Technical documentation defined
Technical documentation refers to the documents that describe the features and functionalities of a product. It is most commonly created in the software development industry by development and product teams and it can fulfill the support needs of different stakeholders across an organization.
They explain products. Whether they describe use, methodology, functionalities, features or development, the end goal is to explain a specific aspect of a product to the reader. This is true whether they're being used in software development, product development or elsewhere.
Technical documentation comes in many different shapes and sizes, but nowadays it's mostly found online. Even though it's normally written by technical writers, development teams, project managers, developers and other industry experts, the best technical documentation conveys information simply and clearly so that anyone can understand it. Otherwise it does not correctly fulfill its purpose.
Who is technical documentation for?
Audiences can be anything from end-users to programmers to stakeholders. It varies a great deal depending on what type of documentation we're talking about.
At the end of the day, however, technical documentation is normally written for a product’s users. Its main goal is usually to help users accomplish specific things with a product, so end-users should always be kept in mind when writing most kinds of technical documentation (especially product-based documentation, as discussed below).
Nevertheless, process-based technical documentation is usually written with other audiences in mind. They can range from developers to stakeholders to clients to other internal team members. This kind of documentation is perhaps less used than product-based documentation, but its goal is to provide a deeper look into the different technical details that make up a product.
Why is technical documentation important?
There are many reasons why technical documentation is important. However, it comes down to one essential benefit.
Technical documentation provides people with information about a product.
This statement might seem obvious, but let’s discuss it in a little bit more detail. After all, a product is truly useless if people don’t have adequate information about it. A lack of information leads to people being unable to use a product correctly or not having the correct knowledge about a product to truly understand it.
From the end-user point of view, technical documentation is essential because it helps them use a product effectively. This is doubly beneficial for the company behind the technical documentation because it cuts down on customer service hours and leads to happier users who can troubleshoot their own issues and get their own questions answered.
From an internal point of view, technical documentation is important because it gives people the information they need to effectively work on a product, whether we’re talking about highly technical information or simply an overview of planning and processes.
Whatever the case, products don’t always speak for themselves. That’s why we need technical documentation to tell us all the information we need to know about them.
The different kinds of technical documentation
The easiest way to differentiate between different types of technical documentation is determining who they're written for. Generally speaking, they can be divided into two categories: product documentation and process documentation.
Put simply, process-based documentation describes the development of a product. It doesn't focus on the end product, but outlines the different steps, data and events that make up its progress and evolution.
This kind of technical writing normally stays internal and wouldn't be of much use or interest to customers or end-users (other than external stakeholders with a vested interest in technical information about a product's development). It's useful because it describes the different stages in a product's lifecycle.
Many different technical product documents fall under the process-based category. A few common examples include:
1. Project proposals, objectives & timelines: This encompasses anything related to the initiation, goals or general planning of your product development.
2. General project standards & expectations
3. Product requirements documents: These comprehensive documents outline key information, research, and objectives relating to a new product, feature or service. They normally encompass elements like goals, user personas & stories, release details, roadmaps, wireframes & design details and potential risks & dependencies.
4. Project plans, project outlines, project summaries & project charters: Basically, anything outlining the plans you have for your product's development process.
5. Product roadmaps & plans for product releases
6. Project reports & updates: These provide updates about your product at a given moment in time and provide great overviews of the different stages in your product's lifecycle.
7. Working papers
On the other hand, product-based documentation, sometimes referred to as user documentation, provides details about what a finished product is and how to use it. Rather than explaining the development process, it focuses on the end product.
The nature and style of this kind of documentation varies a lot. Sometimes it's written for stakeholders, development team members, programmers, engineers and the like who need to dive further into the technical details of a product. Other times, it's written for end-users and customers to help them familiarize themselves with a product. A few common examples include:
1. User guides, tutorials, installation manuals, troubleshooting manuals, FAQs, knowledge bases, wikis & other learning resources: These are a wide range of documents that ultimately provide end-users with information about your product and help them learn how to use it.
