The Topic-based Method: A Guide in the Right Direction

In the topic-based method, every topic meets a goal and so generally corresponds to just one type of information. In our last article, The Topic-based Method, we compared documentation to a chain of islands, where each topic was an island. Now let’s zoom in and see how every island has a main attraction or type of information, whether it’s a concept, task or reference.

Every island has a main attraction or type of information (concept, task or reference).

One concept for better understanding

Concept-type topics explain the why and the how. They help readers understand. In a task support document for customer service, for example, this type of information could describe the procedure to follow when answering a customer. In product documentation, a concept-type topic might explain how to use the product or the interaction between its different parts. Just by reading concept-type topics, users should be able to understand the product enough to take advantage of its various functionalities without having to read the task-type topics. In other words, concept-type topics help readers understand your product or service as a whole.

The task at hand

Task-type topics explain how to do something, like how to carry out a task step by step. A customer service tool might contain a task that describes how to fill out a form, one line at a time. If the steps of a task must be carried out in a specific order, they should be numbered. When more than one person is involved, each step or group of steps should also specify who should carry out which task. In sum, each task-type topic contains all the information the user needs to obtain precise results.

The right reference

Reference-type topics provide facts and data. This type of topic isn’t read from start to finish, but rather consulted for a very specific bit of information. Since the information must be easy to find, it is often presented in figures, tables, diagrams, lists, etc. Tables containing a product’s technical specs would be a reference-type topic, for instance.

One topic, one goal, one type of information!

When users consult documentation, they are first and foremost looking for topics that meet their needs: the concepts or main guiding principles to understand the product, the tasks to carry out step-by-step and the references to obtain specific information. Like tourists at the travel information bureau choosing which islands to visit according to their interests, documentation users will be reassured to find exactly the information they’re looking for, easily and in an accessible form.

To learn more…

Topic-based authoring 

Getting Started with Topic-Based Writing