Documentation process

The process for creating and maintaining GitLab product documentation depends on whether the documentation is associated with:

Documentation is not usually required when a “backstage feature” is added or changed, and does not directly affect the way that any user or administrator interacts with GitLab.

Documentation labels

Regardless of the type of issue or merge request, certain labels are required when documentation is added or updated. The following are added by the issue or merge request author:

The following are also added by members of the Technical Writing team:

  • A documentation scoped label with the docs:: prefix. For example, ~docs::improvement.
  • The ~Technical Writing team label.

For a product change

This documentation is required for any new or changed feature and is:

  • Created or updated as part of feature development, almost always in the same merge request as the feature code. Including documentation in the same merge request as the code eliminates the possibility that code and documentation get out of sync.
  • Required with the delivery of a feature for a specific milestone as part of GitLab’s definition of done.
  • Often linked from the release post.

Roles and responsibilities

Documentation for specific milestones involves the:

  • Developer of a feature or enhancement.
  • Product Manager for the group delivering the new feature or feature enhancement.
  • Technical Writer assigned to the group.

Each role is described below.

Developers

Developers are the primary author of documentation for a feature or feature enhancement. They are responsible for:

  • Developing initial content required for a feature.
  • Liaising with their Product Manager to understand what documentation must be delivered, and when.
  • Requesting technical reviews from other developers within their group.
  • Requesting documentation reviews from the Technical Writer assigned to the DevOps stage group that is delivering the new feature or feature enhancements.
Tip: Community Contributors can ask for additional help from GitLab team members.
Authoring

Because the documentation is an essential part of the product, if a ~feature issue also contains the ~documentation label, you must ship the new or updated documentation with the code of the feature.

Technical Writers are happy to help, as requested and planned on an issue-by-issue basis.

For feature issues requiring documentation, follow the process below unless otherwise agreed with the Product Manager and Technical Writer for a given issue:

  • Include any new and edited documentation, either in:
    • The merge request introducing the code.
    • A separate merge request raised around the same time.
  • Use the documentation requirements developed by the Product Manager in the issue and discuss any further documentation plans or ideas as needed.

    If the new or changed documentation requires extensive collaboration or conversation, a separate, linked issue can be used for the planning process.

  • Use the Documentation guidelines, as well as other resources linked from there, including:
  • Contact the Technical Writer for the relevant DevOps stage in your issue or merge request, or within #docs on GitLab Slack, if you:
    • Need any help to choose the correct place for documentation.
    • Want to discuss a documentation idea or outline.
    • Want to request any other help.
  • If you are working on documentation in a separate merge request, ensure the documentation is merged as close as possible to the code merge.
  • A policy for documenting feature-flagged issues is forthcoming and you are welcome to join the discussion.
Reviews and merging

Reviewers help ensure:

Prior to merging, documentation changes committed by the developer must be reviewed by:

  • The code reviewer for the merge request. This is known as a technical review.
  • Optionally, others involved in the work such as other developers or the Product Manager.
  • The Technical Writer for the DevOps stage group, except in exceptional circumstances where a post-merge review can be requested.
  • A maintainer of the project.

Product Managers

Product Managers are responsible for the documentation requirements for a feature or feature enhancement. They can also:

  • Liaise with the Technical Writer for discussion and collaboration.
  • Review documentation themselves.

For issues requiring any new or updated documentation, the Product Manager must:

Everyone is encouraged to draft the documentation requirements in the issue. However, a Product Manager will:

  • When the issue is assigned a release milestone, review and update the Documentation details.
  • By the kickoff, finalize the documentation details.

