You can’t build a house without a blueprint.
Your dimensions would be way off. You wouldn’t even know what materials to use and how much they would cost.
Let’s say you skipped the blueprint. It’s still possible to build that house — it just won’t end up being what you expect it to be.
You could say the same for projects executed without documentation.
More than half of project managers today run two to five projects at a time.
Now, that’s a lot of moving parts within an organization — especially when you’re streamlining and communicating across stakeholders and teams.
Project documentation is the North Star that keeps tasks and priorities in check from a project’s humble beginnings to completion.
But companies still undervalue the importance of supporting project managers with the resources to write and store documentation well.
These resources can make work a lot easier for the 83 percent of employees who often find themselves recreating missing documents. (Been there!)
This article explores the differences between good and bad project documentation — and what you can do to get your process right.
What is project documentation?
Project documentation is the process of compiling and presenting information about a project to stakeholders and team members throughout its lifespan — from the proposal of an idea to analyzing success after it’s done.
Project managers are uniquely positioned to oversee all parts of a project. You’ll be managing project progress, aligning expectations between project participants and decision-makers, and most importantly, providing team members with resources to execute assigned tasks at the expected quality.
Let’s pull out another helpful stat: nine out of ten employees become more engaged at work with the right training.
Ultimately your project documentation aims to produce the same outcomes — motivated team members you can rely on to get a successful project out the door.
8 types of project documentation you can use today
There isn’t a single project documentation template to answer all your needs. The templates you’ll use will be specific to:
- The project phase you’re in.
- The size of your project.
- The size of your team.
… and even the way your team likes to work.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) outlines five phases of project management to help both new and experienced project managers plan projects out systematically.
It also helps you map what documentation goes with what phase of the journey.
Here are the five phases and definitions according to PMI:
There are many different examples of project documentation you can use throughout these phases. Depending on the structure of your decision-making process and the support you want to give your team throughout a project, you can customize the following to best fit your needs:
1. Project proposal: To convince decision-makers about the problem your project is solving, the solution you want to execute, the impact it can have on the organization, and the deliverables you’ll be working toward.
2. Project charter: Formally recognizes a project’s existence to stakeholders and presents the information needed to acquire resources for the project’s execution.
3. Project roadmap: A hub for aligning a project’s vision with the tasks and milestones that must be accomplished to get there. Roadmaps can be timeline-based or more strategic following the Agile project management methodology.
4. Risk management tracker: Allows teams to identify risks, analyze the probability of them happening, evaluate their implications, and strategize ways to mitigate them.
5. Process tutorials: Clear and engaging instructions that walk team members through processes and tools required throughout a project.
6. Status reports: Helps project managers and stakeholders monitor project progress, keep track of success and challenges, and capture ongoing feedback.
7. Resource management tracker: Manages resource expenditure throughout a project, from cash flow to team bandwidth.
8. Project retrospective: A way for teams to reflect on a project after it’s completion by identifying what went well, what could have been done better, learnings, and more.
The benefits of doing project documentation well
Anyone can put information on a page and call it project documentation. But that doesn’t mean it’ll give your team a good enough reason to read it.
There are three criteria that separate good and bad project documentation: structure, convenience and consistency.
Many teams aren’t happy with how project documentation processes carry out in their organizations.
Bad documentation is confusing and time-consuming, and it often starts with a lack of awareness of the reader experience you need to deliver.
When done well, the benefits of project documentation will impact team engagement, work ethic and project outcomes:
Processes move faster — and with fewer errors
A good structure boils down to breaking content up into sections, clearly labeling these sections, calling out important reminders, and omitting information that doesn’t provide any actionable value to team members. A well-structured project document makes it easy for employees to skim through and quickly find the answers to their questions. This means less time spent waiting for information from colleagues and correcting errors due to blindly attempting tasks without clarity.
Encourages employees to be resourceful and independent
Forty-six percent of employees find it difficult to look for the information they need in the workplace.
That’s pretty discouraging for team members who want to take ownership of their tasks and execute them well.
When you have project documentation conveniently located and integrated into company systems, teams are less dependent on others to get stuff done. You’ll empower them to shape their own impact on any project.
Strengthens communication within and between teams
When your project documentation is easy to find, up-to-date and reader-friendly, there’s less room for miscommunication and friction.
Your documentation is the single source of truth that your team uses to align expectations, monitor progress and recognize each other’s contributions. Without formally tracking your project, you might push responsibility around and lose track of each other’s intentions.
Builds a transparent work culture
Project documentation creates an expectation of reliability and transparency that extends beyond the scope of a single project.
From interpersonal relationships to career development and work-life balance, all aspects of a healthy work environment stem from a process-driven culture that keeps track of:
- Challenges to overcome.
By documenting what you want people to remember, you’ll create accountability and give a clear path for moving forward.
How to write great project documentation
Creating and launching documentation is way less intimidating if you have an end-to-end process.
This process should cover everything, from how you arrange your information to your writing style, formatting, distribution methods, and continuous management.
