Wiki as online help source

A response to the question, Wiki-to-Help? on the Help Authoring Tool Yahoo Group.

One of our test engineers (and the lead developer of our company wiki) just approached me with the idea of using our company’s internal wiki as the central repository for all company material and using it to generate online help.

I’m following the discussion with interest. I, too, had a similar question asked of me from a developer when we were working in an Agile development environment at BMC Software. In that case, which was at least three years ago, the matchup between the wiki HTML output and the HTML output I needed for our particular help system just wasn’t a good fit. But today, there are better pairings, input to output. I think it’s feasible to go from a wiki to an online help system. It really depends on what output you need, and what you’re willing to do to ensure that the wiki source is worthy of publishing (tested, vetted, trusted, and so on).

I’ve been working on wikis as source for manuals, where the output is a PDF file. In general, yes, wikis are a little clumsy to work in for authoring. For example, some wikitext doesn’t understand that you want a numbered step list with images in between each step and that you want the numbering to continue after each image. So if you’re accustomed to a nice HTML authoring interface, a wiki authoring interface will “feel” like a step about 10 years back in time. :)

On the more interesting issue, the cultural issue (or the career issue, depending on how you think about it), I think the basis of most arguments against using wikis as source is the fear of loss of authoring control. See wikipatterns.com for the many anti-people patterns that wikis tend to foster if you don’t take steps to avoid them. I especially liked one of the responder’s comments to the list that he didn’t want to become an editor for a wiki. I think he’s right – that “magazine editor” is one of the roles you could take as a wiki-based author. You could also consider your role to be “community director” if you think you can motivate others to contribute to your wiki that will eventually be the help system. There are different roles that will evolve, and it’s up to you to figure out what role might work well in your environment (or if it would work at all). I wrote up a blog post last week about determining where your role as technical writer is most valued in the company, and building from that role.

I believe the cultural or social difficulties are the more difficult hurdle – you have to ensure that the community surrounding a wiki (those that can and will edit) is a group that is willing to work together and collaborate towards the common goal of publishing a customer-facing help system from the wiki. In a SXSW Interactive session titled “Edit Me! How Gamers are Adopting the Wiki Way” one panelist said that a core group of five editors on a wiki may be the best practice for the size of the group. This type of small number is represented and described in the 90-9-1 theory on wikipatterns.

A solution that might help you wrap your arms around the wiki as source is to set aside only one area or category of the wiki as the articles from which the online help gets generated. Again, without knowing the wiki engine you’re working with and the types of output you’d require, it’s difficult to know if a “wikislice” solution could help in your situation.

Anyway, I could go on and on (and I believe I just did go on and on) about using wikis as source for end-user documentation. I’m pleased that Sarah O’Keefe has just published a white paper titled “Friend or Foe? Web 2.0 in Technical Communication” that should be helpful as we begin to define our roles in each company and how we integrate user-generated content with our own on our product’s web sites.

I hope this information can help you build an argument for or against the use of wikis as source for online help. Please let me know the eventual outcome, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on my response.

One comment

  • May 6, 2008 - 12:15 pm | Permalink

    My company is using Mediawiki as an internal CMS, and we even considered setting it up for all of our customers and loading it with our software documentation. Our struggles to keep our own Wiki clean, searchable, and useful have proven to us that it isn’t viable for external use, and I’m still the traditional technical writer writing traditional manuals and How-To guides, for now. But the Wiki works great for information on benefits, notes on important issues for our IT department, etc.

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