Documentation

What is Technical Documentation? Definition, Types & Common Mistakes

Technical documentation can be so much more than dry text, and with 71 percent of millennials (employees and customers) preferring companies that put in the effort... it's time to take yours seriously.

Introduction

Technical writing has a fascinating history. It began with updated nuclear technologies and aerospace and medicine advances in World War I. The urgency of war and so many developments birthed a need for documents describing how to use these new technologies and advancements.

After World War II, tech advances increased the standard of living and consumer goods. During this period, transport systems and universities experienced major growth. 

The need for writers to chronicle these processes exploded!

Fast forward to today, we’re surrounded by technology via phones, laptops, computers, mobile devices, emails, televisions, etc. 

And with this technology comes the need for documentation — so we can understand how to actually use it. Chances are you’ve even read technical documentation in the past but don’t remember it. It’s that baked into how we operate. 

You may think technical documentation is just dry text (industry jargon, specifically) that only people with relevant education can read and comprehend. That’s not true! Thanks to modernization and technology, technical documentation is more words — it can have screenshots, charts, videos, diagrams and other exciting visual elements.

Do you need to develop technical documentation, but don’t know where to start? This article is your ultimate guide on:

  • What technical documentation is;
  • Benefits of technical documentation;
  • 5 common mistakes in technical writing to avoid; and
  • How tools like Scribe and Scribe Pages can make technical documentation faster and easier than ever.

This is the article for you. Dive in!

What is technical documentation?

One fact remains clear: all apps and products require some existing knowledge before using them. 

No matter how tech-savvy and knowledgeable your audience is, you need technical documentation to enable your users to use your API, product, app or SDK effectively.

Technical documentation is any document or piece of writing that explains the:

  • Application
  • Purpose
  • Creation
  • Architecture

… of a product or service. For many organizations, technical documentation helps users achieve the tool’s objectives — plus reducing customer support expenses and tickets, enabling support teams to resolve customer queries effectively and efficiently.

In software, technical documentation describes the libraries, integrations and dependencies of the SDK or highlights the different API routes and endpoints a developer can access.

Most DevOps engineers who’ve written codes would swear to reference technical docs at one time or the other. Plus, even the programming languages themselves have technical documentation to aid recall.

Simply put, technical documentation is like a product’s mechanisms — providing a “how-to-use” guide for your customers, new employees or anyone who needs to know how the product works.

Now …what is a technical document?

A technical document explains a product’s features and functionalities. It’s written to help the intended audience understand complex information. These documents typically provide info about the usability and workability of specialized products.

Technical documents include technical specifications like:

  • Uses. 
  • Functionality.
  • Features.
  • Development.
  • Methodology.

Effectively written technical documents educate the reader on necessary work dynamics and architecture. In programming, technical documentation explains product functionalities, unifies project-related information and lets stakeholders and developers ask significant questions.

Types of technical documentation

Developers use two main types of technical documentation to relay information about products or software. They are:

1. Product technical documents

Product technical documents show you how to use… well, a product. It includes the steps that users, not developers, should take. Think of your refrigerator manual, leaflet in your iWatch package or the pamphlet for your new humidifier. 

These documents can also share information about your other products to upsell complementary solutions.

Product technical documents will include operating procedures, including:

  • Requirements.
  • Business logic.
  • Manuals.
  • Tech specifications.

Technical documentation writers refer to this as user documentation because it talks about the finished product, not the development stages. 

The style of this technical documentation can also vary based on the intended audience.

  • Users.
  • Programmers.
  • Engineers.
  • Stakeholders.
  • Team members.

The two sub-categories of process documentation are:

System Documentation

System documentation details the system and the parts involved in it, inclusive of the development process like:

  • Documents required.
  • Design decisions.
  • FAQs.
  • Program source code documentation. 

User Documentation

User documentation includes the instructions and installation manuals designed for users and system administrators. It enables user support by providing the following information:

  • User guides. 
  • Troubleshooting manuals. 
  • Tutorials. 
  • Installation documentation. 
  • Reference manuals.

Product technical documentation examples include:

  • API Documentation. 
  • User manuals. 
  • Updates. 
  • Project reports. 

2. Process technical documents

Process technical documents are technical documentation describing the development and maintenance process. These technical documents focus on user needs and highlight developmental steps and process info. 

Process technical documents can also include data, events and release details on the development and progress of the product. Development teams might also use them to share knowledge, write release notes or detail the product lifecycle stages.

Product technical documentation examples include:

  • Working papers.
  • Project proposals.
  • Project plans.
  • Reports, etc.

Where & how to use the different types of technical documentation

Below are the types of technical documentation to support widely different audiences. 

