If you're building software, you know it’ll only perform well if users understand how it works.
You want to build procedure documentation. So you start creating a strategy and noting everything down via the usual methods.
Soon, you realize you're buried under a pile of countless word and pdf documents you need to sort out.
That’s definitely a nightmare I’ve had — being buried under an avalanche of paperwork — like a movie hero caught in quicksand.
Take hold of the rope, and let’s pull ourselves up. We're here with a guide you on software documentation — and the best practices you need to follow to create a successful software documentation program at your org.
What is software documentation?
Software documentation is technical documentation that helps users or developers understand a software's features and functions.
It’s pretty much the umbrella turn for the work you’ve seen before: like written tutorials, user guides, videos and training manuals. No matter the type, software documentation aims to help users understand software:
There are two major audiences for software documentation, with completely different languages — the developers or end-users of a product.
Speaking to developers with software documentation
Software documentation explains the materials software developers need to design, code and implement behind the end product.
It guides the developers to understand and update a piece of software with proper guidelines.
Speaking to end-users with software documentation
End users are just that: the people that use your product. They don’t need to know the bytes and bits. They want an easy experience, understanding why and how your tool solves their problems.
How do I set up the product? How can I use it? What different features are there? Answer those questions in basic language — there’s no room for jargon or clever acronyms here.
Why is software documentation necessary?
Software documentation’s primary goal is to make life easier for developers and users.
But how does it do that? And how else can it make your life just a little better?
Here are a few other advantages of creating and maintaining software documentation.
1. Increases user adoption
Customer onboarding is a crucial time for your product, and according to Retently, poor onboarding results in 23 percent of the average customer churn. With well-crafted documentation, users can understand every feature of your product with better visuals.
Here’s an example of how we at Scribe have created this comprehensive manual on integrating Salesforce with Gmail.
Explaining how to use your product well can increase your product adoption and decrease your customer churn rate effectively.
2. Helps developers with instructional guidance
Multiple developers can work on developing a single product — but as time progresses, they might not remember every single line of code they ever wrote.
Documenting every process can help them to understand the process and look back at it whenever they need to.
As your organization grows and you keep adding new developers to your team, they will need proper documentation to understand and improve the product.
3. Reduces burden on software support teams
According to NICE's 2022 report — 81 percent of customers say they want more self-service options.
When you provide customers with a dedicated knowledge base, they can solve their queries without contacting the customer support team.
You’ll decrease the pressure on the customer support team by reducing the number of support tickets.
Types of software documentation
The type of software documentation differs according to the target audience and how it fits your strategy.
Here’s a list of three types of software documentation that you must include:
1. End-user documentation
End-user documentation is a form of process documentation that helps your users with instructions on installing, configuring and using the product well.
This documentation makes it easier for customers to understand how to extract the most value from the software.
Every end-user documentation includes:
- User guides.
- Knowledge bases.
- Troubleshooting manuals.
- Reference guides.
- Release notes.
- JIT documentation.
2. Just-In-Time documentation
Just-In-Time (JIT) documentation refers to creating the documentation as and when needed.
It's based on agile methodology and relies on user feedback. It's the best method to adopt when you're unsure what kind of queries to add to your library. And you can keep adding on as you see more users come with different issues and navigate them to such resources.
JIT documentation can be:
- Knowledge base.
- FAQ pages.
- How-to documents.
3. Developer documentation
Developer documentation describes every aspect of how your software should work.
This acts as a guide that helps them know what they are building. It includes details regarding build requirements — explaining the software's core features and architecture information to explain every other software function.
Here's what you should include in your developer documentation:
- An overview of everything.
- Language-specific guides.
- Common tasks.
Challenges to software documentation
There’s a lot that goes behind creating proper documentation for your organization. Here are two challenges to keep in mind while creating yours.
The absolute volume of product-based documentation is a challenging issue. Multiple teams with varied skill sets use different software to create assets for each use case.
On top of that, they share it in various formats, which demands frequent updates on varying timeframes.
So instead of creating countless documents, it's better to prioritize the ones you absolutely need. And as you grow, you can make more documentation as you see more queries from the customers or internal team.
If you’re making more documents that you can manage on a tight schedule, you’ll start seeing lower-quality docs. Apart from that, when you include any CAD screenshots show only one view of the product and might be compressed — further reducing the clarity.
So while using any videos or images for a better product explanation, ensure its quality and that every critical information is visible. You’ll likely see in-product interaction or developmental errors if you don't check.
Best practices for software documentation
You need to understand and follow proper procedures and practices to create the right software documentation, the right way.
