Most technical documents require considerable research before you sit down to write them. Here are top 7 methods to conduct a comprehensive documentation research in the pre-production phase:
1) The Existing Documentation. Insist on seeing every piece of paper ever produced on the project. This can be an old user manual, an installation handbook, engineering notes scribbled in a notebook, chat and discussion forum files, scope and spec documents, etc. You never know when you’ll discover a piece of information that would be vital for your document.
2) SMEs. Subject Matter Experts are great valuable resources for all technical writers. Do your homework well and draw up a clear list of important questions before contacting an SME since most are very busy people with not much time for unstructured “brain storming.”
3) Using the software or the product itself. Make sure you get your hands on the software or the product that you are documenting. There is no substitute to direct empirical data gathered from hands-on experimentation.
4) Visiting the sites, customers, observing the product in use. One excellent way to understand how a product or system operates is to visit the customer sites where the product is installed. That kind of visit can create the high-value trouble shooting guide and FAQ sheets that come in handy when things go wrong. That kind of knowledge is very hard to compile from the head office.
5) Conducting web- and tele-conferences. With the technology available to us today it’s very easy to gather a group of SMEs, managers, users, and testers for a virtual conference where a technical writer can get answers to his or her questions.
6) Sending out surveys. This rare method of information gathering can be a potent one if the right questions are asked and sent to the right parties.
7) Library and Internet research. This is perhaps the most accessible information source. However, the dilemma for the technical writers is, if it’s on the Internet or in your public library, there probably would not be a need for you to write it in the first place. We technical writers are invited to document what has not been documented before. In that sense we always operate on the frontiers of human knowledge, making such easy searches not very fruitful and hopeful.