Using Cookbook Documentation to Pass on Knowledge

Documentation is hard. Like writing code, it is a delicate balancing act of packing information into a format that is both very dense and very readable. Going too far in either direction severely limits its usefulness.

While ramping down a client project recently, I was asked to provide documentation and guides for the JavaScript application stack the company was using. Talking such a broad topic in a useful and consumable way was a daunting challenge. Some of the problems I immediately saw were:

  1. The documentation would have to stand on its own; I wouldn’t be there to update or answer questions about it.
  2. It needed to be approachable for developers new to the technology, but also deep enough for more experienced developers to derive value.
  3. I only had a couple days to create the content, so it needed to be pretty concise.

After brainstorming several approaches, I decided that writing a cookbook was my best option. Cookbooks organize material into “recipes,” simple practical problems along with a described solution and short code sample. The most well-known examples are probably O’Reilly’s offerings, which cover a wide range of technologies.

Writing the cookbook content proved to be a fun and challenging exercise. I had frequently been consulting and pairing with other developers on this project, so I used questions they had frequently asked me as the basis for the content.

I also tried to place some additional limits on myself:

  1. Keep descriptions to no more than a single paragraph.
  2. Keep all the example code snippets small enough to fit entirely on one screen without scrolling.

I thought this would maximize the readability of the document. I also figured that examples that could not fit into these constraints were probably too complex and nuanced to effectively demonstrate in standalone documentation. Additionally, I hoped that the format would be lightweight enough that future developers would feel comfortable editing existing entries or adding new ones.

Below is an example from the cookbook I generated.

Data-binding To a Specific Model Property

Recipe – listen to the change:propertyName event on the model

You can use this to databind to a specific property in a view:

var View = Marionette.ItemView.extend({
    ui: {
        statusIndicator: '.app-status-indicator'
    modelEvents: {
        // Bind to the status property, and toggle an indicator whenever it changes
        'change:status': 'toggleStatusIndicator'
    toggleStatusIndicator: function(model, status) {
        this.ui.statusIndicator.toggleClass('active', status);

Or to give your model computed properties:

var Model = Backbone.Model.extend({
    initialize: function(options) {
        // Bind to change events for the dependant properties
        this.listenTo(this, 'change:firstName change:lastName', this.computeDisplayName);
        // You have to compute the property once manually on startup to make
        // sure the initial value is computed
    computeDisplayName: function() {
        // Set computed property based on dependant properties
        this.set('displayName', this.get('lastName') + ', ' + this.get('firstName'));

The whole recipe can fit onto a page without scrolling and provides some simple standalone examples. What other kinds of documentation have you found successful in a similar situation?