Here’s a list of best practices for software documentation you can follow for better results.
Develop a content strategy
Before you jump into creating your documentation — you need to adopt a conscious approach to how to create documentation. Who are you talking to, and why do they need this info?
Your content strategy is the first step, and it must have a strong business angle. It should clearly state how your documentation helps stakeholders and offers a unique value proposition to the company.
Your software documentation strategy should focus on creating better documentation that helps your organization achieve business goals.
It should have:
- Key focus areas.
- Project stakeholders.
- Engagement model.
- Operating model.
- Risk plan.
- Project plan.
- Communication plan.
Start by listing your business goals and documentation projects you need to execute, along with the organization's priorities.
As you proceed, you need to establish a governance structure to oversee the execution and a risk plan or mitigation strategy for decision-making. It must clearly outline the current and future state of your organization's documentation.
Interact with SMEs
Lean on the experts! Developers have in-depth knowledge about a product. And writers might find it hard to approach them frequently to get more information for the document.
One way to avoid this is by synchronizing the documentation process with the software development process — that way, every critical person can regularly collaborate and acquire vital information to achieve the documentation goal.
The aim of the game is to make sure your SMEs don’t lose time while helping with documentation. Take advantage of Scribe — a step-by-step guide generator that builds process docs — fast. All your SME has to do is go through the process once.
Scribe follows along to create an SOP, complete with text, annotated screenshots and more.
Get the right answers, the first time. Scribe helps everyone become an expert by making best practices easy to create, share or embed in any knowledge base.
Improve and update the knowledge base
Documentation is a repetitive process—you’ll need to improve based on customer and internal team feedback.
You might also need to refresh some of the existing content in the document. Create a knowledge base and include customers' frequently asked questions or solutions. That’ll help you increase efficiency and reduce those company and productivity costs.
Create a customer feedback loop
Closing the customer feedback loop is part of the agile process. Agile development is an ongoing effort between the customer and the development team at every process stage.
You need to be on your toes with customer feedback — from beta testing to launch. Here are a few ways to collect feedback for changes that matter.
- Social media questionnaires.
- Knowledge base contact form.
- Customer support tickets.
- Let users rate your content's usefulness.
- Track your knowledge base data analytics.
Closing the customer feedback loop involves connecting what you learn with the right internal department.
Let’s say that customer support faces software issues. Pass that info onto the engineering team and log it as a feature request or a bug.
What if there’s a product marketing issue? You know the drill! Pass that to (you guessed it) the marketing team.
Adapt agile or DevOps methodology
It's common for technical writers to work in an agile methodology. Agile methodology means:
- Working software over extensive documentation.
- Responding to a change proactively over following a plan.
- Individuals and interactions over tools and processes.
- Customer collaboration instead contracts negotiation.
The “Docs Like Code” methodology is a subcategory of agile — using the same processes and tools for the docs as you do for the software.
Instead of having a separate documentation team—include your tech writers as part of every scrum. You’ll improve collaboration between writers and developers.
Use the right tool
Sometimes you just need a good spreadsheet. Other times… well things can get a little complicated.
Very quickly, spreadsheets and word docs for software documentation can increase your confusion and workload. You’re lost in the files and spend more time organizing them then using them.
So instead of choosing traditional methods, use software documentation software. It usually has:
- Editing features.
- Easy folder navigation and organization.
- A way to combine and add other assets (like video) to beef up your content.
Create seamless documentation in half the time with your new best friend: Scribe.
The tool captures your screen and completes documentation for every click with a single click. It also adds a short description for every step, which you can edit according to yourself anytime.
Create a style guide
Like other marketing activities, you want a style guide for your software documentation. Here are essential points you need to cover in your style guide:
- Voice and tone.
- Visuals and video.
- Standardized terminology.
- Guide on word choice and punctuation consistency.
- Formatting guidelines.
You can take some inspiration from reputed software style guides like the Microsoft Style guide and Rackspace Style Guide. And for controversial grammar choices — like whether to use Oxford Comma or not — you can refer to standard style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style.
If you work with a team of writers, adopting a coherent writing style must maintain consistency and brand voice.
Software documentation: best practices in less time.
We know this is a lot to take in! You can always refer to this guide when creating your software documentation.
Like the code, proper documentation practices are a crucial part of your process. So make sure to:
- Create your documentation strategies alongside development.
- Use the right software documentation tools.
- Use agile methodologies to improvise the entire process.
Scribe helps you create the procedure in a better and quicker way — give it a try for free. It’s made our users' lives easier and made documentation something that’s (dare we say it?!) actually fun.