Collaboration is a crucial component of modern-day work, regardless of the industry you’re employed in or your role in the team.
Creating and maintaining documentation for your products is no different.
Within a team of people, often with different areas of expertise and levels of experience, who take care of documentation, you need to establish good collaboration practices if you want to provide high-quality resources to your audience.
Fortunately, there are many ways to improve document collaboration. In this article, we’ll present you with some you should definitely try.
Let’s start with the first one!
Define the Collaboration Roles
Working on documentation requires a team of people and precise management of their roles and responsibilities.
Imagine how your documentation would look if you have a team of, for example, ten people, who are all left to do what they want with the documents.
Most likely, the lack of direction and clarity would lead to confusing, unhelpful, and, in short, low-quality documentation.
That’s why you should clearly define the roles of everyone involved in shaping the documentation in any capacity.
David Gasparyan, the president of Phonexa and a veteran in digital marketing, advises the same:
Assigning roles and responsibilities in a team isn’t only for the sake of better work structure and organization.
Clarity among collaborators regarding their tasks also positively affects the entire team’s productivity.
According to research by Effectory, employees who have role clarity are 53% more efficient than those who aren’t sure about their place in the team.
In other words, defining collaboration roles will result in a more productive team.
So, what roles should you have in your team while collaborating on documentation?
Here’s how Sergei Golubenko, a solution architect in SharePoint, divides the documentation roles:
The roles go from the one with the most responsibilities and permissions on the top of the list to the one with the least at the bottom.
For instance, the owner can view and edit documents, give and revoke permissions, and control every aspect of the document and documentation process.
A collaborator, or a writer, can view and edit documents.
A commentator can also view documents but only leave comments without editing the content.
A reader is a role with one permission—to read the docs.
When you define collaboration roles like that, everyone in the team knows exactly what they can and have to do, as well as what tasks the others have.
That creates a unified team of collaborators who can work confidently toward common goals.
Control Access to Documents
As we’ve mentioned in the earlier section, collaboration roles have different tasks and responsibilities.
Establishing control over document access can help your team members focus on their roles and prevent unwanted changes to the documentation.
For example, if you divide your contributors into groups, as we suggested before, every group will have different permissions—contributors will be able to edit content, readers will only view it, etc.
However, you can also control which team has access to which documents. For instance, you might want to keep code documentation restricted to software developers.
Most documentation tools these days allow you to control the access that way. Below, you can see what those settings can look like.
As you can see, it can be as simple as determining which teams can read the documentation and which can also contribute to it.
Keep in mind that, as your team grows, it will be increasingly difficult to keep track of which individual has access to which parts of the documentation and their permissions.
That’s why Haissam Abdul Malak, a seasoned senior product manager, advises focusing on groups rather than individuals.
When we put all of that together, the point is that you can gain a higher level of control over your documentation.
By dividing employees into different groups and providing those groups with different permissions and access to documentation, you know who can view, edit, write, comment, upload, download, etc.
That also improves collaboration because every team member knows what they can access and work on, so they can’t create confusion, or even errors, by meddling in the wrong parts of the documentation.
Separate Drafting From Editing
Creating documentation isn’t a simple, one-step process.
A writer usually doesn’t just sit in front of a computer and churn out a document in one go, from a blank page to a fully formed and detailed information resource.
Technical writing is complex, and it should involve multiple separate processes. Drafting and editing are non-negotiable ones.
Simply put, drafting is creating a version of a document, whether it’s early or final. Here’s how Calvert Academy describes drafting:
During drafting, the writer puts his ideas into complete thoughts, such as sentences and paragraphs.
When it comes to collaborating on documents, the drafting process should be finished before the team moves on to editing.
If you and your team use documentation tools for drafting documents, you can look for the option to mark your documents as drafts.
That way, whoever is responsible for the editing process knows which documents are the ones that are ready for the next stage.
And the next stage, as you’ve probably guessed, is the editing process.
Editing should begin only after everyone working on the drafts of their documents is finished with that part of their work.
Clément Rog, Slite’s former head of marketing, points out that editing should be thorough.
During editing, documents should be checked for clarity, grammatical accuracy, usefulness for the readers, etc.
The writer of a document can edit their own draft, but it can also be a collaborative process—it doesn’t hurt to have fresh eyes check the draft.
It also doesn’t hurt if everyone involved in editing follows the same guidelines. You can ensure that using an editing checklist that provides all the crucial elements in an easy-to-follow format.
For example, below is a part of an editing checklist by Edward Cheung, an experienced product copywriter.
A detailed checklist like that makes it easier for a team to cover all the bases when editing the drafts and ensures consistent end-product quality.
Drafting and editing are crucial parts of creating documentation, but they shouldn’t mix.
Keeping them separate is the right way to ensure the team can collaborate on each of those processes and maximize the results, leading to a great end product.
Communicate Within the Document
Communication within the documentation team is vital for productive and efficient collaboration.