2. Release notes: These usually accompany a new product or service and concisely describe it and/or its new features.
3. User experience (UX) documents: Various kinds of documents that provide information about your product in relation to its users. This refers to everything from user personas, use cases, style guides, mock-ups, prototypes, wireframes & relevant screenshots.
4. Other technical specifications like product or software architecture design documents
5. API documentation
6. Source code documentation: Especially important in software documentation, this is important for product management and knowledge transfer, ensuring that other developers and programmers can work on your product with ease in the future. The kind of documentation you provide depends on various factors, such as whether your software is open source or not, but can include things like HTML documentation, PHP documentation and markdown information.
The benefits of great technical documentation
There are severals reasons why excellent technical documentation is so beneficial to the product development process. Most importantly, however, it helps everyone achieve their goals.
What do we mean by this? Well, if you're developing a product, your ultimate goal is that customers use your product and enjoy doing so. If you're a consumer, your goal when purchasing a product is to use it effectively so that it helps you solve a problem or otherwise provides you with a service. Neither of these goals are possible if people don't understand or know how to use a product.
This is where great technical documentation comes in. It empowers users with product information and helps them use it effectively, and it helps product teams along in the various stages of their development process.
Here's the key: you need to make sure that your technical documentation is written well. It needs to be clear and easy for its readers to use and understand. Otherwise, it won't fulfill its purpose of helping everyone achieve their goals.
Slite's free technical documentation template
Excellent technical documentation is clear, high-quality and easily accessible.To help make this a reality for you and your development team, Slite's free technical documentation template is here for you.
Our elegant, easy-to-customize template will allow your team to collaborate seamlessly on your technical documentation and stay organized while they do so.
Forget about the headache that occurs when your documentation is strewn across emails, Microsoft teams, GitHub, Google Drive and the like. Using our template will make sure that all the information you need is in one central place, so you can focus your energy on getting your creative juices flowing and writing great content. Just as it should be.
How to write technical documentation ?
When writing technical documentation, many people don’t know where to begin. Not to worry, writing great technical documentation is a skill that takes practice. In order to help you out in the meantime, we’ve broken down some simple steps you can follow to write excellent technical documentation in no time.
1. Do your research
Let’s face it, it’s impossible to write effective technical documentation if you aren’t 100% crystal clear on the content you’re trying to produce. If you already have examples, research, samples, and other information to work off of, you’re ready to proceed to step two.
Nevertheless, if you’re starting from scratch, it’s absolutely essential that you do your research. Meet with the team that will be working on the technical documentation in question, brainstorm, and delegate different research tasks to different team members. Ask yourself and your colleagues questions like:
- What do we want our technical documentation to cover?
- What goals or objectives do we want our technical documentation to accomplish?
- What information or documentation do we currently have to work with?
- Will we be using any specific software, tools or style guides in the development of our technical documentation?
- When do we need to finish our technical documentation by?
Once you’ve gotten these questions answered, you’ll be ready to move forward with the writing of your technical documentation.
Pro Tip: Technical documentation usually lives up to its name… it’s technical. Don’t make the mistake of assigning colleagues writing tasks that they are not realistically qualified to complete. If you feel like you need to consult internal or external experts, be sure to do so.
2. Consider documentation design
The most important part of technical documentation is the content. Nevertheless, the way your technical documentation looks is important too. An organized, visually appealing document will do a lot better a job of communicating information than a chaotic jumble of papers.
Accordingly, there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about your documentation design. First of all, think about structure and navigation. People usually use technical documentation in order to find specific information or a solution to a problem, and they’ll need to do so quickly in order for the resource to be effective. Your documentation structure is very important because of this.
It’s a good idea to categorize and sub-categorize your information so it can be looked through quickly. It’s even better if your documentation has an effective search function or a dynamic table of contents that allows readers to quickly jump to the information they need. Most effective documentation software like Slite has features like this.
