Soft Documentation

Soft Documentation

By Thomas Guest

Overload, 14(71):7-12, February 2006


Recently I spent some time working on a user manual.

The existing version of this manual was based on a Microsoft Word [1] master document. From this master the various required output formats were generated in a semi-automated fashion.

I’m guessing anyone who’s used a computer will have come across Microsoft Word: it’s a popular tool which is easy to get started with and which, by virtue of its WYSIWYG interface, allows even a novice to produce stylish output. It does have its drawbacks though, especially for technical documentation, and these drawbacks were only amplified by the other tools involved in producing the final deliverables.

We’ll look more closely at these drawbacks later. I summarise them here by saying the proprietary tools and file formats led to a loss of control. The final outputs were not so much WYSIWYG as WYGIWYG – What You Get is What You’re Given.

Producing high quality technical documentation is a difficult problem but it’s also a problem which has been solved many times over. Plenty of open source projects provide model solutions. My increasing frustration with the Microsoft Word based documentation toolchain led me to explore one of these alternatives.

This article records the outcome of my exploration. It tells how, in the end, we did regain control over the manual, but at a price.


The requirements for the manual were clear enough. It had to look good. It had to fit the corporate style – dictating, in this case, font families, colour schemes, logos and various other presentational aspects. There would be pictures. There would be screen shots. There would be cross references.

Naturally, the contents should provide clear and complete details on how to use the Product.

We needed just two output formats:

  • hard copy, printed and bound
  • linked online web pages.

Of course, these two versions of the document would have to agree with each other. And the Product itself, a server-based piece of software with a web browser interface, should integrate with the online documentation in a context-sensitive manner: clicking the Help icon next to an item in the UI should pop up the manual opened at the correct location.

Finally, there was the slightly strange requirement that the documentation should be substantial. Somehow, it seemed unreasonable to ask customers to hand over lots of money for nothing more than CD’s worth of software; bundling in a weighty manual made the final deliverables more tangible 1 .

The Existing Documentation Toolchain

The existing toolchain was, as already mentioned, based on a Microsoft Word master document.

Producing hard copy was as simple as CTRL+P, followed by a dialog about printer settings and some manual labour involving a ring binder. It’s fair to say that the printed output looked pretty much exactly as previewed: the author had good control over pagination, positioning of images, fonts, colours and so on.

The linked online pages took more effort. We’d got a license for a tool which I’ll call Word Doctor (not its real name – I’m using an alias because I’m going to moan about it). Generating the linked web pages using Word Doctor involved the following steps:

  1. Create a new Project.
  2. Point it at the Microsoft Word Master.
  3. Select some project options from the Word Doctor GUI.
  4. Click the build button (experts, hit ‘F5’).
  5. Make a cup of tea while the pages generate.

All fairly easy – in theory. In practice, there were some other steps which the Word Doctor user manual neglected to mention:

  • Exit Microsoft Word. Word Doctor has trouble accessing the document otherwise.
  • Restart your PC. For some reason a resource got terminally locked up.
  • Rewrite the Microsoft Word master using the Word Doctor document template.
  • Don’t forget to exit Microsoft Word!
  • Create a new project etc.
  • Click the build button.
  • Click away a few warnings about saving TEMPLATE.DOT and OLE something or other.
  • Read the Word Doctor workarounds Wiki page on the intranet.
  • Click the build button again.
  • Go for lunch. Documentation builds took around half an hour.

I am not exaggerating. The engineering manager admitted that he estimated it took at least two days of struggling to convert a Microsoft Word master into the online form. And nor do I blame Word Doctor. I don’t think Microsoft Word comes with a decent developer API. Instead, it tries to do everything itself: from revision control, through styling, to HTML output. It uses an opaque binary file format to deter anyone from trying to develop tools to work with it.

The final irritation was with the Word Doctor output – if you ever got any. The HTML was packed with Internet Explorer specific Javascript, and looked poor in any other browser.

Connecting up to Word Doctor Output

The real downside of Word Doctor was when it came to trying to connect the Product to the Word Doctor web pages. This job fell to me. It was a multi-layered integration task:

  • on a team level I would work with the technical author to ensure the documentation content was correct, and contained the required Help topics.
  • on the Product side, the web-based user interface would call for help using a text identifier. The Help subsystem would use the identifier to look up an HTML location – a page and an anchor within that page – and it could then pop up a new window viewing this location.
  • on the documentation side, I would have to configure Word Doctor to ensure its HTML output included the right locations.

