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Finding #7: Maintainers need help improving documentation and the user and contributor experience

Chris Grams
by Chris Grams
on July 27, 2021

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In early 2021, Tidelift fielded its first-ever comprehensive survey of open source maintainers. Nearly 400 maintainers responded with thoughts about how they fund their work, what they enjoy about being a maintainer, what they don’t like so much, along with a host of other interesting insights. In this post, we share the seventh of nine key findings. If you don’t want to wait for the rest of the results, you can download the full survey report right now.

Tidelift_051321_SurveyMaintainerReport_09_Figure 7.1In our previous post, we shared how maintainers divide up their time, and how that changes when they are getting paid for their work versus when they are volunteers. But money doesn’t solve all maintainer woes, so we asked maintainers what other help—beyond money—they could use.

Not surprisingly, improving documentation was the number one non-monetary place where maintainers need assistance. Docs are vital, but most maintainers aren’t necessarily technical writers—nor do they want to be. This has come up in many conversations we’ve had with maintainers, so this data is unsurprising to us.

As we learned in the previous post, documentation currently takes up 9% of a maintainer’s project-related time. And it sounds like that isn’t enough time, with 56% of maintainers saying it would be extremely valuable to get more help with docs and another 34% believing it would be at least somewhat valuable to get more help with documentation.

Next on the list of non-financial support options on the maintainer wishlist: help improving the experience for new users and contributors, with 90% of respondents reporting that this would be extremely or somewhat valuable. 

Beyond this, maintainers would also appreciate help with marketing (80% extremely or somewhat valuable), triaging issues and pull requests (80% extremely or somewhat valuable), and retaining contributors (77% extremely or somewhat valuable).

Maintainers simply want more help

We’d be remiss if we did not point out that of the seven non-financial support options we included, not one of them was seen as not very or not at all valuable by more than 39% of maintainers. In fact, you could make the case that maintainers want—and need—help in all of these areas.

Even the two options seen as least valuable—succession planning help and community management and conflict resolution—were seen as somewhat or extremely valuable by 62% and 61% of respondents respectively.

Every other option was seen as somewhat or extremely valuable by at least three fourths of the maintainers we surveyed. 

Our conclusion? While paying maintainers for their contributions is the lightning rod issue that needs critical action, it is by no means the only way we can help maintainers be more successful. Over the coming years, we can help maintainers by ensuring they are both paid well and supported broadly in other areas as they complete their important work.

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