Write the Docs: Christine Burwinkle – Pairing with designers to create a seamless user experience

I’m at Write the Docs today in Budapest 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.

Christine works at Atlassian, makers of Jira and other software tools for software developers. Their design team has grown from 5 to 30 over the last couple of years. On the whole Atlassian has focused a lot on the user experience of their products. Traditionally their tech writing has played a more formal or traditional role. They saw an opportunity to work together toward shared goals. Both are trying to reach users and give them a really great experience, they just use different tools.

A few of the design principles the docs team brought over to their work were to be familiar, to grow with users, and to give clarity to users. Those drive the decisions their design team makes. They realized those goals are easily adapted to documentation. Personas also play a role for both their design and docs team. The design team did a yearlong project to develop those personas. These make it easy for different teams to have common ground in how to build their software for their users.

The docs team realized in this process that designers have access to lots of customer information. They have interviews, site visits, usability tests, usage information on existing features, and a long-term roadmap for the product. All of that can help a docs team build documentation that’s relevant for users.

The documentation process for Atlassian starts in user testing. Designers test new prototypes with users and the docs team uses information from those tests to guide their documentation edits. They piggyback analytics on to this for hard data as well.

The first tool the docs team borrowed from the design team was empathy maps. Empathy maps help bring focus on the user. You can use them to workshop how a user might feel in a “before and after” situation. You take the “after” situation and work backward.

Another tool they’ve borrowed is sparring sessions. They’re basically a critique session that brings group thinking in to design and planning. It’s a check that the goals have been met with a given prototype. The goal is to assure design quality by critiquing design early and often. Prior to a sparring session they send out a draft of the doc as well as a brief or outline that covers the goals of a document. A few tips they’ve learned the hard way:

  • Timebox, timebox, timebox! Set a timer so you don’t go down rabbit holes.
  • If your team is given to negativity, try a positives-only 5 minutes.
  • Try to make sure everyone is heard. You can use a checklist or give everyone 1 minute to list feedback.
  • Leave with at least 3 action items. The onus is on the writer to take action on these things.

6-ups are another workshopping tool they’ve borrowed. They drive focus on ideal solutions and get you out of “word-thinking” and can be a good way to build on each others’ ideas. Sometimes the best way to communicate an idea is to sketch it and really illustrate what a user will be seeing for a given feature.

User stores are an additional tool. It’s about figuring out how a user is going to go through a product. It charts a path through goals and actions within a product. Going through that path can help you spot where users will hit pain points and fall out of the flow.

They made all this happen by finding the right projects. They looked for a team that finds value in design and writing as well as a designer who sees the value in docs. It helps to look for a new project that’s running lean and has some momentum. Projects that are data-driven are also beneficial as it helps cement and validate the work you’re putting in to these sessions.