Unfortunately, there were problems with each of these layers.

Personally, I got on well with the technical author, but the documentation tools made it extremely hard for us to work on the same file. We had to take it in turns or work with copies. I couldn’t even fix a typo directly.

The Word Doctor output was a frame-based collection of static HTML pages. Now, externally referencing a particular location in such a set of pages is tricky – due to the limitations of frames – so the Product’s help sub-system had to dynamically generate a framed front page displaying the appropriate left and right pane each time it was called. Not too difficult, but more complex than strictly necessary.

Both pages and anchors were a moving target in the Word Doctor output. Every time you added a new section to the document you broke most of the help references. Thus we found ourselves in a situation where the technical author wanted the Product to stabilise in order to document it and I needed the documentation to stabilise in order to link to it.

Other Problems

Microsoft Word uses a proprietary binary format. This ties you into their product to a degree – effectively, you’re relying on Microsoft to look after your data because you simply cannot work with this data without their tool. Of course, the risk of Microsoft collapsing during the lifetime of your document may be one you can live with, but you are also vulnerable to them ceasing to support the version of Word you prefer, or charging an unreasonable amount for an upgrade. It also means:

  • it’s extremely hard for more than one person to work on a document at a time since changes to binary files cannot be merged together easily.
  • revision control becomes more expensive and less useful (how do you view the differences between two versions of the manual?)
  • it is very difficult to automate anything. As a trivial example, Word Doctor had no batch interface – it required human input at every stage. Now consider trying to rebadge the manual, perhaps for redistribution of the Product by some partner company. With a decent documentation toolchain this should be as simple as the build ‘prepare’ target copying the correct logo graphic into place and applying a simple transformation to some text strings.

Resistance to Change

Despite all of these limitations and irritations it was hard to convince anyone a change was necessary or even desirable. The reasons were as much organisational as technical.

  • The existing tools had been used to produce acceptable end user documentation in the past for other products shipped by the company.
  • Already, considerable effort had been put into the Word master for the new Product (even if much of it would have to be scrapped due to the inevitable changes as the Product developed).
  • The engineering team had more work than it could cope with already. At least the user documentation could be outsourced to a contract technical author.
  • Setting up a smarter toolchain would need engineering input and, once the tools were in place, would the technical author be able to use them productively?
  • The sales team saw the documentation task as non-urgent for much the same reason that they saw user input validation as a nice-to-have rather than a priority. After all, they’d run some promising beta trials at customer sites using a poorly documented and inputs-unchecked version of the Product. They were happy to continue to provide support and tuition as required, either on site, by phone or by email.

I could (and did) argue against all of these points:

  • existing documentation was stand-alone: it did not have to integrate with what it documented. Using the existing tools to connect the new Product with its documentation looked like being a continual sink of effort.
  • The engineering team probably spent as long telling the technical author what to write as they might have spent writing it themselves.
  • Surely the technical author would quickly master a new documentation tool?
  • In fact it was more often the engineers than the sales team who provided support, and frequently for problems which could have been avoided with better input checking and more solid documentation.

As software engineers we need to concentrate on the software. That means listening to the sales team; but when it comes to software quality, we know best. I believe the only shortcut is to prune back the feature list and, increasingly, I regard it as wrong to view software documentation as an add-on. Decent documentation is one of the first things I look for when I evaluate a piece of software: the website, the user interface, the README, the FAQ list, and of course the source code itself (if available). Quite simply, I didn’t want to deliver a Product with poor documentation. I didn’t think it would save us time in the short or long term.

Regaining Control

My frustration with the existing documentation tools set me thinking about alternatives. I looked first to the open source world (I’m using the term loosely here), where there’s no shortage of excellent documentation and where the authors are happy to show how they generated it.

I experimented by downloading and attempting to build some open source documentation. This was a part time activity, squeezed into moments when I was waiting for builds to complete or files to check out. If the documentation didn’t build or required lots of configuration to get it to build, I moved on.

