Tip for improving standards documentation

I love a good standard. I’ve written about them a lot here.

As its #WorldStandardsDay I thought I’d write a quick post to share something that I’ve learned from leading and supporting some standards work.

I’ve already shared this with a number of people who have asked for advice on standards work, and in some recent user research interviews I’ve participated in. So it makes sense to write it down.

In the ODIHQ standards guide, we explained that at the end of your initial activity to develop a standard, you should plan to produce a range of outputs. This include a variety of tools and guidance that help people use the standard. You will need much more than just a technical specification.

To plan for the different types of documentation that you may need I recommend applying this “Grand Unified Theory of Documentation“.

That framework highlights four different types of documentation are intended to be used by different audiences to address different needs. The content designers and writers out there reading this will be be rolling their eyes at this obvious insight.

Here’s how I’ve been trying to apply it to standards documentation:

Reference

This is your primary technical specification. It’ll have all the detail about the standard, the background concepts, the conformance criteria, etc.

It’s the document of record that captures all of the hard work you’ve invested in building consensus around the standard. It fills a valuable role as the document you can point back to when you need to clarify or confirm what was agreed.

But, unless its a very simple standard, it’s going to have a limited audience. A developer looking to implement a conformant tool, API or library may need to read and digest all of the detail. But most people want something else.

Put the effort into ensuring its clear, precise and well-structured. But plan to also produce three additional categories of documentation.

Explainers

Many people just want an overview of what it is designed to do. What value will it provide? What use cases was it designed to support? Why was it developed? Who is developing it?

These are higher-level introductory questions. The type of questions that business stakeholders want to answer to sign-off on implementing a standard, so it goes onto a product roadmap.

Explainers are also useful background information that are useful for a developer ahead of taking a deeper dive. If there are some key concepts that are important to understanding the design and implementation of a standard, then write an explainer.

Tutorials

A simple, end-to-end description of how to apply the standard. E.g. how to publish a dataset that conforms to the standard, or export data from an existing system.

A tutorial will walk you through using a specific set of tools, frameworks or programming languages. The end result being a basic implementation of the standard. Or a simple dataset that passes some basic validation checks. A tutorial won’t cover all of the detail, it’s enough to get you started.

You may need several tutorials to support different types of users. Or different languages and frameworks.

If you’ve produced a tool, like validator or a template spreadsheet to support data publication, you’ll probably need a tutorial for each of them unless they are very simple to use.

Tutorials are gold for a developer who has been told: “please implement this standard, but you only have 2 days to do it”.

How-Tos

Short, task oriented documentation focused on helping someone apply the standard. E.g. “How to produce a CSV file from Excel”, “Importing GeoJSON data in QGIS”, “Describing a bus stop”. Make them short and digestible.

How-Tos can help developers build from a tutorial, to a more complete implementation. Or help a non-technical user quickly apply a standard or benefit from it.

You’ll probably end up with lots of these over time. Drive creating them from the types of questions or support requests you’re getting. Been asked how to do something three times? Write a How-To.

There’s lots more that can be said about standards documentation. For example you could add Case Studies to this list. And its important to think about whether written documentation is the right format. Maybe your Explainers and How-Tos can be videos?

But I’ve found the framework to be a useful planning tools. Have a look at the documentation for more tips.

Producing extra documentation to support the launch of a standard, and then investing in improving and expanding it over time will always be time well-spent.

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