The Essential Guide to Effective Technical Documentation

August 10, 2023
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Technical documentation is a critical part of any organization’s success. It provides an invaluable resource for anyone who needs to understand how products, services, and processes work. From software development teams to customer experience departments to customers, effective technical documentation improves productivity and efficiency and can decrease customer support costs.

This essential guide looks at why technical documentation is important and best practices for writing and managing it effectively. With these best practices, you’ll be well-equipped to create a technical documentation strategy to serve your business needs.

What is Technical Documentation?

Technical documentation provides detailed information, instructions, and reference materials, such as diagrams, schematics, and other visuals that help users understand and use an application, product, or service correctly. Examples include user manuals, product guides, knowledge bases, policies and procedures, online help, and product catalogs. Technical content can also be surfaced in chatbots, portals, and websites.

The best technical documentation is comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date. It’s written in easy-to-understand language, with clear explanations of technical concepts. And it’s easy to navigate and find information.
Creating technical documentation requires an organized approach that considers audience needs as well as best practices for writing, formatting, storing, and publishing.

Why is Technical Documentation Important?

Technical documentation is an invaluable part of any product, enabling stakeholders to gain access to information on how the product works and how to implement and use it.
Having effective technical documentation is essential for many reasons. It:

  • Helps ensure accuracy when using products or services.
  • Standardizes operating procedures and policies.
  • Streamlines development by providing developers with details on what has been built.
  • Speeds up user adoption by providing straightforward instructions.
  • Reduces customer support costs by providing information to both support agents and customer self-service quickly.
  • Increases customer satisfaction by providing clear guidance on how to use a product.
  • Helps train new employees.

For developers, administrators, and end users, it provides a comprehensive reference that enables them to learn how to work with a product or application. For example, a company that develops a payment processing API would produce documentation for developers on how the API works and how to implement it in their ecommerce application. The company also uses documentation to train its new developers and help them quickly identify and document bug fixes.

A global shipping software company provides technical documentation to developers on integrating its software with an ERP or CRM solution. The same vendor would also create documentation on configuring the software, creating frequently asked questions, and providing help and how-to articles for a knowledge base.

But developers or application administrators aren’t the only ones benefitting from technical documentation. Customers who work with the product or application on the front end also need well-written technical documentation for two reasons.

First, it helps them learn how to use the product and gives them a resource to look to when they have issues or questions. This content might be surfaced in a set of downable PDFs, through a customer portal knowledge base, in context-sensitive help in the product, or some other channel. Second, prospective customers researching a product to purchase are looking at technical documentation to help them understand if the product fits their requirements. In this case, a product vendor might make their documentation available in a section on their website or create downloadable product guides.

Technical documentation fosters continuity within organizations by giving everyone access to the same information at all times. It ensures a clear understanding of how a product or application works and should be used. And it eliminates the need for developers and end users to create their own documentation, which could be inaccurate or become outdated with changes.

Best Practices for Writing Effective Technical Documentation

To ensure that ‌technical documentation meets developer and customer needs, it’s important to follow best practices when writing and maintaining it. Let’s have a look at a few of the most important ones.

Know Your Audience(s)

Understand who will be reading the documentation and tailor your writing style and level of technicality accordingly. Consider their knowledge, experience, and expectations. For example, a developer’s guide would be highly technical and include coding examples, but a user guide would use a more simple language with a lot of screenshots and bulleted steps.

Outline a Structured Authoring Strategy

The best way to create technical documentation is to follow a structured authoring model and single-sourcing strategy. This approach enables you to create content once and reuse it in multiple content assets and across multiple channels.

Structured authoring requires breaking down your content into reusable components or topics. You can create reusable content such as paragraphs, sentences, variables, and images. For example, you could create a component that includes a set of steps to do something. Or you could create a variable that is the name of your product.

You also do not apply formatting to the content; the formatting happens when the content is published and depends on where it is published.

The topic of structured authoring is too big to get into here, but this is a great guide to help you understand how to design your structured content strategy: Information Architecture 101 for Technical Writers.

Provide an Overview and Background Information

Always start your documentation off with a high-level summary of what the content covers, its purpose, and if there are prerequisites the reader needs to read or learn. This will help the reader quickly grasp the content and determine if it’s relevant to them.

For more extensive documentation, like a developer or user guide, you can also provide a section on the product’s background, such as its history, goals, and the problems it helps to solve. Keep in mind this type of content can be reused across multiple documentation types and is an excellent example of content reuse.

Follow a Consistent Style and Format

When writing technical documentation, it’s essential to use a consistent style and formatting. This makes it easier for readers to understand the content quickly. Adopt a logical structure that ensures all information is presented in the most clear and concise way possible. Use headings, subheadings, and bullet points to create a hierarchy of information. Consider using tables, diagrams, and examples to enhance understanding. One idea is to create icons that you can use next to paragraphs to highlight an important tip or warning.