I was looking for something as simple as:

> cd docs ; make

To my surprise and disappointment it took several attempts to find something which worked out of the box. Perhaps I was unlucky. No doubt in many cases it was user error on my part and no doubt I could have sought advice from email lists; nonetheless, I kept moving on until I found something which worked first time (my thanks to the Hibernate documentation team [2]). Then I continued to experiment: could I change fonts, include images, replicate the house style? How easy were the tools to use with our own content?

After a Friday afternoon’s experimentation I had something worth showing to the engineering manager: an end-to-end solution which, from a DocBook XML master, generated a skeleton PDF and HTML user manual in something approaching the house style. I suggested to the engineering manager that we should switch the user manual to use the tools I had just demonstrated. I said I’d be happy to do the work. He agreed with me that technically, this seemed the way forwards. However, it wasn’t easy for him to give me the go ahead for the reasons already discussed.

Also, it was a hard sell for him to make to the rest of the company: on the one hand, writing end user documentation simply wasn’t what the engineers were supposed to be doing; and on the other, it was hard enough persuading the technical author to use the revision control system, let alone edit raw XML.

I confess I had my own doubts too. All I knew at this stage was that DocBook could do the job and that I would happily tinker with it to get it working. I didn’t know if I could be productive using it. I don’t relish editing XML either.

We both recognised that the single most important thing was content. Full and accurate documentation supplied as a plain README would be of more practical use to our customers than something beautifully formatted and structured but misleadingly inaccurate.

In the end we deferred making a final decision on what to do with the manual.

The results of my experiment did seem worth recording, so I spent a day or so tidying up and checking in the code so we could return to it, if required.

A DocBook Toolchain

I should outline here the basics of the toolchain I had evaluated. It was based on DocBook [3]. A two sentence introduction to DocBook can be found on the front page of the SourceForge DocBook Project [4]. I reproduce it here in full:

DocBook is an XML vocabulary that lets you create documents in a presentation-neutral form that captures the logical structure of your content. Using free tools along with the DocBook XSL stylesheets, you can publish your content as HTML pages and PDF files, and in many other formats.

I would also like to highlight a couple of points from the preface to Bob Stayton’s DocBook XSL: The Complete Guide [5]– a reference which anyone actually using DocBook is sure to have bookmarked:

A major advantage of DocBook is the availability of DocBook tools from many sources, not just from a single vendor of a proprietary file format.

You can mix and match components for editing, typesetting, version control, and HTML conversion. ...

The other major advantage of DocBook is the set of free stylesheets that are available for it... These stylesheets enable anyone to publish their DocBook content in print and HTML. An active community of users and contributors keeps up the development of the stylesheets and answers questions.

So, the master document is written in XML conforming to the DocBook DTD. This master provides the structure and content of our document. Transforming the master into different output formats starts with the DocBook XSL stylesheets.

Various aspects of the transformation can be controlled by setting parameters to be applied during this transformation (do we want a datestamp to appear in the page footer?, should a list of Figures be included in the contents?), or even by writing custom XSL templates (for the front page, perhaps). Depending on the exact output format there may still be work for us to do. For HTML pages, the XSL transformation produces nicely structured HTML, but we probably want to adjust the CSS style sheet and perhaps provide our own admonition and navigation graphics. For Windows HTML Help, the DocBook XSL stylesheets again produce a special form of HTML which we must then run through an HTML Help compiler.

PDF output is rather more fiddly: The DocBook XSL stylesheets yield XSL formatting objects (FO) from the DocBook XML master. A further stage of processing is then required to convert these formatting objects into PDF. I used the Apache Formatting Objects Processor (FOP) [6], which in turn depends on other third-party libraries for image processing and so on.

Presentation and Structure

A key point to realise when writing technical documentation is the distinction between structure and presentation. Suppose, for example, our document includes source code snippets and we want these snippets to be preformatted in a monospaced font with keywords emphasized using a bold font style. Here, we have two structural elements (source code, keywords) and two presentational elements (monospaced font, bold style).

Structure and presentation are separate concerns and our documentation chain should enable and maintain this distinction. This means that our master document structure will need to identify source code as “source code” – and not simply as preformatted text – and any keywords within it as “keywords”; and the styling associated with the presentation of this document will make the required mapping from “source code” to “monospace, preformatted” and from “keyword” to “bold””.

