Documentation

How to Write Technical Documentation: Tips, Components & Examples

Writing effective technical documentation sounds difficult, but it isn’t impossible. This article shares technical documentation best practices and provides real-time technical documentation examples to inspire you.

Introduction

Once upon a time, when there was no digitalization, businesses documented their technical processes and assets in paper files, stuffed them in office storage systems, and left them to collect dust.

Fortunately, that’s not the case today. It’s easy to write, design and store your information in technical documentation software like Scribe.

How to write technical documentation

Writing technical documentation is no easy feat, but neither is it impossible.

Not only does effective technical documentation provide you with important information, it’s easy to read, understand and use. 

The tips below will teach you how to write technical documentation that your audience finds helpful and interesting. Take your documentation game from zero to a hundred — faster than you can scream, “Eureka!”😁

Dig in!

Audit your current technical documentation

Do you have any existing documentation covered in dust somewhere?

It’s time to pick it up and implement changes. For starters, look for anything outdated or inconsistent. Is everything up to standard? Do you see any formatting differences from one doc to the next? 

Or maybe you want to add new visual elements to spice things up and make it aesthetically pleasing for your readers. 

The goal of this technical documentation process is to help you identify:

  • What’s there and what’s working
  • Mistakes and inconsistencies
  • Opportunities for growth.
  • A list of topics to develop new content for. 

A technical writer’s commandment: Know Thy Audience

To write technical documentation well, you must know who you’re talking to. And it just might be several people at once. It’s up to you to make things as clear to those readers as possible. 

Knowing who you are writing for helps you define the following:

  • Content architecture.
  • Learning objectives.
  • Delivery format.

Remember that the audience you’re writing for requires different things based on their experience level, acquaintance with the topic covered, business role, use case, etc.

For example, an in-depth guide for DevOps engineers is absolutely different from a user manual for regular end users. What an engineer might view as basic instructions might be impossible for a typical user to even comprehend. 

Not knowing your audience when writing technical documentation is like driving a car to a new location without using Google Maps. You need a guide, and that guide starts with knowing your audience.

The following questions can help you identify your target audience. 

  • First off, who’s reading this? Are you sharing your documentation with several people or one small group? Write down exactly who will look at this document, and take advantage of direct insights via survey or one-on-one check-ins. 
  • How knowledgeable is your audience about the topic? If you’re documenting a wireframes mockup and prototype, chances are your target audience includes information architects, interaction designers, user experience designers or programmers. Basically, they’ll likely get the jargon. However, if part of the documentation involves Sales or Marketing, explain terms they might not know. You could even add a glossary they could consult when in doubt.
  • How motivated are the readers to use the product? If your end users want quick answers and aren’t interested in a comprehensive guide, make the technical document short and easily digestible. Make it comprehensive if you have an enthusiastic audience interested in learning about the product. 
  • Do my readers have any limitations? Find out if your intended audience has accessibility concerns or expectations. For example, if you’re targeting high-tech millennials, you’ll likely use a mobile-wise design that features videos and images, white space, and scrolling. 
Scribe top tip: Writing in simple language hurts no one. Even when writing internally, your team and colleagues will appreciate clear, concise, and approachable content.

Create a plan & outline

Creating a plan and outline is a vital process you shouldn't skip. An outline helps you create effective content your audience will find helpful! Before writing, identify and record all the technical documentation processes you should or might include. 

All technical documentation should have:

  • Goals: What’s your reader’s aim? What do your end users want to achieve? Understanding this helps you identify what they intend to do with the documentation. This way, you can easily set learning goals that help your audience achieve that bottom line. 
  • Learning objectives: Your learning objectives should align with your end user’s goals. Identifying these objectives helps your writer gather the critical information a user needs to become more knowledgeable and achieve their goals.
  • An outline: List the topics you'll cover in the documentation. Your outline should align with your learning goals and objectives and describe the topics and steps needed by the users to achieve their goals.
  • Audience: Keep them in mind at all times — this ensures you write what your audience actually wants to read.
  • Receivables: What current information do you have? What information do you need to get? For example, you might need to interview a DevOps Evangelist or Code Release Manager to gather more information.
  • Tasks: Create a checklist of tasks to complete and mention who is responsible for each activity. Use tools like Scribe to document and share instructions in seconds. Invite team members to Scribe to see and collaborate on all technical documentation tasks. 

A Scribe page dashboard showing collaboration features that allows teams to work seamlessly on technical documentation processes.

Create technical documentation templates

Over time and as the team expands, you’ll want to create new technical documents. Instead of creating new ones from scratch every time, an accessible, ready-made technical documentation tool or template can cut your time in half. 

Scribe top tip: Ensure all templates are pre-approved to avoid wasting time and make your life easier.

While each business has different needs, every standard technical documentation template includes the following:

  • A table of contents (insert jump-links when applicable) to help readers ascertain the areas they need help with.
  • A clear title with keywords.
  • A subheading or intro paragraph that highlights the documentation's purpose.
  • Glossary or list of acronyms to help the reader get acquainted with unfamiliar words or jargon.
  • Related articles or guides at the bottom of the document.

Hire the right documentation writer

Hiring a subject matter expert (SME) or someone from the development team to write the document is usually the norm, but that might not be the best approach. You’ll likely run into time constraints in one direction or another and maybe give up on documentation altogether. 

That’s why many businesses hire technical writers to chronicle their documentation processes.

