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We're working on a software manual with several chapters and topics and, so far, these are mostly self-contained. This means we have a dedicated chapter for "connectivity" and do not mention connectivity elsewhere, a dedicated chapter for "software upgrades" and do not mention upgrades elsewhere, etc. You get the idea.

But we have now a new software functionality that affects different topics in the manual (say, topics A, C, and G). Each one of these topics is self-contained and isolated from the others but affected in a different way by this new functionality.

The question is, what would be the best approach to read about this new functionality?:

  1. Create a new topic H and discuss in detail how this new feature affects A, C, and G. Add references in A, C, and G to the new H topic (central approach)
  2. Add information about the new feature to the to the existing topics A, C, and G, without the need of a new H topic. (disperse approach)

We see advantages and disadvantages in both. In (1) we have everything in one place, which makes things easier in the long term, but H would be a topic of disparate things. In (2) we provide the information in the topic itself, where is most needed, but this is difficult to maintain the in the long term.

Thanks, Jorge

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It depends, but probably you want the distributed approach where the chapter on X tells you everything you need to know about X, even if some of that is only relevant if you're using feature Y. However, if Y is a corner case or involves a lot of changes to several other features, you might be better off collecting everything about Y in one place and linking to it from every other chapter it touches. Don't just put it in its own chapter and say nothing in the others, though; that can lead to surprises when users who jumped straight to X later find out that they should have done X' because they're using Y.

On top of this, one approach my team uses is to have a section of the doc set (an HTML bundle of all the individual docs) that describes new features in this release. Each new feature gets a high-level description of what it is and when you might use it, ending with links to the relevant places in the "main" docs. People interested in "new feature Y" can go there for easy access to the information (via links), but the main content is in the other docs.

  • Thanks, Monika. We agree with your proposal: for a limited amount of information about a new topic, the distributed approach is probably the best one, but when the information increases, you should discuss that information on a dedicated topic while maintaining meaningful links in the other topics. – user9995 Sep 24 '15 at 10:29
  • @jorgepc right -- if the change is really a new feature with feature-sized doc impact, and it also has minor effects on other features, then you'd want a new guide with links. – Monica Cellio Sep 24 '15 at 12:43
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How do your users read and use the manual?

If they use it as a textbook, where 95% of the readers start at the beginning and progress through to the end in linear fashion, then put all the new information into one chapter at the end.

If they use it as a reference book, so chapters are read out of order, individually, or not even in total because the person is looking up a feature, then you need the disparate method.

To use SaberWriter's example, if all I need to do is look up how to create menus in HTML, it would be useful to have at the very least a note saying that I could do the same thing with CSS or even more easily with JavaScript, a quick summary of the process, and then a reference to a longer explanation in the CSS and JavaScript chapters.

  • Thank you for your time, @LaurenIpsum. After reading the comments here and having an internal discussion, we think the best approach would be a combination fo both methods. – user9995 Sep 24 '15 at 10:23
  • @jorgepc If you like my answer (or any of the others), please click the up arrow to indicate you think it's good, and click the checkmark to indicate that you select a particular answer as the "right" one, which is how Stack Exchange works. :) – Lauren Ipsum Sep 24 '15 at 10:25
  • Thanks, @LaurenIpsum - I have just clicked on the up arrow for the three answers, as I find all of them useful. However, this action is not visible yet because, apparently, I do not have enough "reputation" in the forum. I hope this action will be visible soon :) – user9995 Sep 25 '15 at 7:09
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I think you already have your answer really. Explain each topic in it's own chapter as you have them, then create a new chapter which explains this additional feature which alters the behavior of these other items.

Use Layers of Explanation Create Layers of Understanding

Breaking it up this way and explaining the foundational points you want your reader to understand first, will create layers of understanding which then make later materials more easy to grasp.

Let's use HTML, CSS and JavaScript as an example.

Chapter 1: What Is HTML?

HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language... ...

HTML is the structure of your document. It allows us to create the structure of the DOM (Document Object Model) The tag is a block type of HTML element. ...

Chapter 2: What Is CSS?

CSS is an acronym meaning Cascading Style Sheets... ...

To style all of the <DIV> tags with a class="book" <DIV> class="book") we can do something like the following:

#book {color:red; padding: 2px 2px 2px 2px;}

Chapter 3: What Is JavaScript

JavaScript can be used to manipulate the DOM -- the structure of the HTML :

<div id='extra'>test</div>

document.getElementById("extra").appendChild(node);

JavaScript can also be used to alter the style of particular DOM element.

document.getElementById("p2").style.color = "blue";

Foundation Is Solid

By the time your readers get to the JavaScript (more advanced topic which requires the understanding of the previous information) they will be able to add this new layer of understanding because you've built a foundation for them.

I hope this helps. Good luck with your project.

  • Many thanks for your detailed explanation, @SaberWriter. – user9995 Sep 24 '15 at 10:25

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