  • Marketing support: These technical documents are product-inclined and are employed to sell what you offer. They include technical landing pages, computer-based training videos, online help and presentations.
  • End-user support: Examples of these documents include instruction manuals, operating procedures, online help systems, release notes or user guides — basically anything that empowers users to effectively use your products or technology.
  • Organization support: This includes information about your business, structure, procedures, guides, policies, maintenance manuals, quick reference guides and other information your employees should know to perform their jobs.

Benefits of effective technical documentation

Technical documentation offers countless benefits for software engineers and the project management team. For example, technical and functional specifications, glossaries, simple procedures and tools, and software product development guides can help tech teams function like well-oiled machines.

If you’re developing a product, you also need technical documentation to comply with policies and enable your development team to achieve a successful test schedule. 

The main goal is always to ensure your user enjoys the end product.

Users need technical documentation to give them explicit details about the product and its usability to unlock its fullest potential and maximize its lifespan.

Plus, technical documentation releases ensure that your customer gets your product. For example, an organization can build a technical landing page for product releases and updates.

Companies can also save money on customer support and replacements if end users:

  • Follow the documentation.
  • Use the product correctly.
  • Refer to the user guide to troubleshoot problems. 

Internally, technical documentation can increase productivity and efficiency. 

For example, a technical document can explain how to perform a developmental procedure. If the technical doc is easy to understand, the employee will likely do the process correctly the first time. And as product development progresses, documentation helps align stakeholders on the goals. 

Other benefits of technical documentation include:

Increased customer retention

A survey by SDL on technical documentation highlighted the importance of documentation in the global market. 

According to the report, 53 percent of customers use technical documentation to understand a product before buying, and 94 percent of customers believe having product information in one place is highly important. 

These statistics glaringly show that product documentation is worth the effort — because it enables a positive user experience and helps solve potential challenges. 

The way I see it: If customers feel good about your product, chances are high that they’ll use it again in the future!

Increased sales

You might think, “Okay, so technical documentation is necessary, but it’s not powerful.” 

Wrong! I’d call it one of the most effective ways to let your product do the talking. Showcase your best features and solve user and potential customer queries — without stressing yourself or wasting resources.

Visually pleasing, interesting and easy-to-follow technical documents refine the user experience. They help them:

  • Quickly understand your product.
  • Activate faster.
  • Maximize your tools to their fullest potential. 

And the end result? 

  • More ratings.
  • More positive reviews.
  • More eyeballs from potential customers.
  • More revenue.

… and most importantly: more satisfied users.

Saved time & effort

If you don’t have adequate documentation, you likely spend extra hours dealing with technical difficulties or missteps. It wastes time and energy for both the business and end user.

That’s one of the reasons why technical documentation is important. Irrespective of the size of your organization, a well-written and structured technical document can save time and increase productivity. So it isn't surprising to see many product-focused organizations invest in hiring technical writers to write these documents.

Who is the audience for technical documentation?

Your audience depends on the type of document you’re writing.

We make most of our technical documentation while we build the product and then sign off on them for end users. A washing machine, for example, might have a leaflet or a manual written in multiple languages instructing you how to install, use and maintain it.

Other technical documents support internal audiences, like senior stakeholders and development teams. 

Internal or client-related documentation speaks on a product's technical aspects or development. These instructions offer the necessary information to help you make decisions.

5 common mistakes in writing technical documentation

Mistake 1: Providing too much information

Ever been to a party where you meet someone who insists on giving you 1001 facts about jute leaves? Chances are high that you lost interest after 10 seconds and couldn’t care less if one cup (87 grams) cooked contains six grams of carbs.

Don't be this person. While you might have all the enthusiasm in the world about your product, you never want to overwhelm your users with a sickening amount of company info.

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask: “How much do my readers know about this topic?” “How much information do they really need?” 

Identify and answer these questions to avoid coming off as someone too eager to show off knowledge; instead, position your writing as someone who understands the user’s needs and presents information clearly, concisely and transparently.

Mistake 2: Disorganized structure

Nothing puts readers off faster than a messy technical document. 

Disorganized technical documents might mean:

  • It’s hard to find vital information.
  • Sections don’t align and flow with each other.
  • Cross-references are a mess.
  • Lots of grammatical blunders.
  • Lots of white space, missing words, etc. 

Not only might the reader not understand the content, they’ll likely get frustrated. They’ll view your business negatively and render the document useless and unusable. It’s a terrible (and avoidable) fate after all your hard work. 

The best way to fix this is to carefully consider the layout of the document you want to create. Create a simple outline or use tools to automate and optimize the structure. 

Mistake 3: Too much jargon

Your readers determine the content, tone and style of your technical documentation. 

For example, if you’re creating technical documentation for highly-knowledgeable readers, then it’s okay to include technical language and some jargon. 

But if you’re writing for a general audience, remember what’s appropriate for them. 

That acronym that feels like a second language to you because you say it every day could sound alien to leaders who simply don’t know what you’re talking about. 

