Writing help center articles

Our goal is for Zulip to have complete, high-quality documentation about Zulip’s features and how to perform certain tasks, such as setting up an organization.

There are two types of help center documents: articles about specific features, and a handful of longer guides. The feature articles serve a few different purposes:

  • Feature discovery, for someone browsing the /help/ page, and looking at the set of articles and guides.

  • Public documentation of our feature set, for someone googling “can zulip do …”

  • Quick responses to support questions; if someone emails a Zulip admin asking “How do I change my name?”, they can reply with a link to the doc.

  • Feature explanations for new Zulip users and admins, especially for organization settings.

Zulip help center documentation is available under /help/ on any Zulip server; (e.g. https://zulip.com/help/ or http://localhost:9991/help/ in the Zulip development environment). The help center documentation is not hosted on ReadTheDocs, since Zulip supports running a server completely disconnected from the Internet, and we’d like the documentation to be available in that environment.

The source for help center documentation is the Markdown files under help/ in the main Zulip server repository. The file foo.md is automatically rendered by the render_markdown_path function in zerver/templatetags/app_filters.py when the user accesses a URL of the form /help/foo; with special cases for /help/ going to index.md and /help/unknown_article going to missing.md (with a 404 response). Images are usually linked from static/images/help/.

This means that you can contribute to the Zulip help center documentation by just adding to or editing the collection of Markdown files under help/.... If you have the Zulip development environment set up, you simply need to reload your browser on http://localhost:9991/help/foo to see the latest version of foo.md rendered.

This system is designed to make writing and maintaining such documentation highly efficient. We link to the docs extensively from the landing pages and in-product, so it’s important to keep the docs up to date.

Guide to writing help center articles

Writing documentation is a different form of writing than most people have experience with.

Getting started

There are over 100 feature articles and longer guides in the Zulip help center, so make the most of the current documentation as a resource and guide as you begin.

  • Use the list on Zulip help center home to find the section of the docs (e.g. Display settings, Sending messages, Reading messages, etc.) that relates to the new feature you’re documenting.

  • Read through the existing articles in that section and pay attention to the writing style used, as well as any Markdown features used to enhance the readability of the documentation.

  • Should the feature you’re documenting be added or merged into an existing article?

    • If so, you can locate that article in help/ and start working on updating it with content about the new feature.

    • If not, choose an existing article to use as a template for your new article and make a list of which articles (or guides) would be good to link to in your new feature documentation.

Remember that real estate in the left sidebar is somewhat precious. Minor features should rarely get their own article, and should instead be merged into the existing help center documentation where appropriate.

If you are unsure about how and where to document the feature, you can always ask in #documentation on the Zulip community server.

Updating an existing article

If the new feature you’re documenting is a refinement on, or related to, a feature that already has a dedicated help center article, the information will be more useful and discoverable for users as an addition to the existing article.

Here are some things to keep in mind when expanding and updating existing help center articles:

  • Maintain the format and writing style of the current article.

  • Review the Markdown features available and pay attention to the ones already utilized in the article.

  • Think about where inline links to other help center documentation would be appropriate in the description of the feature. For example, your new feature might relate to general Zulip features like keyboard shortcuts or streams and topics.

  • Make sure there is a Related articles section at the end of the article that again links to any help center documentation mentioned in the text or related to the feature.

If your updates to the existing article will change the name of the markdown file, then see section below on redirecting an existing article.

Creating robust and informative help center articles with good links will allow users to navigate the help center much more effectively.

Adding a new article

If the feature you’re documenting needs a new article, here are some things to keep in mind, in addition to the points made above for updating existing documentation:

  • Choose an existing article in the related section of the help documentation, and copy the format, wording, style, etc. as closely as you can.

  • If the feature exists in other team chat products, check out their documentation for inspiration.

  • Fewer words is better than more. Many Zulip users have English as a second language.

  • Try to put yourself in the shoes of a new Zulip user. What would you want to know?

  • Remember to explain the purpose of the feature and give context as well as instructions for how to use or enable it.

  • The goal of user-facing documentation is not to be comprehensive. The goal is to give the right bits of information for the intended audience.

An anti-pattern is trying to make up for bad UX by adding help center documentation. It’s worth remembering that for most articles, almost 100% of the users of the feature will never read the article. Instructions for filling out forms, interacting with UI widgets (e.g. typeaheads), interacting with modals, etc. should never go in the help center documentation. In such cases, you may be able to fix the problem by adding text in-app, where the user will see it as they are interacting with the feature.