Here are a few tips you should keep in mind for your documentation creation strategy:
Product designers often use information hierarchy to arrange elements on a page so users can understand the communication almost immediately.
The same goal applies to your project documentation.
Typically, an information hierarchy puts important user content first on the page. With project documentation, the most important things you want to convey right off the bat are:
- Its purpose.
- How it can be used to help the team carry out tasks better.
Break this down into three main steps:
- Start by listing down all your information. It’s easy to miss key details if you’re building your documentation by memory as you go.
- Next, arrange your information into buckets. Each bucket should have a clear main title that communicates the purpose of a task.
- From there, break your main title into supporting subtitles that give your context into important steps that must be followed.
For example, you can break up a project on rolling out a new Zendesk integration into a sub-category on Zendesk support tickets. Then you can break up this sub-category further into branches on “Assigning and merging Zendesk tickets” and “Customizing ticket forms.”
Check out how this information comes together in Scribe Pages.
Scribe top tip: You can use Pages to compile several Scribes (instant step-by-step guides) in one visual process doc.
Listing and categorizing information does wonders across all your documentation, from proposals to status reports and retrospectives. It’s also a great way to name your folders and storage systems. Don’t you just love a solid nomenclature?
Even with a great information hierarchy and clear sections, your project documentation shouldn’t look like an essay.
I mean, imagine if this blog was just one giant block of text. Do you think you would have gotten this far?
Instead, write content with two goals in mind:
- Being as concise as possible.
- Writing so that anyone can understand.
That means no business jargon and exclusive acronyms that only you understand. 🙅
Here are a few tips you can use to create clear and digestible content:
- Use short and simple sentences. (Like this.)
- Remove unnecessary background and detail.
- Keep paragraphs between one to two sentences.
- Write in an active voice (e.g., “Select the customer support agent to assign the ticket” instead of “A customer support agent of your choice must be assigned a ticket.”)
- Provide examples wherever possible — especially to indicate buttons, tabs and screens in a software system.
Your team shouldn’t have to play hide and seek with your project documentation.
Forty-one percent of teams say they get frustrated because project information lives in incorrect systems and folders.
Instead of burying them in messy databases or as PDFs tucked in the corners of your company drive, embed your content right in the places your team members use the most.
With most teams using 40 to 60 business apps, there’s a big opportunity for you to create digital project documentation that integrates with your tech stack.
Teams can even use URL links to share these documents with each other instead of downloading and uploading large files through channels like email and Slack.
Beyond that, project documentation software gives you the flexibility to create an easy navigation system.
Like any strong knowledge base, your team should be able to quickly pull up important documentation without having to search through physical copies or 10-page documents.
We know: repetitive tasks are the bane of project documentation.
More than half of workers spend more than five hours a week doing tedious administrative work — like the dreaded data entry.
It’s no surprise how this could bump project documentation to the bottom of the priority list. With project managers already strapped for time, spending hours on documentation is frustrating.
Fortunately, project managers today can use different tools to pick their battles.
Project management software like monday.com and ClickUp make it easy to create documentation with pre-built templates and no-code editors for custom builds. These tools automate project management through push notifications, progress trackers, and workflows.
On top of that, tools like Scribe automate document creation with an intelligent system that parses screenshots into step-by-step guides.
Project managers can use this to capture their screens and create documentation in seconds.
This significantly speeds up document production (which is why 55 percent of decision-makers prefer using digital documentation).
Going back to the example of a Zendesk integration project, here’s a Scribe that describes how to assign, merge, and solve tickets.
This only took 58 seconds to make — imagine how long it would take for you to do it manually in a Google Doc?
Only 39 percent of employees say they work with up-to-date processes.
Many of us have been there ― that feeling when you finally find that file in the company drive only to realize it was last touched two years ago.
Project documentation tends to get outdated because it’s a hassle to update in the first place. This is especially true when 75 percent of documents encountered in the workplace are PDFs.
Maintenance is easy when you create documents in software that can update your edits in real-time. Something as simple as a Google Doc or Notion page can do this, redefining how we collaborate with colleagues both in the office and remotely.
Scribe is also a popular choice among project managers because it’s the simplest way to update screenshots in documentation and learning material.
Instead of creating new content from scratch, you can simply edit your tutorial and have changes automatically reflected in all your Scribe embeds and shared links.
What next? 5 software to add to your strategy
Now that you know how to create awesome project documentation, it’s time to put these tips into action!
Here are a few tools you can try out today to create compelling and engaging documentation without spending those extra hours after work playing catch-up.
- Monday.com: Create custom views, dashboards, and forms to personalize your documentation.
- ClickUp: Add features like mind maps, checklists, task dependencies, and workload trackers to your templates.
- LucidChart: Create compelling diagrams and visual workflows to capture processes and systems in your project.
- Miro: Track projects and brainstorm using a digital whiteboard with meeting capabilities.
- Scribe: Capture process workflows on your screen and automatically generate step-by-step tutorials. What’s even better? You can integrate Scribe with all the tools on this list!