Hiring someone who understands the technical aspects and writes well is a technical documentation standard you shouldn't compromise. Ideally, they should be able to break down complicated concepts into straightforward, digestible content that helps the reader.

Scribe top tip: Look out for technical writers with good people skills, too, since they might conduct interviews with other SMEs.

Creating the technical document

Now it’s time to put your plans into action. Keep the following rules in mind. 

  • Write like a human: Like its name, technical documentation is already technical. Don’t convert it into a scientific paper. Rather, use warm and affable language and include headers, bullet points and short paragraphs. It makes your technical documentation easier to read and use.
  • Add visual elements: Neuroscience identified three primary ways of learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. The first (visual learning) is the most popular, as research shows that roughly 65 percent of people are visual learners —which isn't surprising since many people retain visual information more than text. Keeping this in mind, aim to add more visuals by using videos, pictures, screenshots, video recordings, infographics, charts, etc. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
  • Use captions: While visuals reduce the constant monotony of words, captions can provide clear directions and context to the product illustrations and diagrams in the technical document.
  • Add examples: Use screenshots, real-life examples and use cases to emphasize a point. It makes your technical documentation more relevant and helpful and creates more “Eureka!” moments for your readers than vanilla how-to content.
  • Be concise: Eliminate irrelevant language to get straight to the point. Read through your document to identify words and phrases to discard, and remove or paraphrase any ambiguous sentences. (Remember not to remove so much that you sound abrupt or confusing.)
  • Re-read and Revise: Read and revise your technical documentation to ensure everything is in place. You can ask a superior or colleague to identify any missing areas and gauge accuracy.

Optimize for different platforms & devices

Your audience might access the documentation via various platforms. Optimize your documentation for each platform to maximize accessibility. Don't forget to test access on different web browsers, computers and mobile devices to ensure a uniform user experience.

Offer training

If your API, SDK, app or product is complex and requires more time and effort to understand its mechanisms and how to use it effectively, consider offering comprehensive learning resources. 

You can create guides, articles, tutorials and other learning materials, which you can organize in an “academy.” Simply publishing a use case can help users learn the nuts and bolts of your tool.

Components of great technical documentation

What makes for excellent technical documentation? Great technical documentation should include the following elements:

  • Table of contents — that provides an organized structure and arranges every detail from simple to the most complex features, or perhaps from the most used to least used features.
  • Active section contents — that describe what you’ll include in the technical documentation.
  • Interactive content—  that educates users and helps them engage with the product.
  • Last updated or version number — that serves as a point of relevancy for updates and changes. 
  • Language options — that are available for international users, irrespective of their geography.
  • Other learning resources section — that provides your audience with FAQ pages, technical landing pages, tutorials or articles to help them learn more.

Examples of great technical documentation

Technical documentation examples can range from a one-page user manual to a three-page requirements sheet or a comprehensive internal wiki. Luckily, finding technical documentation for SDKs, apps, APIs and even the most complex hardware products can be found online. Some of the best technical documentation examples include:

Step-by-step guide documentation: Scribe

Step-by-step guides, SOPs and job aids are vital documentation, especially for new employees looking to take the right steps to complete a task. And Scribe does this perfectly. This “How to Use Zendesk” guide is a Scribe Page that shows its readers the multiple steps needed to use Zendesk and how to use the product to its maximum to achieve success.

Why do we love it? Apart from the obvious reason (documented in Scribe!💃), this technical documentation empowers our employees to find solutions to their own issues, reduces the number of employee questions and helps them avoid making costly mistakes. Scribe does the documentation for you, and Scribe Pages lets you take your step-by-step guides to the next level.

This example is well-written, easy to understand and includes visuals. 

API Documentation: DSL

Great API documentation describes the business value (what users/clients will get from using the product) as well as technical requirements (how the client needs to use your API) for it to function properly. DSL’s API documentation provided a tour of the company and included important elements such as functions, data sources, release notes and deprecations and return types of its API in its technical documentation.

how to write technical documentation
(Source: DSL)

End User Documentation: Apple iPhone

Apple’s technical documentation is simple and includes an option to select the iOS version currently installed by the user. It also contains a table of contents that serves as a guide for referencing other features, as well as the option to directly connect with the support team.

how to write technical documentation
(Source: Apple iPhone)

Interactive Documentation: GitHub

One of the best ways to onboard users is to give them the ability to interact with developers regarding the product, API or a sample environment. And GitHub did this effortlessly! GitHub allows developers to easily verify that their database queries are properly formatted and successfully return the required data. Additionally, the split screen view allows the user to identify what information the GraphQL API requires as input.

how to write technical documentation
(Source: GitHub)

Simplify technical documentation writing with Scribe

Technical documentation matters. It helps end users achieve their goals, closes gaps between the visions of stakeholders and engineering teams, creates agile and waterfall approaches for software development, and can even save lives!

Here are some awesome features you'll find in technical documentation tools like Scribe:

  • Real-time team collaboration.
  • Content management proficiency.
  • Technical assets security management.
  • Document tracking + search options.
  • Unlimited visual capabilities.
  • 100+ integrations with the tools you love.
  • Create technical documentation templates for sales enablement and onboarding new engineers.
  • Instant doc creation, share and embedding! 

Ready to start Scribing? Sign up to see how our knowledge base platform can help you grow, engage and retain your users when you create your next documentation!