Redirecting an existing article

From time to time, we might want to rename an article in the help center, or REST API documentation. This change will break incoming links, including links in published Zulip blog posts, links in other branches of the repository that haven’t been rebased, and more importantly links from previous versions of Zulip.

To fix these broken links, you can easily add a URL redirect in: zerver/lib/url_redirects.py.

For help center documentation, once you’ve renamed the file in your branch (e.g., git mv path/to/foo.md path/to/bar.md), go to url_redirects.py and add a new URLRedirect to the HELP_DOCUMENTATION_REDIRECTS list:

HELP_DOCUMENTATION_REDIRECTS: List[URLRedirect] = [
    # Add URL redirects for help center documentation here:
    URLRedirect("/help/foo", "/help/bar"),
    ...

Note that you will also need to add redirects when you’re deleting a help center article and adding its content to an existing article as a section. In that case, the new URL will include the new section header: URLRedirect("/help/foo", "/help/bar#new-section-header"),.

For REST API documentation, you will either need to rename the file as above, or you will need to update the endpoint’s operationId in zerver/openapi/zulip.yaml. Then, you would add a new URLRedirect to the API_DOCUMENTATION_REDIRECTS list in url_redirects.py.

You should still check for references to the old URL in your branch and replace those with the new URL (e.g., git grep "/help/foo"). Updating section headers in existing help center articles does not require adding a URL redirect, but you will need to update any existing links to that article’s section in your branch.

If you have the Zulip development environment set up, you can manually test your changes by loading the old URL in your browser (e.g., http://localhost:9991/help/foo), and confirming that it redirects to the new url (e.g., http://localhost:9991/help/bar).

There is also an automated test in zerver/tests/test_urls.py that checks all the URL redirects, which you can run from the command line:

./tools/test-backend zerver.tests.test_urls.URLRedirectTest

Writing style

Below are some general style and writing conventions that should be used as guidance when documenting Zulip’s features.

User interface

When you refer to the features in the Zulip UI, you should bold the feature’s name followed by the feature itself (e.g. Settings page, Change password button, Email field). No quotation marks should be used. Use bold for stream names, and quotation marks for topic names.

Keep in mind that the UI may change — don’t describe it in more detail than is needed. Never identify or refer to a button by its color.

Voice

Do not use we to refer to Zulip or its creators; for example, “Zulip also allows …”, rather than “we also allow …”. On the other hand, you is ok and used liberally.

Keyboard shortcuts

Surround each keyboard key in the shortcut with <kbd> HTML element start and end tags (e.g., <kbd>Enter</kbd> or <kbd>R</kbd>).

For shortcuts with more than one key, add a plus sign (+) surrounded by spaces in between the keys (e.g., <kbd>Ctrl</kbd> + <kbd>K</kbd>). Any shortcut for an arrow key (↑, ↓, ←, →) will also need the "arrow-key" CSS class included in the <kbd> start tag (e.g., <kbd class="arrow-key">↑</kbd>).

Use the labels one sees on the actual keyboard rather than the letter they produce when pressed (e.g. R and Shift + R rather than r and R). For symbols, such as ? or @, that are produced through key combinations that change depending on the user’s keyboard layout, you should use the symbol as it appears on a keyboard instead of any specific combination of keys.

Use non-Mac keyboard keys; for example Enter, instead of Return. Zulip will automatically translate non-Mac keys to the Mac versions for users with a Mac user agent. If you want to confirm that your documentation is rendering Mac keys correctly when writing documentation in Windows or Linux, you can temporarily change has_mac_keyboard in /static/js/common.ts to always return True. Then when you view your documentation changes in the development environment, the keyboard shortcuts should be rendered with Mac keys where appropriate.

If you’re adding a tip to an article about a keyboard shortcut, you should use the more specific keyboard tip macro, !!! keyboard_tip "". In general, all keyboard shortcuts should be documented on the keyboard shortcuts help center article.

Markdown features

Zulip’s Markdown processor allows you to include several special features in your documentation to help improve its readability:

  • Since raw HTML is supported in Markdown, you can include arbitrary HTML/CSS in your documentation as needed.

  • Code blocks allow you to highlight syntax, similar to Zulip’s own Markdown.

  • Anchor tags can be used to link to headers in other documents.

  • Images of Zulip UI can be added to documentation, if needed.

  • Inline icons are used to refer to features in the Zulip UI.

  • Utilize macros to limit repeated content in the documentation.

  • Create special highlight warning blocks using tips and warnings.

  • Format instructions with tabs using Markdown tab switcher.

