Arnt Gulbrandsen
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Audience and goal

Written texts have two major invisible properties: audience and goal. I can't remember who taught me about that, but I taught it to my friend Abhijit Menon-Sen when we started working together, and the texts he and I have written together over the years always have a hidden comment describing the audience(s) and goal(s) for that text. That's why those texts are crisp and to the point.

Here's an example. Not by us together, this one is his alone.

Abhijit and his girlfriend Hassath have recently built a house, it's aaaaalmost done now, and a few weeks ago Abhijit wrote a blog posting about an electric power gadget they bought for the house. The audience for that posting consists of two groups of people: Friends who want to know how the house is coming along, and people who are searching for reviews of the gadget before possibly buying one themselves. The goal for the first group is to describe the power problems and how Abhijit and Hassath are coping, and for the second group, to tell them whether and how well that particular gadget helps with that kind of power problem.

Now please read about their amazingly unreliable power supply and consider how each sentence, each paragraph and each picture helps with either or both of those goals, in the eyes of those audiences. Does a sentence say something that both audiences already know, or does it tell either or both audiences something Abhijit wants to tell them? Does a sentence help with one goal but disturb the other? What does the photo achieve? Would mentioning the audiences or goals in the text help to achieve either of the goals, or would it distract or detract?

That posting may be stylistically vapid, but it achieves Abhijit's goals and that makes it good writing. The rest is a mere question of how good.

Now please start formulating an explicit audience and goal before you write your own email, documentation, almost anything. Help save the world from pointless blather and documentation that forgets the critical points.

Not about the iphone

A classic pundit failure: In 2006 Bill Ray wrote in The Register that the iphone would be a a complete failure. The article has been quoted as pundit failure ever since.

I'm not sure it actually was a failure. Perhaps the editor asked the author to provide a crowdpleaser: Give me lots of pageviews and facebook likes, make our readers' heads nod in agreement, it doesn't have to be factually right. If that's the case, then the article may have been a roaring success for all I know.

I'm going to pretend it wasn't like that, though, because it doesn't suit my purpose with this posting. This is about technical documentation, not crowdpleasing or pageviews. My purpose here is to illustrate a class of mistake in technical documentation. Bill Ray's article is a wonderfully vivid example.

The article has two main points. One of them (about the power of retailers over customers and manufacturers) is irrelevant to technical documentation, so I disregard it. Here's the core of the other point:

The clever design of the iPod stretched into the software — the clean and simple interface is indeed easy to use, and users seem very comfortable with iTunes on their PC. But creating a simple interface for a single function is one thing. Replicating that experience to manage all the functions of a mobile phone is another thing entirely. Mobile phones are not complex to use because of bad interface design, they are complex to use because they are complex devices with a myriad of features. […More…]

Parsing documentation to find bugs

This is mostly a footnote for my review of Knuth's Literate Programming book. Read that first.

Undocumented arguments often occur where an argument wasn't considered in the code, or where the design is wrong. 50-60% of undocumented arguments were also buggily handled at Trolltech.

That correlation depends on the documentation being written by hand and by programmers. Generating documentation like Ghostdoc does breaks the correlation completely, and starting with mostly-generated text like that from Eclipse also weakens it to uselessness. If you, as a programmer, forget something about the argument while implementing, but someone/something else writes the documentation, then there is little or no correlation between what you forget to implement and what Ghostdoc, Eclipse or a technical writer forgets to mention.

The same applies to undocumented public functions in a class: If there were any at Trolltech, those functions were usually not ready for production use. Scanning for undocumented functions was a quick way to find functions with other problems.

Undocumented nulls and other edge cases are frequently unhandled; at Trolltech I had something to scan for pointer arguments where the word null wasn't mentioned in the same sentence as the argument. It found treasure quite often, but the text analysis was too poor to use it all the time, for example because the null was mentioned in a following sentence. Warnings have to be good, and quite often may or may not be enough.

I've never had a tool that parses both the implementation and the documentation. I wish I had one. It could look for differences and use them. Here are two examples:

When a caller and a callee disagree, the documentation status can be used to point at the most likely guilty function. Suppose x() calls y() and doesn't catch an exception y() may throw. Is that best reported as a problem in x() or y()? That depends on whether the documentation for y() mentions the exception.

If a function takes an enum argument, and the set of enum values mentioned in the code and in the documentation differ, then something is almost always wrong. It may be in the documentation, but in my experience it's more often in the code and sometimes in both.