How to Create Helpful Technical Documentation (+Best Practices)
If you’ve ever read a poorly constructed instruction manual that’s missing important information or includes steps that don’t work, you understand the importance of well-written documentation first-hand.
Crafting accurate and complete technical documentation is an essential part of building a product — it ensures your developers have the information they need to get their jobs done and helps your customers get maximum value from your products.
What Is Technical Documentation?
Technical documentation includes notes, templates, standards, rules, and guides containing written descriptions of a product’s or process’s features and functions. Often used in the software development industry, this type of documentation is sometimes known as a technical or instruction manual, but it can also include descriptions and explanations of how objects or systems function.
Technical documentation has a variety of uses. For example, it can come in the form of step-by-step or troubleshooting guides for customers, instructions for installing software for end-users, guidelines for developers performing technical processes such as debugging, or technical reference documents for engineers that include specifications, diagrams, and procedures.
Well-written documentation gets straight to the point by avoiding unnecessary information — it’s intuitive and helpful, rather than complex and full of jargon.
Product vs. Process Documentation
Documentation comes in many forms but generally falls into two main types of technical documentation — process and product documentation.
1. Product documentation
Product-based documentation explains a product’s features and requirements. There are two main types of product-based documentation:
- System documentation — this helps users, engineers, and other parties understand how a system works. It includes design decisions, source code, and other requirements.
- User documentation — this includes training manuals and instructions for product users and administrators. User documentation examples include tutorials, user guides, troubleshooting manuals, reference documents, and knowledge bases.
2. Process documentation
Process documentation outlines the key steps needed to complete processes or tasks. This is can take the form of in-app guidance or step-by-step instructions. Use cases of process documentation include onboarding new employees or training a freelancer on how to complete a digital process in a complex piece of software.
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How Is Technical Documentation Used?
Technical documentation serves a wide range of functions and touches everyone in the product cycle, from the developers who build products to the customers who use them. The following are several ways it can be used:
1. End-User Support
Technical documentation helps end-users understand how to navigate a product and complete tasks effectively. In addition, this type of documentation saves companies time and revenue since it offers a self-service solution instead of requiring an employee’s time to answer a support ticket. For example, the “Get Started” tutorial included with Microsoft Word is technical documentation written for the end-user.
2. Product Development Support
Employees of a software development company will need some guidance to develop best-selling products. Software documentation helps them develop those products efficiently. For example, a company might distribute glossaries and software product development guides to engineers to better understand how to create their products.
3. Marketing Support Documentation
4. Internal Organization Support
Onboarding employees can be more effective with technical documentation in place. New employees need to learn your company’s policies and procedures, and onboarding documentation will bring them up to speed faster. Documentation is also helpful for documenting internal workflows, tracking approval chains, and developing reference guides. This type of internal technical documentation for team member support can be created in the form of an internal knowledge base or internal wiki.
5 Benefits of Technical Documentation
Having technical documentation in place provides concrete benefits for customers and employees and improves business processes. Here are several of the benefits:
1. Resolves Issues Faster
Users can do their own troubleshooting to solve their issues and teach themselves to use your product if they have access to well-written technical documentation.
One study showed that 69% of customers want to solve their own problems — having documentation in place helps your customers fix their issues faster because they don’t have to reach out to your support team and wait for an answer – resulting in a reduction in support tickets.
2. Keeps Information Organized
3. Creates More Satisfied Users
High-quality documentation will give your users a better experience with your product. Customers may react negatively to incomplete or missing information, which could damage their view of your brand.
4. Avoids Errors and Misuse
Technical documentation can help your customers use your product correctly and safely by providing clear guidance and precautions. Creating detailed documentation can be especially beneficial if your product can break or cause harm if misused.
5. Makes Development Easier
Having documentation available will benefit anyone building integrations and products to use alongside your product. For example, if your product offers an application programming interface (API), technical documentation explains how to integrate both products to make the job easier.
How to Create Technical Documentation
Producing good technical documentation requires a multi-step process to make sure it’s both accurate and easy to read.
Follow these seven steps to create well-written documentation in 2022:
1. Create a Technical Documentation Plan
Start your project by developing a technical documentation plan. With so much work going into documentation — research, outlines, first drafts, reviews, testing, and more — it’s important your plan documents clear timelines for each of these steps.
2. Conduct Research
Do your research to determine your purpose and scope. Taking the time to do research upfront will save you a lot of time and energy in the long run and increase the accuracy and usefulness of your documentation.
3. Consider Your Design & Create a Mock-Up
When thinking about design, consider your document’s organization, flow, and navigation. A visually appealing design will help communicate your documentation to your audience, making it an important part of the process. Mock-ups offer a general idea about how a product looks and feels. For technical documentation, a mock-up might be a summary or outline of your documentation or a prototype of your UI.
4. Write Your Documentation
After researching, planning, and designing, it’s time to complete your first draft. Writing your first draft is primarily for outlining and brainstorming your ideas and getting something down on paper. Make notes of any new ideas that aren’t part of your initial research so you can work them into your draft.
Be sure to understand the technical writing skills you need to properly create the most effective technical documentation. You’ll also need leverage technical documentation software such as technical writing tools and software documentation tools.
5. Share Your First Draft with Colleagues for Review
Get multiple pairs of eyes on your first draft to review it. At this stage, you’ll need your documentation reviewed to make sure the information you’ve included is accurate, and you haven’t left anything out. Remind your reviewers to focus on the document’s content, not the grammar and formatting, which might still be rough.
6. Test and Publish Your Technical Documentation
Before publishing, do one more quality control check before your documentation goes live. Share your final draft with someone inside your company and have them use it to work through a task or process. Testing your documentation helps identify usability issues and avoids including confusing information.
Once you have thoroughly tested your documentation and you and your team agree the information is complete and accurate, you’re ready to publish it. At this point, you’ll need to leverage a tool for publish.
7. Set Owners for Updating & Maintaining Your Documentation
You’ll want to make sure the people or teams you choose have a solid understanding of your product, have access to any releases or updates, and know-how to collaborate with technical teams, product managers, and marketing departments. They will also need to be skilled in conveying technical information to non-technical people.
Regardless of your audience, make sure to keep your technical documentation up to date. If your information isn’t accurate, your readers will waste their time using old and inaccurate information, and developers could end up making a mess out of your product’s back end. To make sure your documents are always accurate, create a regular schedule for updating your documentation — this will minimize the time between updates and the most recent changes to your product.