Images

Images and screenshots should be included in help center documentation only if they will help guide the user in how to do something (e.g. if the image will make it much clearer which element on the page the user should interact with). For instance, an image of an element should not be included if the element the user needs to interact with is the only thing on the page, but images can be included to show the end result of an interaction with the UI.

Using too many screenshots creates maintainability problems (we have to update them every time the UI is changed) and also can make the instructions for something simple look long and complicated.

When taking screenshots, the image should never include the whole Zulip browser window in a screenshot; instead, it should only show relevant parts of the app. In addition, the screenshot should always come after the text that describes it, never before.

Images are often a part of a numbered step and must be indented four spaces to be formatted correctly.

Icons

You can refer to features in the Zulip UI by referencing their names and their FontAwesome (version 4.7.0) text icons within parentheses. Note: We have completed migrating away from older base class icon-vector and have dropped support for it. We now only support icons from FontAwesome (version 4.7.0) which make use of fa as a base class.

  • cog () icon: **cog** (<i class="fa fa-cog"></i>) icon

  • down chevron () icon: **down chevron** (<i class="fa fa-chevron-down"></i>) icon

  • eye () icon: **eye** (<i class="fa fa-eye"></i>) icon

  • file () icon: **file** (<i class="fa fa-file-code-o"></i>) icon

  • filled star () icon: **filled star** (<i class="fa fa-star"></i>) icon

  • formatting () icon: **formatting** (<i class="fa fa-font"></i>) icon

  • menu () icon: **menu** (<i class="fa fa-bars"></i>) icon

  • verflow ( ) icon: **overflow** ( <i class="fa fa-ellipsis-v"></i> ) icon

  • paperclip () icon: **paperclip** (<i class="fa fa-paperclip"></i>) icon

  • pencil () icon: **pencil** (<i class="fa fa-pencil"></i>) icon

  • pencil and paper () icon: **pencil and paper** (<i class="fa fa-pencil-square-o"></i>) icon

  • plus () icon: **plus** (<i class="fa fa-plus"></i>) icon

  • smiley face () icon: **smiley face** (<i class="fa fa-smile-o"></i>) icon

  • star () icon: **star** (<i class="fa fa-star-o"></i>) icon

  • trash () icon: **trash** (<i class="fa fa-trash-o"></i>) icon

  • video-camera () icon: **video-camera** (<i class="fa fa-video-camera"></i>) icon

  • x () icon: **x** (<i class="fa fa-times"></i>) icon

Macros

Macros are elements in the format of {!macro.md!} that insert common phrases and steps at the location of the macros. Macros help eliminate repeated content in our documentation.

The source for macros is the Markdown files under help/include in the main Zulip server repository.

  • Administrator only feature {!admin-only.md!}: Notes that the feature is only available to organization administrators.

  • Message actions {!message-actions.md!}: First step to navigating to the on-hover message actions.

  • Message actions menu {!message-actions-menu.md!}: Navigate to the message actions menu.

  • Save changes {!save-changes.md!}: Save changes after modifying organization settings.

  • Stream actions {!stream-actions.md!}: Navigate to the stream actions menu from the left sidebar.

  • Start composing {!start-composing.md!}: Open the compose box.

Tips and warnings

A tip is any suggestion for the user that is not part of the main set of instructions. For instance, it may address a common problem users may encounter while following the instructions, or point to an option for power users.

!!! tip ""

    If you've forgotten your password, see the
    [Change your password](/help/change-your-password) page for
    instructions on how to reset it.

A keyboard tip is a note for users to let them know that the same action can also be accomplished via a keyboard shortcut.

!!! keyboard_tip ""

    Use <kbd>D</kbd> to bring up your list of drafts.

A warning is a note on what happens when there is some kind of problem. Tips are more common than warnings.

!!! warn ""

    **Note:** If you attempt to input a nonexistent stream name, an error
    message will appear.

All tips/warnings should appear inside tip/warning blocks. There should be only one tip/warning inside each block, and they usually should be formatted as a continuation of a numbered step.

Tab switcher

Our Markdown processor supports easily creating a tab switcher widget design to easily show the instructions for different platforms in help center articles, languages in API docs, etc. To create a tab switcher, write:

{start_tabs}
{tab|desktop-web}
# First tab's content
{tab|ios}
# Second tab's content
{tab|android}
# Third tab's content
{end_tabs}

The tab identifiers (e.g. desktop-web above) and their mappings to the tabs’ labels are declared in zerver/lib/markdown/tabbed_sections.py.

This widget can also be used just to create a nice box around a set of instructions (example) by only declaring a single tab.