A conversation with Gilad David Maayan, Technical Writer at GigaSpaces
- U.S., Israel and U.K
- Confluence uses
- Public online help system and internal organisational wiki
- # of employees using the internal wiki
- 80 in all 15 departments
- # of customers using the online help wiki
- Key customisations
- A conversion engine and an offline documentation system
GigaSpaces provides infrastructure software solutions for mission-critical applications, where the need for extreme performance, reliability and scalability necessitates an alternative to traditional tier-based architectures. Since discovering Atlassian Confluence, the company has completely transformed its public online help and documentation system.
Tell us a little about GigaSpaces and the customers who use your online help system.
GigaSpaces provides middleware that facilitates communication between different instances of distributed software. Our software is complex, and our online help system is serving a very technical audience of programmers, application designers and architects who use it extensively to do their daily jobs. That's why documentation is so central to the company. Everybody looks at it all the time, including GigaSpaces employees — it doesn't just sit on the shelf.
How does GigaSpaces use Confluence?
We use Confluence primarily as an online help system that holds 1,300 pages of product documentation. After we implemented the public wiki for online help, other departments in our company became interested, and subsequently we set up an additional Confluence server as an internal organizational wiki.
"The new wiki platform simplifies creation and editing of online help content, and dramatically improves the user experience for our customers."
Gilad David Maayan of GigaSpaces
You used to use RoboHelp for your online help system. Why change to a wiki?
From a technical writing standpoint, it was really cumbersome to make changes using RoboHelp, so very few people were contributing content and we weren't updating our help pages as often as we would have liked. The user experience was also very limited. It was almost impossible to find what you were looking for.
And what made you decide to go with a wiki instead of another traditional online help system?
It was serendipity, really. I heard about Confluence and downloaded it from the Atlassian website without telling anyone.
I started working "underground" on a demo of how our documentation might look in Confluence. I developed a homepage design and the section page design, and when I showed it to my bosses they were totally blown away. They bought me Confluence! Before that day, I thought of wikis in terms of Wikipedia. I didn't know there was such a thing as an enterprise-class wiki, and I never thought of a wiki as something that was relevant in the realm of online help.
"The content didn't change; all we did was move it to Confluence and our online help seems a thousand times better because it's so easy to use."
Gilad David Maayan of GigaSpaces
Your wiki flows nicely with your website. Describe what your goals were in designing the look and feel for the new online help system.
It wasn't really about design per se; we just wanted to make it as usable as possible. The move to the wiki was an opportunity for us to restructure our online help in terms of the information structure, so we packaged the restructuring effort and the redesign together.
Our approach is quite innovative because it combines content with navigation. In the RoboHelp days, the section page was just a list of links and you had to decide where you wanted to go based on that. Today, the section pages provide an overview and at the same time they show you all the pages inside the section with very rich information about the content. We wouldn't have been able to do that without the high degree of design flexibility that Confluence gives us. What's remarkable is that I did all of these things on my own — as a technical writer with a little bit of design sensibility, but not a graphic designer. I was able to build the homepage, the section pages, and a special design for the content pages just using Confluence wiki syntax.
Can you walk us through the process of creating the new structure?
We identified three main views of the content, so the homepage is organized around three main tabs. Within each tab, there is a list of lozenges that we created using the Adaptavist lozenge macro. Each lozenge takes you to one of the sections of our documentation. Instead of the very, very complex hierarchy we had before, we have just three views, each with 7-10 sections.
Beyond that, each section page has a special design. The left-hand side has a brief introduction, with less-important information enclosed in a cloak that we created using the Adaptavist cloak macro. On the right-hand side we show all the page titles and a brief description of their content. We also added color-coded stars to indicate the technical difficulty of each page, so you're able to look at the page and see all of the documentation available. If you're a novice user, for example, you won't click on a page with a red star because that's really difficult stuff. Put together, all of this allows you to look at the section page and immediately grasp all the documentation available.
How long did it take you to migrate your documentation to Confluence?
From the moment I started playing around with Confluence to the moment that all of our content was perfectly formatted and available in Confluence took about three months. We did it in several stages. First we started migrating to Confluence by building the homepage and the 20 section pages. Each section page had links that went back to the old RoboHelp documentation, so we were living in two worlds for a while. The wiki served as our portal and RoboHelp supplied the 1,300 pages of documentation. After a month or two, we decided to step on it and move everything to Confluence.
Did you make any customisations to Confluence to meet your specific needs?
