How do people converse about technical topics today?

I have seen the eminent reinvention of technical documentation as we know it, which inspired me to begin chronicling my own observations and shifts in the field of communicating technical topics through conversation.

One such revealing moment happened while I was working on documentation for the One Laptop Per Child project on their wiki at wiki.laptop.org. The Give One Get One rollout  was hurtling towards the organization, and they had not completely designed a support system nor did they have a user manual ready to view online or to print. The Give One Get One program gave the opportunity for the first time for anyone in the U.S to buy a laptop and know that one additional laptop would be sent to another country. Through the nearly heroic efforts of one person building a new team self-named the Support Gang, an all-volunteer crew if I understood the situation correctly, a wiki-based Support FAQ came to life and a support email address was created and a support team made of volunteers was staffed.

The amazing revelation to me was that the wiki FAQ could and did answer so many questions because they came from real people, customers of the Give One Get One program. The questions were real questions from real users, so there wasn’t a delay in seeking out a subject matter expert. These were conversations happening on the wiki Edit tab or on the Discuss tab. See the History on wiki.laptop.org/go/Support_FAQ for examples of the questions and answers that happened, and also notice the time stamps for some of the answers. The immediacy of the response is practically like an Instant Messaging conversation via the wiki FAQ page.

How did the community completely fill out these highly useful wiki pages? Or did just a few volunteers do it? It was the work of a few good people continuing conversations with real users or potential and upcoming customers of the little laptop. Community-supported email, forums, and IRC discussions rolled into these wiki pages. Supporting users was the work of college students, of parents who were anticipating their laptop’s arrival, and other non-professional writers. One such volunteer was Katie, a mom who is a mathematician by day, and an excellent FAQ writer by night. Her wiki pages and research around the wireless connectivity were extremely helpful to everyone who bought a Give 1 Get 1 laptop. Without her dedication, many of us couldn’t have connected to the Internet, and the user manual I continued to work on benefited greatly from her wiki contributions and knowledge sharing.

That the community created such helpful, useful, readable pages was a complete turnaround for my attitude about what sweat goes into writing and rewriting carefully crafted topics to then submit for review and sweat over again and again until a deadline comes. I thought, instead of toiling over the exact words and following a style guide, should I try to recruit and entice and motivate contributors from every professional or amateur background possible? Some paranoid types say that laymen and amateur writers could beat us at our own chosen profession. But “beat” is not the right term. It’s not a contest or an all-out competition, it’s a group effort towards a shared goal.

Armed with this revelation, I began studying how conversations and community attract the right combination of content and information to offer the right amount of technical communication delivered in the right manner. Part of my study involved hands-on creation of end-user documentation, including a PDF manual, using the  OLPC community’s wiki at wiki.laptop.org/go/Simplified_user_guide, and also using a highly customized wiki engine at FLOSS Manuals, www.flossmanuals.net.

Much of the labor and toil on those wiki pages and especially with the community volunteer atmosphere of OLPC and FLOSS Manuals is coming to fruition next week at the FLOSS Manuals BookSprint to document the XO laptop and the Sugar operating system for the students, parents, and teachers benefiting from the One Laptop Per Child project around the world.

One comment

  • August 24, 2008 - 12:50 pm | Permalink

    The key issue, which you’ve not had to face, is how to convert sign managers in an organisation to this kind of mindset.

    I think anyone who has been involved with any form of online collaboration will understand the basic premise behind the wisdom of the crowd, but as yet that has proven difficult to marry up with the concerns all businesses have over the sensitivity and quality of such information.

    Until those businesses realise that it’s not the sensitivity or (perceived low) quality that are the issue, but rather that the volume of information typically outweighs these issues then it will remain an uphill battle.

    But it can, and should, be won!

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