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.
Our technology has long evolved—and so has our technical documentation.
What is technical documentation?
Technical documentation is the umbrella term for any product, software, API or user documentation your company needs.
You might be imagining a dense wall of text stuffed with code, but as expert Christian Lempa states:
"Good technical documentation is written in simple language, and we use a lot of visual elements to make the documentation exciting to readers."
We write technical documentation to help our employees or clients understand how to use a product by being as clear and illustrative as possible.
Why is technical documentation important?
The average employee can spend 30 percent of their workday scrambling for answers to technical questions.
Not only can technical documentation save your internal team hours out of their workweek, it can boost your internal and external credibility.
Clients trust companies that prioritize the customer experience, and technical documentation (such as FAQs, product releases and trouble-shooting guides) are a great way to engage users with your product.
What are the 4 major types of technical documentation?
While there are several technical documentation use cases, here are the four types of technical writing that most businesses use.
- User manuals: These step-by-step instructions usually include diagrams, screenshots and detailed explanations to help users understand the functionality.
- Installation guides: These technical documents help you install and set up a product or software. They typically include system requirements, installation steps and configuration instructions.
- Troubleshooting guides: IT teams use these to help users troubleshoot and resolve common issues. These guides often include a list of common problems and their solutions.
- API documentation: These guides provide developers with information on using and integrating an application programming interface (API) into their own software.
By understanding these four major types of technical documents, writers can effectively communicate complex information to users, ensuring a smooth user experience and successful product or service implementation.
📌 Related resource: Best Practices for Creating User Guides
How to write technical documentation
Not only does effective technical documentation provide you with important information. It’s easy to read, understand and use.
Here are 7 steps on how to write effective technical documentation.
- Identify your audience and goals.
- Create a plan and outline.
- Build technical documentation templates.
- Collaborate with technical SMEs.
- Write your technical documentation.
- Distribute and train users on technical documentation.
- Audit and request feedback.
Take your technical writing game from zero to a hundred — faster than you can scream, “Eureka!”
1. Identify your audience and goals
To write technical documentation well, you need to know and understand who you're talking to.
Technical writing might speak to several people at once. It’s up to you to make things as clear to those readers as possible.
Knowing who you're writing technical documentation for helps you define the following:
- Goals and learning objectives.
- Structure of your technical document.
- Delivery format.
The following questions can help you identify your target audience and goals for writing technical documentation.
- What is my audience's job?
- How knowledgeable is my audience about the topic?
- How motivated are the readers to use the product?
- Do my readers have any limitations?
💡 Scribe tip: Writing a technical description in simple language hurts no one. Even when writing internally, your team and colleagues will appreciate clear, concise, and approachable content.
2. Create a plan & outline
A technical writing 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 process instructions.
- Deliverables: What type of content do you want to create? Usability testing reports? User flow schemes or user journey? Scenario maps? User story maps? UX style guide? FAQ? Also include the due date.
📌 Related resource: How To Create User Flow Diagrams
3. 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 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.
Here's a technical documentation template you can use for free:
4. Collaborate with technical SMEs
A subject matter expert (SME) should either own or be closely involved in the technical documentation writing process.
This person will be in charge of providing an overview of the technical processes and tools, approving the final product and potentially offering ongoing training of your technical processes.
You might work with several SMEs depending on the audience and goal of your documentation. Goals will vary based on the audience's 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.
5. Start creating a technical document
Now it’s time to put your plans into action. When writing technical documentation, we recommend using a process documentation tool like Scribe to help you work more quickly.
Scribe is an AI-powered tool that writes technical documentation for you.
The free software captures your screen as you go through a process. Instead of creating a video, Scribe auto-generates a visual step-by-step guide. Each Scribe includes text, links and annotated screenshots.
Technical documentation should be easy to read
Like its name, technical documentation is already technical. Don’t convert it into a scientific paper.
Use clear language and include the following if necessary:
- Bullet points.
- Short paragraphs.
- Little to no acronyms (and make sure to define the acronyms you use).
Add visual elements when you write technical documentation
Research shows that roughly 65 percent of people are visual learners.
With this in mind, aim to add more visuals by using videos, pictures, screenshots, infographics, charts, etc. as needed.
Include captions and visual annotations
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.
Re-read and revise your work
Read and revise your technical documentation to ensure everything is in place. You can ask a subject matter expert to identify any missing areas and gauge accuracy.
Make sure to build this into the process. For example, Scribes have built-in functionality for feedback and approvals.
6. Distribute and train users on your technical documentation
Your audience should be able to access and use your technical documentation easily.
Optimize your technical writing 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.
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, like:
- Knowledge base articles.
- Video tutorials.
- Training workshops.
📌 Check out our list of the best knowledge base software & tools!
7. Audit and request feedback
As our technology evolves, so should our technical documentation.
Hold semi-regular audits to identify 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 auditing 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.
Technical documentation template
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.
Check out our template gallery to build your own technical documentation.
4 Technical documentation examples
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.
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.
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.
⚡ Try Scribe's GitHub workflow documentation generator to get started for free!
You're ready to write technical documentation
Technical documentation matters. It helps end users achieve their goals, closes gaps between the stakeholders and engineering teams, creates agile and waterfall approaches for software development, and can even save lives!
With these steps and technical documentation tools like Scribe, you can make a technical documentation process flow for stronger, more powerful technical writing.
Make technical documentation for free with Scribe.