Promoting and documenting a small software project: VoIP Drupal update

Isn’t the integration of mobile phones and the Web one of the hot topics in modern technology? If so, VoIP Drupal should become a fixture of web development and administration. I have been meeting with leaders of the project to help with their documentation and publicity. I reported on my first meeting with them here on Radar, and this posting is one of a series of follow-ups I plan to write.

Immediate pressures

When Leo Burd, the lead developer of VoIP Drupal, first pulled together a small cohort of supporters to help with documentation and promotion, only three weeks were left before DrupalCon, the major Drupal annual conference. Leo was doing some presentations there, and the pressing question was what users would want in order to get interested in VoIP Drupal, learn more about it, and be able to get started.

Leo was indefatigable. He planned to get some new modules finished before the conference, but in addition to coding and preparing his own presentations, he wanted to address the lack of introductory materials because it might get in the way of enticing new users to try VoIP Drupal.

In the end, Leo led a webinar to drum up interest. The little group of half a dozen self-selected fans reviewed his slides, sat in on a preview, and helped whip it into a really well-focused, hard-hitting survey. This webinar had 94 participants from 19 countries and more than 40 companies.

Michele Metts, a non-profit activist and Drupal consultant, also stepped up to create slides and lead webinars with slides explaining VoIP Drupal basics.

Slide from a VoIP Drupal webinar
Slide from a VoIP Drupal webinar

Although we agreed that many parts of the system needed more documentation, it was a more effective use of time at this point to do webinars. VoiP Drupal has many interactive aspects that are best shown off through demonstrations. As I’ll explain, documentation would require more resources.

Perceptions and challenges

Responses to the webinar and to Leo’s DrupalCon presentation helped us understand better what it would take to win more adherents to this useful tool. Leo reported that few people knew of the existence of VoIP Drupal, but that when they heard of it, they assumed it would be expensive. His impression was that they knew traditional PBX systems and didn’t realize how much more low-cost and light-weight VoIP is.

In my opinion, Web administrators (and many content providers) still see the Web and the telephone as separate worlds, never to meet. This despite the increasing popularity of running queries and Internet apps on mobile devices. We have to address server-side apathy. There should come a day when the things VoIP Drupal does are taken for granted: people leaving phone numbers on Web sites to receive SMS or voice updates, pressing Web buttons on their cell phones to get an interactive voice menu, etc.

The versatility of VoIP Drupal gives it fantastic potential but makes it harder to explain in an elevator speech. The ways in which voice can be integrated with the Web are nearly infinite. In addition, two distinctly different settings can benefit from VoIP. One consists of highly structured corporate sites, which can use VoIP Drupal for such typical bureaucratic tasks as offering interactive voice menus and routing customers to extensions. The other consists of sites serving underdeveloped areas, where people are more adept at using their phones than dealing with text-based Web sites. We need different pitches for each potential user.

Finally (and here my training as an editor pokes in), there are a number of different audiences who need to understand VoIP Drupal on different levels. Content providers need to understand what it can do and see models for incorporating it into their Drupal sites. Administrators need to understand how to find scripts and offer them to content providers. And programmers need to learn how to write fresh scripts. We also want to attract open source developers who could help enhance and maintain VoIP Drupal. There is even a tool called Visual VoIP Drupal that reduces the amount of programming skill required to create a new script pretty close to a minimum–that creates yet another audience.

Documentation needs

My goal in joining the informal VoiP Drupal promotion team was to use this project as a test case for exploring what software projects do for documentation, and how they could do better.

A number of sites have successfully implemented VoIP Drupal, some of them in quite sophisticated ways, but you could call these the alpha developers or early adopters. They managed, for instance, to find the reference documentation that requires several clicks to access, and which I did not notice for weeks. And needless to say, they required no other documentation, because the tutorials are extremely rudimentary.

I think that VoIP Drupal documentation is typical of early software projects–and in fact better than many. Projects tend to toss the reader a brief tutorial, provide some examples with inadequate explanatory text, and finally dunk the reader in the middle of an API reference. The tutorial tends to be fragile, in the sense that any problem encountered by the reader (a missing step, a change in environment) leaves her in an unrecoverable state, because there is no documentation about the way the system works and its assumptions. And the context for understanding reference documentation is missing, so that it can be used only by experienced developers who have seen similar programs in other environments.

Useful VoIP Drupal documentation includes (these are examples):

Our team knew that more descriptive text was needed to pull together these pieces, but whoever wrote a document would need some intensive time with a core developer. This was unfeasible in the rush to get the software in shape for DrupalCon. I found out about the difficulties of producing documents first-hand when I decided to tackle Visual VoIP Drupal, which looked simple and intuitive. Unfortunately, there were a lot of oddities in its behavior, and the simplicity of the interface didn’t save me from having to know some of the subtler and less documented aspects of VoIP Drupal programming, such as handling input variables.

In a recent teleconference, I asked a bunch of preliminary questions and got a better idea of what documentation already covers, as well as a starting point for doing more documentation.

Current documentation tasks, in my opinion, include:

  • Expand the tutorials to show more of the capabilities of VoIP Drupal.

  • Provide explanations of key topics, such as different ways to handle voice input, keyboard input, and the metainformation provided by VoIP Drupal about each call. The developers’ provision of a simple scripting system on top of PHP, and even more the creation of Visual VoIP Drupal, demonstrates their commitment to reaching non-programmers, but we have to follow through by filling in the background they lack.

  • Create a few videos or webinars on Visual VoIP Drupal.

  • Make links to the reference documentation more prominent, and link to it liberally in the tutorials and background documents. The use of doc strings from the code is reasonable for reference documentation, because nobody is asking it to look pretty and we want to maximize the probability that it will stay up to date.

  • Ask the community for examples and case studies, and describe what makes each one an interesting use of VoIP Drupal.

There’s plenty that could be done, such as describing how to integrate VoIP Drupal into existing PHP code (and therefore more fully into existing Drupal pages) but that can be postponed. Leo said he’s “particularly interested in working with Micky and the rest this group in the creation of a Visual VoIP Drupal webinar, and one about things we can do with VoIP Drupal right out of the box, with no or minimum programming.”

What motivates people like Michele and me to put so much time into this project? Certainly, Michele wants to promote a project that she uses in her own work so that it thrives and continues to evolve. I can use what I learn from this work to provide services to other open source communities. But beyond all these individual rewards is a gut feeling that VoIP Drupal is cool. Using it is fun, and talking about it is also fun. Projects have achieved success for more light-weight reasons.

Posting in this series are listed in a bundle.

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