The power of suggestion that documentation has

March 17, 2013

DWikiText (the wikitext dialect of Wandering Thoughts) has a couple of different ways of writing links, less by design and more because of evolution over time. DWikiText started out with one form, later added a second that I felt was better, and then of course could never remove the first one because there were plenty of existing entries using it. When the second form was added I updated the DWikiText help to include a mention of it. More to the point I more or less tacked it on the end of the help text in appropriate spots. I didn't revise the help text or the examples it uses to make the second form the prominent form; instead, the first form kept on being the first one mentioned and the one used for examples.

(The two forms are [[text text text|URL]], the first and more awkward one, and the simpler one, [[text text text URL]]. In addition to being simpler to write I think that the second one plain looks better, although it doesn't clearly mark out that the last word is special.)

I switched to using the second form pretty much the moment it was available, but what I've recently noticed is that a lot of other people using DWikiText (either in comments here or on their own DWiki) are using the older, more awkward first form. While I can't know exactly why they're doing that, I suspect that it's because my help text lists the old form first. I'm guessing that people scan the help text for 'how to make a link', scan that section to find the first way that works for them, and then use it; they don't bother to read further and really, why should they? They've got the answer that they came for.

What this says to me is that documentation has much stronger and more subtle powers of suggestion than I was tacitly assuming. It's not enough to document everything; you (ie, I) have to structure things so that readers are led to the best or preferred options first. This makes total sense and I'm sure I've had related thoughts before (probably about other people's documentation), but I haven't looked at my own stuff through this lens before. I think I have some revising to do on the DWiki help documentation and I'm going to have to remember this for any future documentation I write in general.

(To be clear I think this is perfectly sensible behavior on the part of the people reading the documentation. People generally do not read our documentation as if it was a fascinating book that they want to fully consume. Unless you force them or write really stunning prose, why shouldn't they spend as little time as possible by skimming and focusing on just what they want to know? And forcing people to read all your deathless prose is not going to be highly appreciated by your audience, to put it one way.)

Written on 17 March 2013.
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Last modified: Sun Mar 17 22:00:39 2013
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