In practice, unless you’re sure your readers are experts, explain each key term in footnotes or parentheses. You can also include a glossary, a list of abbreviations, or both at the start of the documentation.

Mistake 4: Inconsistency

While technical writing is specialized, core writing principles still apply. Over time, a technical document likely faces:

  • Weeks of edits and rewrites. 
  • Multiple authors.
  • Periodic updates. 
  • Version after version after version.

Inevitably, you’ll run into issues with consistency, usability and readability. And when you write several documents without any standardization? You’ll run into different terms, priorities, instructions…

You get the picture. 

For example, maybe one section calls the reader “you” while another says “stakeholders,” and then another says, “team members”?  I’d wonder who they were talking to and if I was even the right person in the room. 

Think of parts of a document (and several documents for one process) as pieces of a puzzle. If they don’t fit, you’re left with holes. 

Not to mention tonal inconsistency: One document might switch from warm and approachable to dense and scientific — leaving the reader confused and frustrated. 

Here’s how to fix it: Create a company style guide (we use one at Scribe — for all our writers and the entire marketing team. This keeps everyone on the same page and helps our editor (hi Lauren!) stay sane. 😁 Bye-bye to hair pulling!) Give writers access and encourage them to reference it when in doubt. 

Ensure that your style guide includes a vocabulary checklist and addresses other important areas like:

  • Voice and tone. 
  • Audiences for different documents.
  • Brand tone do’s and don'ts.
  • Readership objectives. 
  • Typography and nomenclature. 
  • Company objectives. 

Mistake 5: Not having all technical documents in one place

Imagine you want to fry an egg, but you have to get the eggs from the refrigerator, the whisk from your bedroom, the frying pan from the house across the street, oil from the attic and plates from the washing machine. 

Sounds crazy? Because it is.

You need to be able to easily find and piece together technical documents; loose guides in odd folders negatively impact training, development and the user experience.

This could even affect your brand’s reputation. You look disorganized and like you don’t have the readers’ best interests in mind. 

You need a central knowledge system to put all of your hard work to good use. 

This might all sound like a lot of work. But it doesn’t have to be. 

Luckily, there’s a solution. Scribe is a technical documentation tool that allows developers, technical writers and managers to: 

  • Document, track and share knowledge.
  • Brainstorm ideas and collaborate from anywhere. 
  • Store all technical documentation assets in one place.

Unlike your standard writing tools like Google Docs, Notion, and MS Word, Scribe documents your processes for you

It’s a step-by-step guide generator that follows along as you work, turning any process into visual instructions. 

Is your software development team creating: 

  • User guides?
  • Product manuals?
  • API Documentation? 
  • Repair manuals?
  • SDK Documentation?
  • Market requirement documentation? 
  • Best practices?
  • A product catalog?

… or pretty much any other technical documentation out there? Simply turn on the extension or desktop app, and let Scribe follow along as you work. In seconds, you’ll get a guide with text and annotated screenshots. 

Scribe supports even the most complex tools. Here’s a Scribe helping users with Zendesk. 

And it only took Lauren from our team 58 seconds to make!

Plus, Scribe Pages lets you combine guides with text, video, images and more. See how our team took the Scribe above and added it into an instructional guide for all things Zendesk. 

Your team can easily insert screenshots, video screen recordings, training videos, code blocks, etc., directly into a Scribe Page.

With Scribe and Scribe Pages, you can:

  • Make your technical document accessible. The SDL report, “Making Your Content Connect with the Next Generation,” found that 71 percent of millennials recommend brands with high-quality technical information.
  • Easily search. Find any technical document or specific text in your knowledge base, and access your documentation in one single, central platform.
  • Manage access. End users can’t see the document stored on your desktop. With Scribe, you can easily adjust permissions to control what’s available externally and what you share internally.
  • Easily share or store. Any Scribe or Page is instantly shareable via a link and in your Workspace. The embed feature also lets you add them to any knowledge base or CMS. 
  • Enforce processes and practices. Version control solidifies your technical documentation practices across the entire organization.
  • Collaborate: SMEs and other stakeholders can review and edit content before it goes live — meaning you can edit text, and add screenshots, charts… and even GIFs!  
  • Make universal updates: Whenever you edit a Scribe or a Page, you’re editing everywhere that Scribe lives, instantly. 

 According to SDL’s former Director of Product Marketing, Arjen van den Akker:

"Millennials grew up on digital, and are accustomed to having instant access to any information they want. They don't expect to flip through a paper manual or even download a PDF."

Keep up with the momentum. No matter the type of technical documentation you want to make, Scribe helps you build software-specific documents that: 

  • Support the entire software development lifecycle (SDLC) and 
  • Effectively teach end users how to use your products — while making them easy and fun to read.

Oh, and did we mention it’s free?

Ready to create your next technical document with Scribe? Sign up here