We can see this separation in well-written HTML where the familiar element tags (HEAD, BODY, H1, H2, P etc) describe basic document structure, and CLASS attributes make finer structural distinctions. The actual presentation of this structured content is controlled by logically (and usually physically) separate Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

With a WYSIWYG documentation tool presentation and structure – by definition – operate in tandem, making it all too easy to use a structural hack to fix a presentational issue (for example, introducing a hard page break to improve printed layout, or scaling a font down a point size to make a table look pretty).

DocBook enforces the separation between structure and presentation strictly. This doesn’t mean that we can’t use a Graphical Editor to work with DocBook documents – indeed, a web search suggests several such editors exist. I chose to work with the raw DocBook format, however, partly because I could continue to use my preferred editor [7] and partly because I wanted to get a better understanding of DocBook. The enforced separation can sometimes be frustrating, however. It took me about an hour to figure out how to disable hyphenation of the book’s subtitle on my custom frontpage!

As we can see, there are choices to be made at all stages: which XSL transform software do we use, which imaging libraries; do we go for a stable release of Apache FOP or the development rewrite? Do we spend money on a DocBook XML editor? Since we have full source access for everything in the chain we might also choose to customise the tools if they aren’t working for us. These choices were, to start with, a distraction. I was happy to go with the selection made by the Hibernate team unless there was a good reason not to. I wanted the most direct route to generating decent documentation. I kept reminding myself that content was more important than style (even though the styling tools were more fun to play with).

The Technical Author Departs

We continued on, then, deferring work on the documentation until at least we had frozen the user interface, still pinning our hopes on Word Doctor. Then the technical author left. She’d landed a full-time editing position on a magazine.

Again, I volunteered to work on the documentation. By now the engineering manager had succeeded in selling the idea of switching documentation tools to higher management. It was still hard for him to authorise me to actually write the documentation, though, since we had just recruited a new technical support engineer, based in North America. This engineer had nothing particular lined up for the next couple of weeks. What better way for him to learn about the Product than to write the user manual?

As it turned out it various delayed hardware deliveries meant it took him a couple of weeks to set up a server capable of actually running the Product – and then he was booked up on site visits. He didn’t get to spend any time on documentation.

Version 1.0 was due to be released in a week’s time. We had four choices:

  • Ship with the existing documentation – which was dangerously out of date.
  • Stub out the documentation entirely, so at least users wouldn’t be misled by it.
  • Revise the Microsoft Word document, use Word Doctor to generate HTML, reconnect the HTML to the Product.
  • Rewrite the manual using DocBook.

We ruled out the first choice even though it required the least effort. The second seemed like an admission of defeat – could we seriously consider releasing a formal version of the Product without documentation? No-one present had any enthusiasm for the third choice.

So, finally, with less than a week until code freeze, I got assigned the task of finishing the documentation using the tools of my choosing.

Problems with DocBook

Most things went rather surprisingly well, but I did encounter a small number of hitches.


My first unpleasant surprise with the DocBook toolchain came when I tried to generate the printable PDF output on a Windows XP machine. Rather naively, perhaps, I’d assumed that since all the tools were Java based I’d be able to run them on any platform with a JVM. Not so.

The first time I tried a Windows build, I got a two page traceback (see Figure 1) which sliced through methods in , org.apache.fop.pdf , org.apache.xerces.parsers , arriving finally at the cause.

Caused by: java.lang.IllegalArgumentException: Invalid ICC Profile Data
at java.awt.color.ICC_Profile.getInstance(
at java.awt.color.ICC_Profile.getInstance(
at java.awt.color.ICC_Profile.getDeferredInstance(
at java.awt.color.ICC_Profile.getInstance(
at java.awt.color.ColorSpace.getInstance(
at java.awt.image.ColorModel.<init>(
at java.awt.image.ComponentColorModel.<init>(
... 34 more

Figure 1: Traceback following an attempted build on Windows XP 

I had several options here: web search for a solution, raise a query on an email list, swap out the defective component in the toolchain, roll up my sleeves and debug the problem, or restrict the documentation build to Linux only.

