My first impressions of Confluence for wiki-based user assistance

The logo of Atlassian's Confluence software. This article describes a first-time experience of Confluence as a wiki-based user assistance tool.

I’m a big tech enthusiast. I’m constantly reading and researching the latest trends online and in the news, so that I can make an informed decision on my latest tech purchase. Then when it’s time to go and buy, there are few more exciting events than when you open the box and see your newest gadget ready for you to play with.

And as I pull everything out of the box, I always notice one thing missing: a traditional user manual.

It seems that the more complicated modern-day gizmos are becoming, the relevance of traditional user guides is diminishing. Users often turn to fellow users for hints and tips and, as a result, wiki-based platforms have emerged as a serious alternative for those having trouble using their new device.

Confluence is flexible and incredibly user-friendly

The use of wiki software as a means of user assistance is extensive, with the likes of Cisco and LibreOffice embracing the ways of wiki help systems. I’ve been working on a wiki software package, Atlassian’s Confluence, on a user assistance project for the last few months (a sample can be found here). As a person with very limited prior knowledge of wikis, I can see why more companies are adopting wikis as a viable store of information.

Confluence is incredibly simple to use. You create a ‘space’, which acts like a chapter in a book, and add ‘pages’ to the space. Organising pages within spaces is as easy as dragging and dropping using the hierarchy view. Adding content is effortless too as Confluence doesn’t force you to learn any wiki markup languages (it embraces the ‘What You See Is What You Get’ philosophy). So if you’re familiar with using a word processor then you’d have no trouble with Confluence. I’ve spent months using Confluence in the same way that I would use Microsoft Word without issue, making it a quick and smooth transition for those who wish to contribute.

Contribution is perhaps the single greatest reason for moving over to wiki-based help systems. Unlike traditional physical handbooks, wiki-based systems are entirely flexible, allowing multiple users to edit, tweak and restructure information quickly and easily. This ensures that what is documented is up-to-date and of the standard required. It’s clear to me that Confluence was designed for collaborative purposes first, with the ability for users to add notes to pages and a superb page history function for you to keep track of the latest changes made by others. Multiple user accounts can be given access to Confluence, giving you ultimate control over who can add and change the content of your documentation.

Having said that, Confluence isn’t exactly perfect. I found basic formatting to be more of a struggle than expected. You don’t quite have the same control as you would on a word processor, which is evident when you want to change text leading, indent embedded media or manipulate bulleted lists. The option to use HTML to further customise Confluence is hidden away by default. Exporting Confluence into PDF or Word, whilst a great idea, can be fiddly especially when you want to export a space with a large number of pages. Exported documents don’t always look how you want them to and having to reformat a large space in Word is a hassle. Confluence also has difficulty forming links to anchored sections of pages too. These issues can be avoided by installing ‘add-on’ extensions, but it involves a certain degree of technical knowledge that not all users will have.

Wiki-based user assistance is the future

With that in mind, the ‘add-on’ feature does offer (almost) endless additional functionality. The adaptability of Confluence is refreshing, and whilst it doesn’t offer more advanced layout features found in the likes of RoboHelp, it was never designed specifically for creating technical documentation. That it makes it so easy to do so has been impressive. Together with all the ‘like’ buttons, sharing functions and comment sections, Confluence does a great job of emphasising the social and collaborative side of wikis.

Wikis make ideal user assistance systems: easy to use, compatible with multiple devices and well-supported add-on functionality. If gadget manufacturers don’t want to provide guides, they should at least set up wikis for user information and Confluence is a great place for them to begin. That way I’ll get far more from their product.

My first impressions of Confluence for wiki-based user assistance
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