Technical Writers

Technical Writers are responsible for:

  • Participating in issues discussions and reviewing MRs for the upcoming milestone.
  • Reviewing documentation requirements in issues when called upon.
  • Answering questions, and helping and providing advice throughout the authoring and editing process.
  • Reviewing all significant new and updated documentation content, whether before merge or after it is merged.
  • Assisting the developer and Product Manager with feature documentation delivery.
Planning

The Technical Writer:

  • Reviews their group’s ~feature issues that are part of the next milestone to get a sense of the scope of content likely to be authored.
  • Recommends the ~documentation label on issues from that list which don’t have it but should, or inquires with the PM to determine if documentation is truly required.
  • For ~direction issues from that list, reads the full issue and reviews its Documentation requirements section. Addresses any recommendations or questions with the PMs and others collaborating on the issue in order to refine or expand the Documentation requirements.
Collaboration

By default, the developer will work on documentation changes independently, but the developer, Product Manager, or Technical Writer can propose a broader collaboration for any given issue.

Additionally, Technical Writers are available for questions at any time.

Review

Technical Writers:

  • Provide non-blocking reviews of all documentation changes, before or after the change is merged.
  • Confirm that the documentation is:
    • Clear.
    • Grammatically correct.
    • Discoverable.
    • Navigable.
  • Ensures that the documentation avoids:
    • Redundancy.
    • Bad file locations.
    • Typos.
    • Broken links.

The Technical Writer will review the documentation to check that the developer and code reviewer have ensured:

  • Clarity.
  • Appropriate location, making sure the documentation is in the correct directories (often reflecting how the product is structured) and has the correct name.
  • Syntax, typos, and broken links.
  • Improvements to the content.
  • Accordance with the:

When documentation is required

Documentation is required for a milestone when:

  • A new or enhanced feature is shipped that impacts the user or administrator experience.
  • There are changes to the UI or API.
  • A process, workflow, or previously documented feature is changed.
  • A feature is deprecated or removed.
Note: Documentation refactoring unrelated to a feature change is covered in the other process, so that time-sensitive documentation updates are prioritized.

Documentation requirements

Requirements for the documentation of a feature should be included as part of the issue for planning that feature in a Documentation section within the issue description. Issues created using the Feature Proposal template have this section by default.

Anyone can add these details, but the Product Manager who assigns the issue to a specific release milestone will ensure these details are present and finalized by the time of that milestone’s kickoff.

Developers, Technical Writers, and others may help further refine this plan at any time on request.

The following details should be included:

  • What concepts and procedures should the documentation guide and enable the user to understand or accomplish?
  • To this end, what new page(s) are needed, if any? What pages or subsections need updates? Consider changes and additions to user, admin, and API documentation.
  • For any guide or instruction set, should it help address a single use case, or be flexible to address a certain range of use cases?
  • Do we need to update a previously recommended workflow? Should we link the new feature from various relevant locations? Consider all ways documentation should be affected.
  • Are there any key terms or task descriptions that should be included so that the documentation is found in relevant searches?
  • Include suggested titles of any pages or subsection headings, if applicable.
  • List any documentation that should be cross-linked, if applicable.

Including docs with code

Currently, the Technical Writing team strongly encourages including documentation in the same merge request as the code that it relates to, but this is not strictly mandatory. It’s still common for documentation to be added in an MR separate from the feature MR.

Engineering teams may elect to adopt a workflow where it is mandatory that docs are included in the code MR, as part of their definition of done. When a team adopts this workflow, that team’s engineers must include their docs in the same MR as their feature code, at all times.

Downsides of separate docs MRs

A workflow that has documentation separated into its own MR has many downsides.

If the documentation merges before the feature:

  • GitLab.com users might try to use the feature before it’s released, driving support tickets.
  • If the feature is delayed, the documentation might not be pulled/reverted in time and could be accidentally included in the self-managed package for that release.

If the documentation merges after the feature:

  • The feature might be included in the self-managed package, but without any documentation if the docs MR misses the cutoff.
  • A feature might show up in the GitLab.com UI before any documentation exists for it. Users surprised by this feature will search for documentation and won’t find it, possibly driving support tickets.

Having two separate MRs means:

  • Two different people might be responsible for merging one feature, which is not workable with an asynchronous work style. The feature might merge while the technical writer is asleep, creating a potentially lengthy delay between the two merges.
  • If the docs MR is assigned to the same maintainer as responsible for the feature code MR, they will have to review and juggle two MRs instead of dealing with just one.

