Software engineer and content creator, Bolaji Ayodeji, points out a few notable points that sit in his checklist for bad documents:
- Documentation processes that don't scale with your projects.
- Ambiguous language.
- Non-inclusive formatting.
- Lacks supporting links and resources.
If you think this is a no-brainer — think again.
A survey of 1500 companies, found that 46 percent of respondents have difficulty finding useful information to help them do their jobs. This is caused by poor end-to-end documentation processes, from document creation to distribution.
In this blog, we’ll take a look at different types of technical documentation and how you can implement them effectively on your team.
What is technical documentation?
Technical documentation simplifies complex information on products and processes so readers can learn something new, take action on projects and address bottlenecks. These documents are written with a clear goal in mind for their audience, whether that’s employees, stakeholders or customers.
To get a better understanding of technical documentation, it’ll be easier if I give you a brief introduction to technical writing and why companies use it in the first place.
Technical writing is a style of writing that educates readers about the why and how of every product, process, or project. There are a few best practices that govern the art of writing technical documentation.
- You need well-organized content.
- You want to appeal to what’s most relevant and impactful to your reader.
- You stay away from writing in “technicalese” (which is what Robert Bly from The Center of Technical Communication defines as “language more complex than the concept it serves to communicate.”)
- You reinforce your page layout with visuals — studies have shown that 65 percent of the population are visual learners after all.
Categories of technical documentation
The cost of bad technical documentation processes is high. Your work quality takes a hit, customer satisfaction drops and internal and external communication becomes unproductive.
That’s why it’s important for teams to familiarize themselves with different types of technical documentation and how they should be prepared across different use cases.
Here are a few common types of technical documentation and some tips on how companies should write them:
These documents provide context and detailed guidelines to help developers tackle problems while maintaining the highest output quality. It removes ambiguity in processes and workflows through:
- Straight-forward and active tone of voice.
- Walkthroughs of complex technology systems.
- Simple topic navigation structure.
- Clean on-page design.
User & product documentation
You’ll come across user and product documentation whenever you buy new hardware or software. It teaches you how to use a product and answers important FAQs that users come across while using a product. There are a few areas that differentiate it from developer-focused resources:
- Created with the goal of giving readers self-service help.
- Contains language that can be understood by general users.
- Benefits from having an engaging user experience.
Business process documentation
These documents are used by companies to keep employees and stakeholders aligned on expectations, revenue-generating opportunities, general protocols, business tools and more. Technical writing is used here to explain strategic goals and initiatives in a way that can be understood by readers with different skill sets and levels of familiarity with your company or project. Business documentation prioritizes the following:
- Easy collaboration with internal and external decision-makers
- A systematic approach to keeping documents up-to-date
- Integrateable with different business apps, like project management software, knowledge bases and customer relationship management systems
How to use different types of technical documentation
The digitization of processes can transform your technical documentation. Organizations that don’t use digital tools to keep documents accurate and up-to-date have reported ten times more at-risk customers.
Now that we’ve covered the different types of technical documentation, it’s time to explore a few examples, best practices and software tools you can use to execute your efforts correctly:
To support developers
You need to keep your documentation on a clean and user-friendly interface. This makes it easier for developers to navigate through important sections, copy and paste important text and look for keywords specific to the problem they aim to solve. You can take a look at these examples to learn more:
1. Software tutorials
Software tutorials help developers get up to speed with tools in their technology stack. You can use these tutorials to help team members familiarize themselves with new functionalities, introduce standardized development processes or address challenges independently. Your documents should include:
- Screenshots and screen recordings of software walkthroughs.
- Short sentences explaining a specific action that must be taken.
- Annotations calling out different reminders, buttons and FAQs.
This tutorial was made with Scribe, your next favorite documentation tool Scribe is a step-by-step guide generator that documents processes for you. You don't have to lose a day to writing instructions. Scribe captures your screen to turn your workflow into SOPs with text and annotated screenshots (like the one above!)
2. API documentation
API documents explain how developers can integrate two products with each other through an application programming interface (API). You can use software like Postman and SwaggerHub to create your API documentation at scale and collaborate with team members throughout the process.
If you want to create valuable API documentation, keep the following in mind:
- Explain how your API will provide value to the integration’s end users.
- Provide definitions for all terms, parameters, responses, errors and more.
- Divide your documentation clearly so developers can navigate through different return types, functions and classes.
3. SDK documentation
SDKs contain all the resources third-party developers need to build applications for a specific platform or programming language. These SDKs will typically include an API.
Since SDKs bundle resources together for developers to build apps, you want to prioritize your information hierarchy, grammar, sentence structure and readability. You can use your API documentation software to accelerate SDK creation.
4. User requirements document
A user requirements document describes a software’s capabilities and expectations to developers and end users. Your document should be understood by any stakeholder who interacts with your product. It should include:
- The objective that the product is trying to achieve.
