Documentation strategy for a small software project: launching VoIP Drupal introductions

VoIP Drupal is a window onto the promises and challenges faced by a new open source project, including its documentation. At O’Reilly, we’ve been conscious for some time that we lack a business model for documenting new collaborative projects–near the beginning, at the stage where they could use the most help with good materials to promote their work, but don’t have a community large enough to support a book–and I joined VoIP Drupal to explore how a professional editor can help such a team.

Small projects can reach a certain maturity with poor and sparse documentation. But the critical move from early adopters to mainstream requires a lot more hand-holding for prospective users. And these projects can spare hardly any developer time for documentation. Users and fans can be helpful here, but their documentation needs to be checked and updated over time; furthermore, reliance on spontaneous contributions from users leads to spotty and unpredictable coverage.

Large projects can hire technical writers, but what they do is very different from traditional documentation; they must be community managers as well as writers and editors (see Anne Gentle’s book Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation). So these projects can benefit from research into communities also.

I met at the MIT Media Lab this week with Leo Burd, the inventor of VoIP Drupal, and a couple other supporters, notably Micky Metts of We worked out some long-term plans for firming up VoIP Drupal’s documentation and other training materials. But we also had to deal with an urgent need for materials to offer at DrupalCon, which begins in just over one month.


One of the difficulties of explaining VoIP Drupal is that it’s just so versatile. The foundations are simple:

  • A thin wrapper around PHP permits developers to write simple scripts that dial phone numbers, send SMS messages, etc. These scripts run on services that initiate connections and do translation between voice and text (Tropo, Twilio, and the free Plivo are currently supported).

  • Administrators on Drupal sites can use the Drupal interface to configure VoIP Drupal modules and add phone/SMS scripts to their sites.

  • Content providers can use the VoIP Drupal capabilities provided by their administrators to do such things as send text messages to site users, or to enable site users to record messages using their phone or computer.

Already you can see one challenge: VoIP Drupal has three different audiences that need very different documentation. In fact, we’ve thought of two more audiences: decision-makers who might build a business or service on top of VoIP Drupal, and potential team members who will maintain and build new features.

Some juicy modules built on top of VoIP Drupal’s core extend its versatility to the point where it’s hard to explain on an elevator ride what VoIP Drupal could do. Leo tosses out a few ideas such as:

  • Emergency awareness systems that use multiple channels to reach out to a population who live in a certain area. That would require a combination of user profiling, mapping and communication capabilities tend to be extremely hard to put together under one single package.

  • Community polling/voting systems that are accessible via web, SMS, email, phone, etc.

  • CRM systems that keep track (and even record) phone interactions, organize group conference calls with the click of a button, etc.

  • Voice-based bulletin boards.

  • Adding multiple authentication mechanisms to a site.

  • Sending SMS event notifications based on Google Calendars.

In theory you could create a complete voice and SMS based system out of VoIP Drupal and ignore the web site altogether, but that would be a rather cumbersome exercise. VoIP Drupal is well-suited to integrating voice and the Web–and it leaves lots of room for creativity.

Long-term development

A community project, we agreed, needs to be incremental and will result in widely distributed documents. Some people like big manuals, but most want a quickie getting-started guide and then lots of chances to explore different options at their own pace. Communities are good for developing small documents of different types. The challenge is finding someone to cover any particular feature, as well as to do the sometimes tedious work of updating the document over time.

We decided that videos would be valuable for the administrators and content providers, because they work through graphical interfaces. However, the material should also be documented in plain text. This expands access to the material in two ways. First, VoIP Drupal may be popular in part of the world where bandwidth limitations make it hard to view videos. Second, the text pages are easier to translate into other languages.

Just as a video can be worth a thousand words, working scripts can replace a dozen explanations. Leo will set up a code contribution site on Github. This is more work than it may seem, because malicious or buggy scripts can wreak havoc for users (imagine someone getting a thousand identical SMS messages over the course of a single hour, for instance), so contributions have to be vetted.

Some projects assign a knowledgeable person or two to create an outline, then ask community members to fill it in. I find this approach too restrictive. Having a huge unfilled structure is just depressing. And one has to grab the excitement of volunteers wherever it happens to land. Just asking them to document what they love about a project will get you more material than presenting them with a mandate to cover certain topics.

But then how do you get crucial features documented? Wait and watch forums for people discussing those features. When someone seems particularly knowledgeable and eager to help, ask him or her for a longer document that covers the feature. You then have to reward this person for doing the work, and a couple ways that make sense in this situation include:

  • Get an editor to tighten up the document and work with the author to make a really professional article out of it.

  • Highlight it on your web site and make sure people can find it easily. For many volunteers, seeing their material widely used is the best reward.

We also agreed that we should divide documentation into practical, how-to documents and conceptual documents. Users like to grab a hello-world document and throw together their first program. As they start to shape their own projects, they realize they don’t really understand how the system fits together and that they need some background concepts. Here is where most software projects fail. They assume that the reader understands the reasoning behind the design and knows how best to use it.

Good conceptual documentation is hard to produce, partly because the lead developers have the concepts so deeply ingrained that they don’t realize what it is that other people don’t know. Breaking the problems down into small chunks, though, can make it easier to produce useful guides.

Like many software projects, VoIP Drupal documentation currently starts the reader off with a list of modules. The team members liked an idea of mine to replace these with brief tutorials or use cases. Each would start with a goal or question (what the reader wants to accomplish) and then introduce the relevant module. In general, given the flexibility of VoIP Drupal, we agreed we need a lot more “why and when” documentation.

Immediate preparations

Before we take on a major restructuring and expansion of documentation, though, we have a tight deadline for producing some key videos and documents. Leo is going to lead a development workshop at DrupalCon, and he has to determine the minimum documentation needed to make it a productive experience. He also wants to do a webinar on February 28 or 29, and a series of videos on basic topics such as installing VoIP Drupal, a survey of successful sites using it, and a nifty graphical interface called Visual VoIP Drupal. Visual VoIP Drupal, which will be released in a few weeks, is one of the new features Leo would like to promote in order to excite users. It lets a programmer select blocks and blend them into a script through a GUI, instead of typing all the code.

The next few weeks will bring a flurry of work to realize our vision.

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