need docs are bug fixes that don’t change any existing functionality. Release notes often include a list of bug fixes, and if the fixes simply address glitches in the code, they might not need docs either.
But by and large, most items in the release should point to some page in the documentation. Release notes are meant to be short teasers for content that is elaborated upon in the pages of your documentation. For example, release notes for a feature might have a one paragraph summary with a link to a documentation page that expands in more detail. A good-looking release notes page will have a lot of paragraphs with “For more information, see …” links.
Teaching others about the need for docs
As you ensure doc coverage with each release, you’ll be reaching out to product teams and others to ask questions about docs. Each time you reach out, you reinforce the need for docs, teaching others about how the doc process works. This helps product teams understand your role and anticipate the need for docs in the future in advance.
In short, you build visibility, rapport, and awareness of your role (almost like marketing for your group). This is partly why inserting yourself in the release process as a checkpoint, even if informally, helps your tech comm group become more integrated with product teams.
Expanding the doc coverage with a doc quality measure
When analyzing whether you have adequate docs for the release, another question to consider is how much doc coverage for a feature is actually needed. What if a new feature only has a few inline comments in a code file? Does that count as documentation? In the scope of documentation, a feature might merit anything from a brief description to a full-fledged tutorial, sample app, walk-through code, extensive step-by-step tasks, and more.
Here’s where you have some options for a doc coverage goal. You could expand the doc coverage with an additional category of doc quality. For each feature covered by docs, you could score the documentation with a quality rating. As a tech writer, you typically know when docs are good or not. For example, did you personally test the docs, or just copy and paste content an engineer gave you? Does the documentation describe the request and response in a complete way? Are the step-by-step tasks described with enough detail for users to make their way through the docs?
I know that the features I personally test usually end up with much better documentation. While it might seem like a given that tech writers test all the features they document, that’s hardly the case. The setup and execution of the features often requires extensive engineering knowledge and expertise. If you’re working in dev docs, testing each feature is a feat unto itself.
Integrating into the release process helps build the foundation for a healthy, aware documentation group that is plugged into product team releases and roadmaps. It helps you avoid documentation debt as well as stay looped in early for larger features requiring more advanced planning. The more you ensure doc coverage for each release, the more others become aware of your role with documentation and the need for docs in the future.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.
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