I discovered this problem quite early on, before the technical author left – otherwise the Linux-only build restriction might have been an acceptable compromise; several other Product components were by now tied to Linux. (Bear in mind that the documentation build outputs were entirely portable, it was only the build itself which didn't work on all platforms). My actual solution was, though, another compromise: I swapped the Java JAI [8] libraries for the more primitive JIMI [9] ones, apparently with no adverse effects.

The incident did shake my confidence, though. It may well be true that open source tools allow you the ultimate level of control, but you don’t usually want to exercise it! At this stage I had only tried building small documents with a few images. I remained fearful that similar problems might recur when the manual grew larger and more laden with screenshots.


We all know that healthy software tools are in active development, but this does have a downside. Some problems actually arose from the progression of the tools I was using. For example, I started out with the version of the DocBook XSL stylesheets I found in the Hibernate distribution (version 1.65.1). These were probably more than good enough for my needs, but much of the documentation I was using referred to more recent distributions. In this case, fortunately, switching to the most recent stable distribution of the XSL stylesheets resulted in improvements all round. Apache FOP is less mature though: the last stable version (as of December 2005) is 0.20.5 – hardly a version number to inspire confidence – and the latest unstable release, 0.90 alpha 1, represents a break from the past. I anticipate problems if and when I migrate to a modern version FOP, though again, I also hope for improvements.


XML is verbose and DocBook XML is no exception. As an illustration, Figure 2 shows a section of a DocBook document.

<section id="hello_world">
    <title>Hello World</title>
    Here is the canonical C++ example program.
    #include <iostream>
    int main() {
        std::cout << "Hello world!" << std::endl;
        return 0;

Figure 2: A section of DocBook document.

XML claims to be human readable, and on one level, it is. On another level, though, the clunky angle brackets and obtrusive tags make the actual text content in the master document hard to read: the syntax obscures the semantics.


The DocBook toolchain gave us superb control over some aspects of the documentation task. In other areas the controls existed but were tricky to locate and operate.

For example, controlling the chunking of the HTML output was straightforward and could all be done using build time parameters – with no modifications needed to the document source. Similarly, controlling file and anchor names in the generated HTML was easy, which meant the integration between the Product and the online version of the manual was both stable and clean.

Some of the printed output options don’t seem so simple, especially for someone without a background in printing. In particular, I still haven’t really got to grips with fine control of page-breaking logic, and have to hope no-one minds too much about tables which split awkwardly over pages.

The Rush to Completion

In the end, though, all went better than we could have hoped.

I soon had the documentation build integrated with the Product build. Now the ISO CD image had the right version of the User Manual automatically included.

I wrote a script to check the integration between the Product and the User Manual. This script double-checked that the various page/anchor targets which the Product used to launch the pop up Help window were valid. This script too became part of the build. It provided a rudimentary safety net as I rolled in more and more content. Next, I cannibalised the good bits of the existing manual. We knew what problems we had seen in the field: some could be fixed using better examples in the Help text; I fixed these next. Within a couple of days the new manual had all the good content from the old manual and none of the misleading or inaccurate content; it included some new sections and was fully linked to the Product. It was, though, very light on screen shots.

Screen Captures

In an ideal world we could programatically:

  • launch the Product;
  • load some data;
  • pose the user interface for a number of screen shots;
  • capture these screen shots for inclusion in the documentation.

Then this program too could become part of the build and, in theory, the screen shots would never fall out of step with the Product.

Already we had some tools in place to automate data loading and to exercise the user interface. We still have no solution for automatically capturing and cropping the images, so we rely on human/GIMP intervention. So far, this hasn’t been a huge issue.


I had a workaround for the verbosity issue. I used QuickBook [10], one of the Boost tools [11]. QuickBook is a lightweight C++ program which generates DocBook (BoostBook, strictly speaking 2 ) XML from a WikiWiki style source document.

Using QuickBook, we can write our previous example as:

[section Hello World]
Here is the canonical C++ example program.

#include <iostream>
int main() {
    std::cout << "Hello world!" << std::endl;
    return 0;

QuickBook documents are easy to read and easy to write. QuickBook does fall a long way short of the full expressive richness of DocBook but if all you need are sections, cross-references, tables, lists, embedded images and so on, then it’s ideal. You can even escape back to DocBook from QuickBook. So if you decide your manual needs, for example, a colophon, you can do it!