Documentation quality might be lower, because:

  • Having docs in a separate MR will mean far fewer people will see and verify them, increasing the likelihood that issues will be missed.
  • In a “split” workflow, engineers might only create the documentation MR once the feature MR is ready, or almost ready. This gives the technical writer little time to learn about the feature in order to do a good review. It also increases pressure on them to review and merge faster than desired, letting problems slip in due to haste.

Benefits of always including docs with code

Including docs with code (and doing it early in the development process) has many benefits:

  • There are no timing issues connected to releases:
    • If a feature slips to the next release, the documentation slips too.
    • If the feature just makes it into a release, the docs just make it in too.
    • If a feature makes it to GitLab.com early, the documentation will be ready for our early adopters.
  • Only a single person will be responsible for merging the feature (the code maintainer).
  • The technical writer will have more time to gain an understanding of the feature and will be better able to verify the content of the docs in the Review App or GDK. They will also be able to offer advice for improving the UI text or offer additional use cases.
  • The documentation will have increased visibility:
    • Everyone involved in the merge request will see the docs. This could include product managers, multiple engineers with deep domain knowledge, as well as the code reviewers and maintainer. They will be more likely to catch issues with examples, as well as background or concepts that the technical writer may not be aware of.
    • Increasing visibility of the documentation also has the side effect of improving other engineers’ documentation. By reviewing each other’s MRs, each engineer’s own documentation skills will improve.
  • Thinking about the documentation early can help engineers generate better examples, as they will need to think about what examples a user will want, and will need to make sure the code they write implements that example properly.

Docs with code as a workflow

In order to have docs included with code as a mandatory workflow, some changes might need to happen to a team’s current workflow:

  • The engineers must strive to include the docs early in the development process, to give ample time for review, not just from the technical writer, but also the code reviewer and maintainer.
  • Reviewers and maintainers must also review the docs during code reviews, to make sure the described processes match the expected use of the feature, and that examples are correct. They do not need to worry about style, grammar, and so on.
  • The technical writer must be assigned the MR directly and not only pinged. Thanks to the ability to have multiple assignees for any MR, this can be done at any time, but must be before the code maintainer review. It’s common to have both the docs and code reviews happening at the same time, with the author, reviewer and technical writer discussing the docs together.
  • When the docs are ready, the technical writer will click Approve and usually will no longer be involved in the MR. If the feature changes during code review and the docs are updated, the technical writer must be reassigned the MR to verify the update.
  • Maintainers are allowed to merge features with the docs “as-is”, even if the technical writer has not given final approval yet. The docs reviews must not be blockers. Therefore it’s important to get the docs included and assigned to the technical writers early. If the feature is merged before final docs approval, the maintainer must create a post-merge follow-up issue, and assign it to both the engineer and technical writer.

Maintainers are allowed to merge features with the docs “as-is” even if the technical writer has not given final approval yet but the merge request has all other required approvals.

You can visualize the parallel workflow for code and docs reviews as:

graph TD A("Feature MR Created (Engineer)") --> |Assign| B("Code Review (reviewer)") B --> |"Approve / Reassign"| C("Code Review (maintainer)") C --> |Approve| F("Merge (maintainer)") A --> D("Docs Added (Engineer)") D --> |Assign| E("Docs Review (Tech Writer)") E --> |Approve| F

For complex features split over multiple merge requests:

  • If a merge request is implementing components for a future feature, but the components are not accessible to users yet, then no documentation should be included.
  • If a merge request will expose a feature to users in any way, such as an enabled UI element, an API endpoint, or anything similar, then that MR must have docs. Note that this may mean multiple docs additions could happen in the buildup to the implementation of a single large feature, for example API docs and feature usage docs.
  • If it’s unclear which engineer should add the feature documentation into their MR, the engineering manager should decide during planning, and tie the documentation to the last MR that must be merged before a feature is considered released. This is often, but not always, a frontend MR.

For all other documentation

Documentation changes that are not associated with the release of a new or updated feature do not take the ~feature label, but still need the ~documentation label.

