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On the Importance of Distinguishing Between Stable and Development Documentation

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A few weeks ago I wrote about Why Master Should Be Stable. I spent most of that post explaining what had actually happened to me, but not really talking about the fundamental underlying difficulty. Well, now that I’ve encountered this issue again in a different context, maybe it’s time to dive in a bit and examine what I call the Doc’s Mismatch problem, and how it can be avoided.

As the title hints, this issue is really more about being able to match the documentation of a project to a particular version. The problem with Flaskr was that when you went searching for the documentation, you most easily found the documentation for the currently in development branch. This isn’t a problem when no major changes have been made, but when there are major changes this becomes an issue.

Part of the reason that I’m writing this blog post is because last week, while I was going through the LLVM project’s tutorial I ran into the exact same issue! But I didn’t spot that this version mismatch was the issue until after I had found another workaround.

Not to belabor the point, but basically the LLVM tutorial linked above is actually the version of the tutorial written for the upcoming 3.6 release. Since there are several breaking changes to the API occurring in this release, when you have installed LLVM 3.5 the tutorial appears to be rather broken.

This problem is sort of ironic as the majority of open source software out there (most definitely including all of my projects :) have little-to-no documentation, or what there is, is hopelessly out-of-date. In contrast, the issue that I had with both Flaskr and LLVM was actually a case of the most easily available documentation being TOO up-to-date.

How can we do better?

Let’s contrast these experiences with a project that gets it right: Django. First off, I just want to praise the Django project for their excellent documentation in general. There is a lot of it, and it is fairly well-written and clear. There is also a good mixture of the three types of documentation that every project needs.</praise>

Okay, now lets look at how Django avoids the Docs Mismatch problem. First, look at the URL for the main Django Documentation page: https://docs.djangoproject.com/en/1.7/. Notice that 1.7 at the end? That indicates what version of Django these docs are for. At the time of this writing, 1.7 is the latest stable release of Django. So, right away Django is doing well. By default the link on the Django homepage takes you to this page. And you can bet, that when the next stable release of Django comes out, that homepage will be updated to point at the 1.8 version.

However, there is still more that Django is getting fundamentally right here. By embedding the version of the documentation in the URL, they can host multiple different versions of the documentation. And they do! This means that if you’re forced to use an older version of Django for whatever reason (legacy project, no install privileges etc.) you can still go online to the Django website and find the documentation for the version you’re using. To make this even easier, their documentation pages all have a permanent float in the bottom right hand corner that shows the current version of the docs that you’re looking at, and has links to other recent versions of the documentation. How cool is that!

If you look at the links in that little floated element, you’ll notice a non-numbered version is available dev. This is the documentation for the [current development head][djangodevdoc]. More importantly, notice that this is the equivalent of the documentation that was easiest for me to find when dealing with both LLVM and Flaskr. But with Django I had to specifically go looking for it. Why? Because most people don’t want to read the docs for the development head. And if they do, they know it!

Django gets one more thing really right here. When you go to the dev docs page, they automatically add a float at the top of the screen, in an eye-catching color that effectively says: “These are the dev docs. Are you sure you want to be reading them? They’re probably different.”

This last feature is really the key to avoiding the Docs Mismatch problem. The development docs are fairly rarely what people want to be reading when they first pick up a new project. So they shouldn’t be the easiest (or only!) documentation to find for your project.

How do we fix it?

The ideal situation is for your documentation to be structured like Django’s: multiple versions available, notifications when viewing the dev version. The good news is that this is much easier to achieve thany you might expect. Read The Docs makes it trivial to have this kind of setup for your open source project. In fact, Django actually uses Read The Docs for their own documentation. I highly recommend checking out their page and seeing just how easy it is to set up for your own projects. Of course, once you have this awesome system the only issue is actually writing all the awesome documentation to populate it…

Other issues

A primary problem with the Docs Mismatch issue is that the people who notice it are typically people just wanting to use the project, not the people developing it. This is especially problematic because these people are also the most easily discouraged from using a project.

Another problem is that often - especially in older projects - fixing the Docs Mismatch issue will require either access to a server, or changes in a release deployment process or something similar. None of these things are possible for a beginner in a project to do. This means that the people the most motivated to fix the issue, are the least able to do anything about it.