Gathering information for a new product’s documentation requires even greater resourcefulness, research, and communication skills, than gathering information for a maintenance release. The challenge with a first release, is not only is there no existing UI to help you understand the functionality, but there is also no legacy documentation to use as a building block. In shops that follow the agile methodology, there are also often no specifications to follow. So, how does a technical communicator get information about a product that doesn’t even exist yet?
These are the methods I have used to gather information for new product releases:
- Reviewing the competitor’s documentation (if available) to consider organizational issues and evaluate an approach to similar content.
- Researching, as much as possible, any technologies new to me, via the web especially, by interviewing my internal subject matter experts, and using any additional company resources (for example, marketing data sheets, knowledge bases, and webinars).
- Particpating in any use case or UI prototype reviews to understand functionality and to help me start building an outline for each deliverable, based on the implied tasks.
- Using a combination of the following methods to create placeholder headings in the new user documentation: emerging product requirements, technical specifications, interviews, any early prototypes of the UI, any available demos, or early builds.
- Using various iterations of the product hands on, as those builds become available to me, to complete the documentation’s content.
- Interviewing Subject Matter Experts (primarily engineers).
- Staying especially in the loop with QA engineers, who provide valuable input on “rough” functionality and bugs, that are going to require the most detailed documentation.
- Using a combination of reviews, edits, and sign-off/s to further refine the information.
- Ensuring mechanisms to provide additional internal and external feedback on the documentation.
How do these methods compare to your approach for gathering information during new product releases? How much of your success implementing these methods, depends on your ability to successfully build and maintain relationships with other members of your project team? For me, relationship-building is so integral to a technical communicator’s success, on either a maintenance or new release, that it requires a post of its own.