Developer Documentation Is Awful

I’m working through a rewrite of the 5 Calls site to static publishing via hugo (same as here) but with the addition of dynamic content via small React components. I don’t see this approach in a lot of places but so far I think it’s very effective, I’ll talk about the specifics at some point in the future.

Because I’m not just building features into an existing architecture, I’m doing a lot of experimenting with how to accomplish what I want in a minimal, clean way. Some specifics about why that process is difficult for programmers follow…

Although I have a pretty good sense of React after running the regular 5 Calls site as a SPA for a few years and dealing with React Native both at my regular job and for 5 Calls’ relational app, Voter Network, I still run into situations where I want to accomplish a specific thing in React and just have no way to figure out what is the right way to do it.

This process isn’t about writing the code, it’s about understanding the purposes and limitations of the framework which is… 90% of programming. So we turn to Google to try to figure this stuff out and that doesn’t always work well:

It struck me today how incredibly low-tech this is. One side of me appreciates the community aspect of it; most cases bring you to a stack overflow question (low quality questions excepted) or a blog post on some engineer’s website which can be incredibly informative. But the other side of me wonders why there is so much room for instructions on how to accomplish things.

I’ve returned to this a few times recently as I’ve been evaluating projects that I’m working on. We get hung up on “I’m an engineer that knows Swift” or whatever language when that’s barely 10% of the actual work for most engineering jobs. I am relieved when I hit part of a project that only requires writing logic in language x because it’s so straightforward, even for languages that I’m not super familiar with.

Unless you’re at unspecified fruit company writing actual subsystems, you’re mostly working within frameworks and libraries that you’ve decided to use and architecting your code around how those parts work is vastly more difficult than structuring the code itself.

With that in mind, why is documentation so insufficient? Even for a large, well maintained project like React it’s difficult to find out what the right pattern is for what your code is trying to do. High-level examples are exceedingly hard to find, particularly when they do something outside of the norm.

No grand resolutions on how to deal with this. Just thoughts on what’s broken for now.