Crafting Clarity: Best Practices for Professional Product Documentation

September 7, 2023
image shows woman working on software documentation

Some people think writing is easy. You have a topic, do some research, and then sit down and write. Simple as that. And product documentation, well, that’s even easier. You just write the steps to use a product, document some frequently asked questions, and you’re done.

Technical writers know this is not true, and your end users would agree. It takes practice and skill to write useful product documentation. Note the term “useful”. Product documentation plays a crucial role in providing a seamless user experience and maximizing customer satisfaction for a product. It helps users understand a product and how to best use it. If that documentation isn’t clear, easy to understand, and accurate, the user may get frustrated and stop using the product.

Creating effective product documentation requires more than just assembling information—it demands a thoughtful approach and adherence to best practices. This blog post will explore the essential strategies and techniques that can elevate your documentation to new heights. Let’s get started.

7 Best Practices for Writing Product Documentation

Let’s look at seven best practices to help you create product documentation that your end users will appreciate.

1. Structure and Organize your Content

Before you put your fingers on the keyboard, it’s essential to determine the structure of your documentation. What information do you need to share? What is the logical flow of that information that will help the user understand how to use the product?

For example, implementing a new product like a productivity app (think Asana or Monday) requires initial setup, creating users and permissions, and creating projects, teams, and other key information. If your product documentation starts with creating new categories or adding new sections before you explain the basic setup, users will be confused.

Take some time to map out all the steps required to use the product and in what order they need to be covered. Apply this information to topics, sections, headings, and subheadings to ensure the proper order. You should also start defining the content taxonomy and identifying the categories and tags you will apply to the content as you write it in your technical writing software solution.

Also important: where applicable, note the content that can be reused across topics and sections so you can reference that content in other areas as you build out the structure of the documentation. Content reuse is a critical component of writing accurate and up-to-date product documentation because it helps maximize accuracy and consistency and, at the same time, minimizes the time and effort required to create content.

2. Craft Clear and Concise Product Instructions

Have you ever read instructions that are vague and confusing? Did you make you want to stop using the product? Exactly.

Great product documentation is clear and concise. It’s written in user-friendly language and avoids, where possible, confusing jargon and technical terms. If technical terms are necessary, you must provide clear definitions or explanations. Linking to a glossary of terms is also a good way to give users a quick reference.

Instructions often make up the bulk of your product documentation because they explain in clear steps what to do. Define a consistent approach to writing instructions, including consistent terminology and formatting (fonts, bold, italics) and design (colors, visuals, etc.).

For example, when you have an important tip or warning, follow a consistent sentence structure and tone of voice, and draw attention to it by placing a special icon beside it. Do this every time you write one, and the user will understand what it means each time they see the icon.

3. Leverage Visual Enhancements: Graphics and Media

People can understand instructions by reading, but when you include visuals, it improves comprehension dramatically. Not only do visuals help distill complex concepts, but they can also show how steps in a process fit together, ensuring users have the complete picture of what they are trying to do. For example, provide a series of screenshots for each instruction in a multi-step task. Or add a screenshot of a flowchart to illustrate a sequence of steps.

Add screenshots and diagrams to your documentation alongside text-based instructions, where it makes sense. You can also use videos to show the user how to do something. The key is to not overload the content with visuals that distract the user and to never use a visual without providing its context.

4. Adopt a User-Centric Approach to your Product Documentation

You may feel that you know exactly how to write documentation because you understand how your product works, but your users may think about the product differently than you do. Before creating your documentation structure and outline, take some time to understand the users’ needs.

Develop user personas for the target audience. Spend time learning about their processes and requirements and how your product fits in. Then, tailor your documentation to address their needs and knowledge levels.

For example, include real-world examples demonstrating how to use the product for common use cases. You can also direct users to additional resources that show the product in use, such as a product demo or customer webinar.

5. Be Consistent with Brand Voice

Product documentation is often a collaborative effort. With multiple people working on the content, it’s essential to ensure consistency in grammar, language, and tone. For example, pay attention to content structure, active vs. passive voice, avoid jargon, and use a conversational tone.

Maintaining a consistent language style and tone throughout your documentation allows users to understand and follow the content quickly. Consistency reduces confusion caused by sudden shifts in terminology or writing style. Content reuse and templates are a great way to ensure this consistency.

Using a consistent brand voice also helps reinforce your brand’s identity and builds trust and confidence that your product will work as expected. In addition, maintaining a consistent language and tone makes the translation process smoother. Translators can capture the intended message accurately, preserving the original meaning.

Maintaining a consistent brand voice in your product documentation also allows you to seamlessly integrate with other customer communication channels, such as customer support and success.

Finally, product documentation comes in multiple types. You might create a user guide for everyday users, an administrative user guide, an implementation guide, and a developer user guide. These are all different guides that share common content and, sometimes, the same users. So, it’s important that you be consistent in how and what you write across documentation types.

6. Adapt Content for Different Audiences & Product Versions

It’s common to write documentation that is slightly different for different markets. For example, you might call your product one name in the United States but another name in another country.

You may also need to manage different versions of your documentation to support different product versions.

What you don’t want to do is manage completely separate copies of the documentation when a large percentage of the content is the same. Implementing a content reuse strategy is critical to maintaining one copy of the documentation with the ability to publish it for different audiences or product versions.

For example, you could use a variable in place of a product name in your documentation. When the content is published, you select which name should be filled in. You can apply this concept to images, videos, and other content to support the needs of the market or the product.

7. Continuously Iterate and Improve Your Product Documentation

Developing product documentation is not a one-and-done type of situation. You need to continuously iterate and improve it to support your customers’ needs.

Before you make it available to all users, conduct user testing by asking real users to follow the documentation to perform tasks. Then, when the documentation is published, ask for feedback and suggestions to improve it as users work with the content.

Also, the documentation must be versioned and updated as the product changes. There was a time when technical writers had plenty of time to update documentation. However, with the adoption of DevOps and agile development, products are continuously updated, and the documentation must be updated with those changes quickly.

Why Should You Follow These Product Documentation Best Practices?

If you want to create effective, user-friendly, and high-quality documentation that benefits both users and your organization, follow these best practices. Paligo has worked with many companies to understand what works and doesn’t when writing documentation. These best practices are based on industry standards and years of experience in technical communication. But why should you really follow them?

Well-crafted documentation empowers users to effectively understand, use, and troubleshoot your product. It reduces the learning curve and boosts user confidence.
Effective documentation reduces the number of support calls your support team has to handle.
It aids in customer self-service, empowering users to find answers independently and freeing resources for more critical tasks.

Adhering to product documentation best practices is a strategic investment that pays off in terms of user satisfaction and adoption, reduced customer support, and improved brand reputation.

Ready to Transform Your Approach to Product Documentation?

Whether you are a seasoned technical writer or a product manager seeking to optimize your documentation efforts, these best practices equip you with the knowledge and practical tips to create the best content for your customers, delivering top-notch product documentation that truly shines.