That basically goes without saying.
It is very difficult to imagine a fruitful collaboration between team members that results in excellent documentation if they don’t communicate, exchange ideas, give and receive feedback, etc.
As Anja Bojić, a content creator and strategist, points out, communication and collaboration are fundamental to success.
As she further explains, communication and collaboration are the two sides of the same coin. There is no one without the other.
Therefore, if you want to collaborate better, you need to communicate better.
We can distinguish between two main communication types you are probably already familiar with—synchronous and asynchronous.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with those terms, you most likely use both communication types daily with your coworkers.
Synchronous communication takes place in real time, whether it’s face-to-face, via telephone, or through messaging apps.
For example, you practice synchronous communication when you hop onto a Zoom call with your team.
And although it’s efficient and immediate, synchronous communication comes with at least one significant disadvantage—interruptions.
When someone calls you or sends you a message on Slack, it interrupts your work on the documentation.
According to research by Michigan State University, even brief interruptions can double the error rate.
On the other hand, asynchronous communication doesn’t interfere with the workflow and deep focus.
For example, if you use Archbee as your documentation platform, you can leave comments in documents for other team members to see without disturbing them.
Even if you just mention them in the comment, they’ll see the notification the next time they are available.
As you can see in the screenshot above, asynchronous communication within the documents has another benefit—you don’t need to use a third-party app for communication.
All of the communication can take place in the documents you create in Archbee, which makes it much more convenient and time-efficient.
Implement Version Control
If you want to improve your document collaboration, implementing version control is one of the key factors in achieving that goal.
Why? Well, earlier, we discussed collaboration on documents through the drafting and editing stages.
Through those processes, the document will likely change a lot. Some elements will be added and some removed, whole paragraphs will be rewritten, etc.
On top of that, the more collaborators on a document you have, the more changes are likely to happen.
That’s perfectly normal and expected in document creation. But, that workflow can lead to certain issues.
For instance, a team member who accidentally erased a part of the document or an editor that didn’t do a good job, so you need to fix their changes.
With version control, you can keep track of all the changes to a document, who made them, and when.
You can see what that feature can look like on the left-hand side of the screenshot above.
Furthermore, next to that, you can also see another benefit of the version control feature, and that’s reverting to a previous version of the document.
Restoring one of the earlier document versions can save you a lot of time and effort if someone makes an error in the document or you simply change your mind about some element of the content.
Some documentation tools also highlight the changes between different versions of the document.
That’s a convenient feature for tracking changes and edits to a document.
In addition to restoring previous document versions and tracking all the changes in a living resource, which technical documents certainly are, documentation tools allow you to maintain multiple document versions simultaneously.
For instance, Slate.js, a platform for creating text editors, offers two versions of documentation to its users.
Let’s say you have recently released a newer version of your product.
The documentation for the established and the latest versions won't be identical, because the newer version has some features that the older one doesn’t.
In that case, providing two documentation versions can be beneficial for your users but also for your team members, who can work on both versions and keep track of the differences between products.
Version control can be valuable in various ways, so it’s a good idea to implement it.
Share Documents Instead of Sending Them
Sharing knowledge and information is one of the cornerstones of successful collaboration.
Teams who work well together nurture the culture of sharing and breaking down silos.
And the challenges of accessing knowledge and information at the workplace aren’t rare—on the contrary.
According to the Workplace Knowledge and Productivity Report by Panopto, 60% of employees note some level of difficulty getting the information and knowledge they need to do their job.
Sharing documents among the team members is a part of that information sharing, which is crucial for productivity and collaboration.
After all, if multiple people collaborate on creating and maintaining documentation, they should share those documents among themselves.
However, you should consider how those documents get from one team member to another.
For example, sending documents via email is still common, but it isn’t safe as some might think.
Dr. Catherine J. Ullman, a senior information security analyst at the University at Buffalo, warns about the dangers of email as a channel for sending sensitive information.
As she points out, although you need credentials to enter someone’s email inbox, emails are sent from server to server in a clear text that anyone can read in transit.
Even if you attach documents to emails and encrypt them, that’s not an ideal solution.
Systems can erase encrypted attachments because they can’t scan the contents for safety, Dr. Ullman explains.
So, what’s the solution?
It’s simple—instead of sending documents via email or any other channel, keep them in your knowledge base and share them as needed.
For example, with the great documentation tool, you can protect your documents with a password, create a link or a guest account for accessing them, or generate a JWT key.
With features like those, the documents can stay where they are, safe and secure as much as you want them to be, while still accessible to those who need them.
Collaborating on documents can be challenging, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
You can create outstanding documentation with your team and provide it to your audience, especially if you follow the advice we’ve presented to you in this article.
These strategies can help you collaborate with your team members more effectively, establishing a productive working environment that will lead to excellent results.
So, next time you are faced with document collaboration, take the advice from this article, and you’ll achieve your teamwork goals.