They may include:

  • Documentation created or updated to improve accuracy, completeness, ease of use, or any reason other than a feature change.
  • Addressing gaps in existing documentation, or making improvements to existing documentation.
  • Work on special projects related to the documentation.
Tip: Anyone can contribute a merge request or create an issue for GitLab’s documentation.

Who updates the docs

Anyone can contribute! You can create a merge request for documentation when:

  • You find errors or other room for improvement in existing documentation.
  • You have an idea for all-new documentation that would help a GitLab user or administrator to accomplish their work with GitLab.

How to update the docs

To update GitLab documentation:

  1. Either:
  2. Follow the described standards and processes listed on the page, including:
  3. Follow GitLab’s Merge Request Guidelines.
Tip: Work in a fork if you do not have Developer access to the GitLab project.

Request help from the Technical Writing team if you:

  • Need help to choose the correct place for documentation.
  • Want to discuss a documentation idea or outline.
  • Want to request any other help.

To request help:

  1. Locate the Technical Writer for the relevant DevOps stage group.
  2. Either:
    • If urgent help is required, directly assign the Technical Writer in the issue or in the merge request.
    • If non-urgent help is required, ping the Technical Writer in the issue or merge request.

If you are a member of GitLab’s Slack workspace, you can request help in #docs.

Reviewing and merging

Anyone with Maintainer access to the relevant GitLab project can merge documentation changes. Maintainers must make a good-faith effort to ensure that the content:

If the author or reviewer has any questions, they can mention the writer who is assigned to the relevant DevOps stage group.

The process involves the following:

  • Primary Reviewer. Review by a code reviewer or other appropriate colleague to confirm accuracy, clarity, and completeness. This can be skipped for minor fixes without substantive content changes.
  • Technical Writer (Optional). If not completed for a merge request prior to merging, must be scheduled post-merge. Schedule post-merge reviews only if an urgent merge is required. To request a:
  • Maintainer. For merge requests, Maintainers:
    • Can always request any of the above reviews.
    • Review before or after a Technical Writer review.
    • Ensure the given release milestone is set.
    • Ensure the appropriate labels are applied, including any required to pick a merge request into a release.
    • Ensure that, if there has not been a Technical Writer review completed or scheduled, they create the required issue, assign to the Technical Writer of the given stage group, and link it from the merge request.

The process is reflected in the Documentation merge request template.

Other ways to help

If you have ideas for further documentation resources please create an issue using the Documentation template.

Post-merge reviews

If not assigned to a Technical Writer for review prior to merging, a review must be scheduled immediately after merge by the developer or maintainer. For this, create an issue using the Doc Review description template and link to it from the merged merge request that introduced the documentation change.

Circumstances where a regular pre-merge Technical Writer review might be skipped include:

  • There is a short amount of time left before the milestone release. If there are less than three days remaining, seek a post-merge review and ping the writer via Slack to ensure the review is completed as soon as possible.
  • The size of the change is small and you have a high degree of confidence that early users of the feature (for example, GitLab.com users) can easily use the documentation as written.

Remember:

  • At GitLab, we treat documentation like code. As with code, documentation must be reviewed to ensure quality.
  • Documentation forms part of the GitLab definition of done.
  • That pre-merge Technical Writer reviews should be most common when the code is complete well in advance of a milestone release and for larger documentation changes.
  • You can request a post-merge Technical Writer review of documentation if it’s important to get the code with which it ships merged as soon as possible. In this case, the author of the original MR will address the feedback provided by the Technical Writer in a follow-up MR.
  • The Technical Writer can also help decide that documentation can be merged without Technical writer review, with the review to occur soon after merge.

Before merging

Ensure the following if skipping an initial Technical Writer review:

  • That product badges are applied.
  • That the GitLab version that introduced the feature has been included.
  • That changes to headings don’t affect in-app hyperlinks.
  • Specific user permissions are documented.
  • That new documents are linked from higher-level indexes, for discoverability.
  • Style guide is followed:
Note: Merge requests that change the location of documentation must always be reviewed by a Technical Writer prior to merging.