Build Times

It wasn’t going to be hard to beat Word Doctor on build times. Currently, it takes about a minute to generate the full user manual, in PDF and HTML format, from source. A simple dependency check means this build is only triggered when required. The real gain here is not so much that the build is quick, but that it is automatic: not a single button needs clicking.

Soft Documentation

As a software user I expect software to just work – especially software with a GUI. It should be obvious what to do without needing to read the manual; and preferably without even waiting for tooltips to float into view. By designing a GUI which operates within a web browser we already have a head start here: the user interface is driven like any other web interface – there’s no need to document how hyperlinks work or what the browser’s address bar does.

What’s more, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development explicitly prefers: Working software over comprehensive documentation. [13]

These considerations don’t mean that the manual is redundant or unwanted, though. There are times when we don’t want to clutter the core user interface with reference details. There remain occasions when hardcopy is invaluable.

What’s more, when you try and design an intuitive user interface, you realise that the distinction between software and documentation is somewhat artificial: it’s not so much that the boundaries blur as that, from a user’s point of view, they aren’t really there. Suppose, for example, that a form requires an email address to be entered. If the user enters an invalid address the form is redrawn with the erroneous input highlighted and a terse message displayed: Please enter a valid email address ; there will also be a clickable Help icon directing confused users to the right page of the user manual. Which of these elements of the user interface are software and which are documentation?

Now suppose we are delivering a library designed to be linked into a larger program. The documentation is primarily the header files which define the interface to this library. We must invest considerable effort making sure these header files define a coherent and comprehensible interface: maybe we deliver the library with some example client code and makefiles; maybe we provide a test harness; maybe we generate hyperlinked documentation directly from the source files; and maybe we supply the library implementation as source code. Now which is software and which is documentation?

When we write software, we remember that:

Programs should be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute. [14]

In other words, software is documentation. Software should also be soft – soft enough to adapt to changing requirements. We must be sure to keep our documentation soft too.


The real benefits of the new documentation toolchain are becoming more and more apparent.

As a simple example, a single text file defines the Product’s four part version number. The build system processes this file to make sure the correct version number appears where it’s needed: in the user interface, in the CD install script – and, of course, in the documentation.

Another example. If we get a support call which we think could have been avoided had the documentation been better, then we fix the documentation directly. Anyone with access to the revision control system and a text editor can make the fix. The full printed and online documentation will be regenerated when they next do a build, and will automatically be included in the next release.

And a final example. The Product I work on checks file-based digital video: it can spot unpleasant compression artifacts, unwanted black frames, audio glitches and so on. The range and depth of these checks is perhaps the area which changes most frequently: when we add support for a new video codec or container file format, for example. The architecture we have in place means that these low level enhancements disrupt the higher levels of the software only minimally: in fact, the user interface for this part of the Product is dynamically generated from a formal description of the supported checks. Adding a check at this level is a simple matter of extending this formal description. We also need to document the check: perhaps a reference to the codec specification and a precise definition of the metrics used. With an intelligent documentation toolchain the documentation can live alongside the formal description and build time checks confirm the help text links up properly.

From an engineering point of view, documentation is properly integrated into the Product. I finish with another quotation from Stayton [5]:

Setting up a DocBook system will take some time and effort. But the payoff will be an efficient, flexible, and inexpensive publishing system that can grow with your needs.

Thomas Guest


1 Microsoft Word:
2 Hibernate:
3 DocBook:
4 The DocBook Project:
5 Stayton, DocBook XSL: The Complete Guide
6 Apache FOP:
7 Emacs:
8 Java Advanced Imaging (JAI) API
9 JIMI Software Development Kit
10 Boost QuickBook:
11 Boost: 12 BoostBook:
13 Manifesto for Agile Software Development
14 Abelson and Sussman, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Progams, Harold Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman MIT Press, 1984; ISBN 0-262-01077-1


My thanks to Alan Griffiths, Phil Bass and Alison Peck for their help with this article.


The master version of this document was written using emacs.

  1. This, to me, is a suspect requirement, or at least one we should keep in check, otherwise we run the risk of producing documentation whose sections are cut-and­paste adaptations of similar sections.

  2. BoostBook [12] extends DocBook to provide greater support for C++ documentation.

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