Write the Docs: Kevin Hale – Getting Developers and Engineers to Write the Docs

I’m at Write the Docs today in Portland and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are all posted right after a talk fin­ishes so they’re rough around the edges.

Kevin was the next talk in the afternoon. Also, check out my notes from UserConf for notes from his talk there. He talked about Wufoo.

The ease of use Wufoo has means that, well, just about anyone can use it. Every person on their original team of 10 people wrote documentation. The secret, as Kevin puts it, was that everyone was working in customer support to some extent. They sent about 800 support emails a week to a user base of about 500,000.

Wufoo sought to create software that people had a relationship with. They were fanatical about creating meaningful relationships. They approached new users as if they were dating them and existing users as if they were married to them.

When it comes to new users, first impressions matter. The homepage, landing pages, plans/pricing, login, and support are the typical first impressions. Kevin prefers to focus on things like the first email, the login link, the first support interaction, and other specific pieces of the customer experience.

One way this looks in practice is how Chocolat allows you to keep using all the features after the trial period. Only thing is they force you to code in Comic Sans. Little touches like that matter.

Kevin also mentioned the site Little Big Details which collects lots of these kind of touches. WordPress is even in there. 🙂

Kevin mapped common marriage issues (money, kids, sex, time, others) to product issues (cost, users’ clients, performance, roadmap, others). As he put it, “divorce is like churn in a marriage.”

Kevin and the founders of Wufoo sought to create a support-driven development process. The way you make this work is simple. You just make everyone do customer support. The creators become the supporters and, thus, can’t ignore the things that cause users grief. This helped Wufoo scale their customer growth without causing an exponential hit on their support volume.

They learned a few lessons from this:

  • Support-responsible developers give the best customer support.
  • Contextual documentation is key. For example, clicking the “Help” tab takes you to the portion of docs for that feature.
  • Engineers who do support run experiments. Wufoo did this by having an emotional state drop down to their contact form.
  • Support-responsible developers actually create better software.
  • Support-responsible developers respect the people who do support full-time, every day. Their first full-time support person was revered because everyone understand what that job was like.

They spent 30% of their time in internal tools. As Kevin put it, some of the best software they created was stuff that no user interacted with. It’s wroth taking care of the stuff your employees work with every single day.

The prevent their user relationship from atrophying Wufoo included a “Since you’ve been gone” view in their application. Each time a user logged in they’d see a timeline of what features had recently been added. To be included in this list they required developers to have finished the documentation. So if a developer wanted their feature in front of every user, they wrote docs.

Kevin also posted his slides over on Speakerdeck.