It’s also a good idea to use a technical documentation template when you’re getting started. This is because it ensures that all your documentation is visually consistent and well-organized. Using a template will also help you make sure that you don’t forget any essential details you’d like to include in your technical documentation.
3. The writing process
By step three, it’s time to get started with the actual content creation process. Meet with the team that’s working on your company’s technical documentation and compile all the research from step one. Then, you can assign writing tasks to different team members based on their strengths.
The best technical documentation is usually produced when:
- Writers start with outlines
- Writers make their documentation user-focused
- Writers get their work reviewed by other team members
Once everyone has produced a first draft of their technical documentation content, be sure to review, review, and review again. It’s a great idea to get another pair of eyes on every single section of your documentation, if not two. This will ensure that the content is not only clear, well written, and grammatically correct, but also that it will be effective for users.
If your technical documentation includes any how-to guides or steps to follow, make sure your team members actually test out those steps and confirm that they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish.
4. Test your documentation
You may have thought that you tested out your documentation in the review process, but think again. Once you’ve produced your finished technical documentation, it’s important to put it through a testing phase and check for organizational issues, confusing information, and usability problems.
In order to accomplish this step, you should look for external users to test out your documentation. Have them read through it, use it to help them in completing the tasks it’s supposed to, and provide you with their honest feedback. It’s important to ensure that your testers are external because they will be looking at your documentation with a fresh pair of eyes and won’t have any bias that will affect their evaluation.
5. Publish & establish protocol for the future
Look at that, you’re ready to go with your brand new technical documentation! Once you’ve incorporated any feedback and comments you collected during the testing phase, you can go ahead and publish your technical documentation for your users to take advantage of!
Nevertheless, your journey with your technical documentation does not end here. Technical documents are dynamic and go through updates and changes in accordance with the products they cover. As such, it’s a good idea to establish a protocol that details what needs to be done when new information needs to be added, changes need to be integrated or general maintenance needs to be made.
Many companies choose to implement a maintenance schedule for their documentation. They set specific dates where they evaluate whether any changes need to be made, so all their information is always up to date and modifications never get overlooked.
Our technical documentation best practices
1. Make a documentation plan
Right off the bat, put together a plan that provides some orientation about what kind of documentation you're going to assemble. Consider the different kinds of documentation that'll be necessary for your product, as well as what they'll cover and what they won't.
This kicks off your documentation workflow on the right foot, and is also a key Agile best practice.
2. Be concise & don't repeat information
If you’ve already accomplished step one, this step will be a breeze. You're putting a lot of effort into your technical documentation, so make sure that it turns out effective and easy to use. Ensure that your writing is as concise as possible and that you don’t repeat the same information across different documents.
3. Keep it consistent
It might seem like a small detail, but it's incredibly important for your technical documentation to be consistent. This includes things like fonts, writing styles, design, formatting, location and more. Establish guidelines at the beginning of your documentation development process and stick with them. It's also easiest if they align with your company branding.
4. Think about accessibility
In order for your technical documentation to be useful and effective, it needs to be easily accessible. Make sure it's easy to find, looks great across different devices and browsers and always reflects the most up-to-date information.
5. Remember your goal
Whenever you're working on a particular document, ask yourself or your team: "What do I want the reader to be able to do and/or accomplish by reading this?" By keeping your goal in mind, you'll ensure that your documentation is helpful and action-oriented without getting bogged down with extraneous details.
6. Determine your audience
There's a wide variety of technical documentation types out there. The easiest way to determine what kind of document to write, what kind of information to include and what language to use is thinking about who will ultimately read your documentation. Possibilities include programmers, engineers, stakeholders, project managers, end-users and more.
Ready to get started with your technical documents?
Ready to dive into the world of technical documentation? Keep this guide as a reference point and start planning out the different documents that will ultimately make up your product's technical documentation. The best way to write great technical documentation is through practice, and there's no time like the present to get started.
Begin putting together your documentation plan and outlining your content. Our free template is here to guide you and you'll be reaping the benefits of providing great technical documentation in no time.