- The product’s capabilities and respective requirements.
- Details about the product’s operational environment.
- Product user characteristics.
To support users
User-facing documents must be easy to access through digital means so customers can pull them up at any point of need. You can store these user resources in public websites, knowledge bases, client portals and more. Here are a few examples you can use to guide your document creation efforts:
1. User guides
User guides are instruction manuals that help customers and clients learn how to use a particular software system. These guides cover a breadth of topics that help users get started with a product, learn about advanced functionalities, and troubleshoot errors.
Considering the amount of content that can fit into a user guide, it’s important to make sure that all tutorials are clearly categorized. You also want to include actionable examples and graphics to prevent your guide from becoming too dense and text-heavy.
2. Product manuals
Like user guides, product manuals teach users how to operate a product. These manuals are especially beneficial for products with complex functionalities and a wide range of features and functions. For example, electrical devices like cameras, television sets and printers always come with robust product manuals that dive into the specifics of different buttons, actions and settings.
3. Online help centers
Most software systems come with online help centers that centralize product guides, walkthroughs and FAQs for customers. It’s a searchable database of information that provides customers with 24/7 self-support tools and resources. Here are a few things you’ll need to build and maintain a repository of help center documentation:
- User-friendly content management system.
- Search bar and navigation menus.
- Content categorization.
- Visual and interactive elements.
- Ability to immediately publish edits across all assets.
4. Release notes
Release notes are published for users and clients as a chronological list of brief updates regarding a product. This content is typically a few sentences long and doesn’t dive into how a new update should be used. Instead, it prioritizes giving readers a single location to quickly view and find recent feature releases and bug fixes.
To keep business processes in check
Technical documentation is also used by team members to formalize the goals, processes, deadlines and deliverables of a given project. Companies can strengthen workflows and improve outcomes when complicated knowledge is broken down into shareable resources for teams to execute tasks.
1. Standard operating procedures (SOPs)
SOPs provide step-by-step instructions that help employees complete technical processes at the level of quality determined by their company. Clear, consistent and error-free technical writing is prioritized to ensure critical information is immediately understood by readers.
There’s a misconception that SOPs tend to be dense PDFs. But with 55 percent of companies adopting digital documentation to accelerate processes, PDFs are no longer the only option. To create great digital SOPs, you can use documentation software like:
- Scribe to automatically create visual SOPs, build tutorial pages, and edit documents instantly
- Notion to centralize and organize SOPs into a user-friendl company wiki
- ProcedureFlow to collaborate on SOP creation with stakeholders in real-time
- Kahoot to test the effectiveness of your SOPs with analytics and engaging assessments
2. Market requirements document
The name of this document is pretty self-explanatory. A market requirements document helps companies define what the market expects from a product’s capabilities. The answer to the question “what does the market want from my product?” can be a long one. Technical writing helps keep this document concise and impactful so it doesn’t turn into a history book on your market’s competitive landscape.
Your document should focus on the following questions:
- Why do we believe this market is worth our efforts?
- Who are the users we’re trying to build trust with?
- What problems are we solving for these users?
- How will our mission translate revenue opportunities?
3. Request for proposal (RFP)
An RFP is more commonly used by large organizations and government agencies who want to formally evaluate an IT solution. The RFP tells IT vendors exactly what the requesting organization is looking for in their solution. This includes information like:
- The requesting organization’s background and use case.
- A set of technical specifications regarding the product or service being requested.
- Specific information that IT vendors will need to include in their proposal.
- Criteria that will influence the evaluation of the IT vendor.
A project proposal is used to convince stakeholders and decision-makers about the value of your idea, product or service. Solution vendors also send proposals in response to RFPs by potential clients. To create a great proposal, you need to format it by including details like:
- Background on your product or service and the problem it aims to solve.
- Project or implementation goals, deadlines and deliverables.
- How do you plan to avoid risk.
- How do you plan to track success.
5. White papers
White papers dive into the details of a particular problem or topic that’s relevant to your product and its users. For instance, developer platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS) use white papers to centralize all information their users find valuable when it comes to establishing their cloud systems.
How you can start creating technical docs your team will love
If there’s one thing we hope you get from this article (besides great templates, of course), it’s the realization that effective technical documentation doesn’t have to take hours to make.
Yes. You can save yourself the stress of seeing technical documentation sit on your ever-growing to-do list.
You can do this by taking advantage of workflow screenshots so you don’t have to rack your brain describing something that is clearly visible. You can use Scribe to automate the manual image and document formatting so you can focus on creating the highest quality content.
The best part? Your updates to each Scribe are reflected immediately without any changes to its shareable URL.
You can get started with Scribe for free to create tutorials for your technical and non-technical teams. But hey, don’t take it from us — take it from the software engineers who are saving 20+ hours on their documentation 🤓