How We Tripled Chrome DevTools Documentation Pageviews In 2 Years

Technical Writing

To help users discover new features and major changes, the Chrome DevTools team embedded release notes into the DevTools UI. The success of this approach has fundamentally changed how I approach documentation discovery in general. I now look for ways to contextually link to the documentation from the product.

A chart showing DevTools pageviews from 2016 to 2018.
Figure 1. DevTools pageviews from 2016 to 2018. Y-axis values have been redacted but the scale is accurate.

I've been a technical writer for 8 years. For the first 7 years, if you told me that users were having trouble discovering our docs and asked me how to improve the situation, I'd propose 2 strategies:

Last year I realized there's a 3rd strategy. A strategy that's possibly way more effective than the first 2.

Background

DevTools is a suite of tools for web developers that's built into Google Chrome. When you're building a website and it's not looking or behaving as expected in Chrome, you use DevTools to figure out what's wrong. I've been writing and maintaining the DevTools docs for 3 years.

Inspecting Google Maps with DevTools.
Figure 2. Inspecting Google Maps with DevTools.

Back in 2016 the DevTools team asked users:

What would you most like to see the Chrome DevTools team improve?

One of the top responses was:

Better ways to discover new features.

Solution

Our UX Designer at the time, Chris Howse, brainstormed various solutions for this feature discovery problem. We ended up focusing on a sort of release notes embedded in the DevTools UI. One of the DevTools engineers at the time, Will Chen, implemented the UI in a week or 2.

The release notes UI.
Figure 3. The release notes UI.

Every 6 weeks, when DevTools updates, the release notes UI pops up with an updated list of new features and major changes for that release.

If you click one of the items mentioned in the release notes UI, such as Highlight all nodes affected by CSS property, DevTools opens up the release notes doc and jumps you to the section explaining that item.

The documentation for the new feature.
Figure 4. The documentation for the Highlight all nodes affected by CSS property new feature.

Metrics

The release notes docs account for pretty much all of the increase in pageviews that we've experienced since June 2017. Here's the chart again:

A chart showing DevTools pageviews from 2016 to 2018.
Figure 5. DevTools pageviews from 2016 to 2018.

As mentioned before, we release a new version of DevTools every 6 weeks. That's 8 release notes a year. When I was doing the research for this post we had done 15 release notes in total. In other words, just 15 documents accounted for the tripling in pageviews from mid-2017 onwards.

See Appendix: Are pageviews a vanity metric? for a brief discussion on why I think pageviews are a meaningful metric in this context.

More metrics:

Suggestions

I had a hunch that the release notes project would be a success because we already had a few links to the documentation buried deep in the UI, and those buried links were generating a significant amount of pageviews. "If buried links could generate that many pageviews," I thought to myself, "then imagine what kind of traffic prominent links might create." The What's New project has confirmed this hunch. Over the past few months I've been systematically looking for ways to link to the docs from the DevTools UI. For example, if you're a new user just exploring the DevTools UI, Figure 6 is what you'll see upon first opening the Sources panel.

The Sources panel.
Figure 6. The Sources panel.

By providing that Learn more link we are giving users the opportunity to discover how the Sources panel might help them. Clicking Learn more takes you to the Sources Panel Overview shown in Figure 7.

An overview of the Sources panel.
Figure 7. An overview of the Sources panel.

Of course your product probably looks nothing like DevTools. You'll have to get creative and do some research to figure out where your entry points are. You may not even have a GUI, as is the case if you work on an API. The idea to contextually link to your docs from your product is still relevant. For example, linking to documentation from your API error codes is the same general idea.

Invest in release notes

I suspect many technical writers view release notes as a sort of necessary evil. At least, that's how I viewed them before the What's New project. Now I view them as one of our greatest assets. Web developers seem to love release notes. Check out the comments from Chrome 74 - What's New In DevTools to see what I mean. I think the DevTools engineers also enjoy seeing their work celebrated on a regular schedule.

Strategically speaking, release notes are also an effective channel for driving traffic to the rest of the DevTools docs. For example, when a new feature related to debugging JavaScript comes out, I put in a plug for our JavaScript debugging doc set.

I think the main problem that technical writers have with release notes is scope. When you hear "release notes" you probably think of a detailed list of everything that changed in the product between version 1.0 and version 1.1. If livelihoods depend on intimate knowledge of your products, then yes, you probably have to be comprehensive. For example, if you're writing the release notes for MongoDB, the audience of your release notes are software engineers and database administrators who rely on your database to store their company's data. They must know exactly how the database has changed from 1.0 to 1.1 to make sure that their company's data doesn't get hosed when they upgrade.

For many products I don't think it's the case that the release notes have to be comprehensive. I have yet to see a request for more coverage of bug fixes and small changes in the DevTools release notes. Here's my litmus test for deciding what makes it into the DevTools release notes:

What's funny about release notes is that they tend to encourage a kind of dogmatic adherence to old conventions. Yet if you apply the same audience analysis principles that you'd apply before writing a tutorial, you might realize that by being comprehensive, you might actually be creating a less useful doc because you're lowering your signal-to-noise ratio… introducing noise, in other words.

Be careful about cadence

If you end up adopting a popup release notes UI, be mindful of how frequently the UI pops up. The DevTools UI pops up only once every 6 weeks. I think this is a sweet spot --- not too frequent, not too infrequent. We also have a setting that enables users to suppress the popups permanently.

When writing your release notes also keep in mind that you're intruding on your users. In our release notes I cut out all the self-congratulatory BS that you frequently see in release notes and just explain the change and why the user might find it helpful. I err on the side of explaining too little. Users seem to appreciate this approach.

Don't miss the forest for the trees

I'm not in the business of getting pageviews for the sake of pageviews. I'm only advocating for this approach because I believe it legitimately improves the lives of our users. I think it's our duty as technical writers to design ourselves out of existence whenever possible. For example, when users report a problem that can be fixed by either improving the product or writing documentation, we should advocate for improving the product every time.

Appendix: Are pageviews a vanity metric?

The Lean Startup created the meme that pageviews are a vanity metric. A vanity metric is a measurement that doesn't reflect the true success of a business. Apparently, startups used to mention pageviews when trying to raise equity from VCs. They'd say that their pageviews were growing 50% month-over-month, or something like that. But when you looked at a metric that corresponded more closely to the startup's potential to make money, such as how many new, paying subscribers they were getting each month, the picture was much less rosy. The Lean Startup's main message is to focus on the metrics that actually correlate strongly to revenue or profitability.

In the case of DevTools, our users had explicitly told us that they wanted help discovering features. So, when your task is to help users discover new features, and you see that pageviews have increased dramatically on documents dedicated to explaining new features, I think it's safe to say that we're making progress on the problem. Of course, the real question is whether or not people are using these new features and find them useful. Pageviews do not tell us much about that.