Yes, we developed two new capabilities in order to use Confluence as an online help system: a conversion engine and an offline documentation system. The conversion engine maps an existing online help page to the new wiki structure and converts RoboHelp HTML to wiki markup. We used the Confluence API to create new pages according to the structure we designed. The offline documentation system uses our PDF Documentation Generator plugin to convert the wiki's Word export into professional printed documentation. I have added this plugin to the Confluence Extensions library so other wiki users can take advantage of it, too.
How has the wiki changed the way GigaSpaces authors and collaborates on documentation?
Confluence definitely eases the bottleneck we were experiencing before, where only the technical writers could make changes to the documentation. We've expanded the pool of resources contributing to the wiki to include our superiors and a few other people who are trusted content providers — and that alone has made a significant difference in the content creation cycle. One of my goals for the future is to make it more open within the organization so that anyone can contribute content. I would also like to open up the wiki to allow selected customers to contribute content, but that's a bit more complex.
What's the most beneficial thing about using Confluence for online help as opposed to RoboHelp?
The biggest benefit is definitely the dramatic improvement in the user experience. It has completely changed how our customers feel about GigaSpaces documentation — they hated it before, and now they love it. It's also getting great reviews internally. In the old days, someone would walk into my office at least once a day and say, "I can't find this, where is it?" Now they say, "I just got off the phone with a customer and we used the wiki and it was great."
Documentation has really become a focal point and valuable sales tool for the company, and it's raised the profile of our technical writers, too. The interesting thing is that the transformation was all due to the wiki. The content didn't change; all we did was move it to Confluence and our online help seems a thousand times better because it's so easy to use.
GigaSpaces also uses Confluence as an intranet. What were you using before, and what motivated the change?
People would share files by saving documents on a file server or emailing them to each other. Once we purchased Confluence, I basically started marketing it to everyone in the company. I told them that we had a cool new wiki for our documentation, and explained ways that they could use it, too. Slowly but surely people started getting hooked on it. At first they were skeptical, but within a month every department in the company had a Confluence space.
Some groups took it further than others. For example, R&D has a huge space with all of their design documents. QA uses it for all of their test documents. People don't write Microsoft Word documents anymore in those departments; everything is in the wiki. Marketing set up a really nice wiki portal for accessing all of the company's marketing collateral. They've become quite sophisticated with the design as well. Some groups are a little slower on the uptake, but all in all, adoption has been amazing. In fact, once everyone started playing around with it, we very quickly outgrew the 25-user license we started with for the online help system. We had to upgrade to the 500-user Confluence license because everybody wanted to use the wiki.
"As our CEO put it, 'The wiki is a revolution in how GigaSpaces explains itself to the world'."Gilad David Maayan of GigaSpaces
Have you seen results that surprised you?
As our CEO put it, "The wiki is a revolution in how GigaSpaces explains itself to the world." A sales manager told me that customers are blown away at presentations. They're actually using the wiki to present our products and to demonstrate technical features. It looks so good that everybody wants to show it off. And it's extremely usable as well.
Another surprise is the amazing adoption we've seen internally. Confluence is really the first collaboration tool at GigaSpaces. It wasn't procured as that, it was for online help, but now it's a productivity tool used by all departments in the company. Even though it came in through the back door, I think it will remain our main productivity and collaboration tool as GigaSpaces continues to grow.
You're among the trailblazers using a wiki on the online help. Any words of wisdom for other technical writers?
I hope for the sake of my fellow technical writers that they begin to explore the possibilities here — it's really a big revolution in our field. Many tech writers think of a wiki as a great collaboration tool, but they don't realize that it can be an amazing platform for online help. Even though tools like RoboHelp are designed specifically for online help and they have many features that make our lives easier (features that Confluence doesn't have), we were still able to construct a professional documentation system on top of Confluence. We proved that it can be done and that it's definitely worth doing.
As an aside, I was in Paris over the weekend to accept a trans-European award for the GigaSpaces Quick Start Guide that I wrote before we started using Confluence. In my acceptance speech, I talked about how technical writing technology has taken many steps forward, so much so that the work I did a year ago (and won the award for) seems a bit archaic to me. When I explained that I think the future of technical writing technology is the wiki, and the next generation of my award-winning Quick Start Guide is going to be written in Confluence, it was like I was a rock star! Everyone was stunned and very inquisitive and flocked to me afterwards asking me what Confluence was and how they could get their hands on it. I don't think it will be long before Confluence becomes a standard platform for online help. Until then, I would love to work with Atlassian to make it more friendly to technical writers.