It’s also important to avoid jargon or overly complex language, as this can make the content difficult to read. Of course, technical information can be complex, so break it down into smaller chunks of information for better readability and use plain language whenever possible. Use step-by-step instructions, code snippets, and visual content to help explain processes and concepts. Also, a glossary or set of definitions can help when technical terms are needed.

And don’t forget to proofread your documentation for grammar, spelling, and formatting errors.

Use Relevant Examples

One of the best ways to help an end user or developer understand a product or technology is to show them. So include real-world examples where possible, such as code snippets, screenshots, use cases, user stories, or something else. Examples make it easier for the reader to understand and apply information. It’s also very helpful to link to related topics or resources that can provide additional information for readers.

Perform Regular Reviews and Updates When Necessary

Technical documentation is not static; it’s constantly changing to reflect updates in the product, new features, bug fixes, and even new use cases. You may need to update visuals to reflect new user interfaces or revise code snippets. So, it’s important to regularly review and update your technical documentation.

Another thing to consider is to test your documentation’s readability and usability. Ask an end-user to read through your content and identify areas that are confusing or could use examples or visuals to help explain things better. You can also ask end users for feedback as they use the documentation by providing a form or email where they can submit issues or questions they have. This is a great way to identify areas for improvement and address gaps.

Best Practices for Managing Technical Documentation

We’ve talked about best practices for writing technical documentation. Now, let’s talk about some best practices to effectively manage it.

Establish a Clear Documentation Strategy

First, define a clear documentation strategy that outlines goals, tasks, roles, responsibilities, and expectations for all stakeholders involved in the process. Establishing this strategy will help align your team’s efforts toward creating comprehensive documentation that meets user needs. Create a style guide that defines how documents should be formatted, including fonts, text size/color/style/alignment options, illustrations, links, media embedding options, etc., and standards regarding language choice (formal vs informal) and tone (conversational vs instructional). Consistency in writing and formatting enhances readability and reduces confusion.

Define a Collaboration and Review Process

A single person rarely writes technical documentation. It’s more likely that a team works collaboratively to create, edit, review, and publish content. For each documentation asset you create, define the process to create and review the content. Be sure to include a formal review process before any documentation is published or updated. This helps ensure content accuracy and clarity while identifying potential issues early in the process.

You should also implement a schedule to regularly update and retire outdated content. We talked about this in the writing section above, but it’s also important to discuss as part of the management of technical documentation.

Technical documentation should be kept up to date to reflect changes in the technology or product it describes. Establish a maintenance schedule to review and update documentation periodically. Retire or archive outdated content to avoid confusion and maintain relevance.

Encourage Knowledge Sharing

Documentation teams are often small and overwhelmed with the content they need to create. One suggestion to help is to prioritize work and maintain a documentation backlog. Keep track of ideas, suggestions, or improvements that arise during the documentation process. You may identify new knowledge base articles to create or new sections to add to a user guide. Create a backlog of documentation tasks to prioritize and address in future updates or releases.

Also, consider fostering regular knowledge sharing by establishing an internal location, such as a slack channel, forum, or a shared workspace where technical writers, developers, and subject matter experts can come together to share insights, best practices, and updates related to documentation. This is an informal space to share ideas and information before it’s included in the official documentation creation and editing process.

Implement Version Control

As documentation changes, you’ll need to implement version control to keep track of changes made to the content over time. Version control allows you to store different versions of your documentation in one place so you can quickly review previous versions or revert to an older version if needed.

For example, you have created a product overview that you use in multiple content assets. You decide to update that overview, but it needs to go through a review process and get translated before it can go live. To get started, you create a version of the overview and work on that version. Once it’s been updated, reviewed, and approved, you send it for translation and automatically update all versions currently in production.

Versioning also supports development phases. Software and other products are typically built in phases or iterations, so your documentation will match each phase. As a new phase starts, technical writers can create a version of the documentation to start making changes without impacting the current production version.

The same holds true for updating policies and procedures. You have one version of a policy that reflects current regulations, but you know new regulations are coming. In this case, you would create a version of the policy and add the new rules and regulations. This new version won’t go live until it is reviewed, approved, and the new regulations are enforced.

Map Out Publishing Formats and Channels

Technical documentation is published in multiple formats and channels. As part of the management process, you must document each channel the content is published to and in what format (HTML, PDF, etc). You should design templates so the content keeps a consistent look and feel and structure.

If your documentation is for a global audience, you’ll also need to document translation requirements and implement a translation management process.

Notifications and Monitoring Usage

These last two recommendations for managing technical documentation are related to its usage by your development teams and customers. Even the best technical documentation is a waste of effort if no one uses it. So the first thing you need to do is monitor and track usage.

Leverage analytics tools to gain insights into user behavior and usage patterns. Track metrics such as page views, search queries, and bounce rates to understand how users engage with your documentation. If the documentation is published through another platform, request regular reports to gather this data. Additionally, encourage users to provide feedback, comments, or suggestions to identify areas for improvement.

Finally, you should identify a process to alert users when new or updated documentation is available. For customers, it might be a regular email to alert them of new content they might find helpful or to inform them of product updates. For internal users, it might be a Slack message or email linking to documentation on a bug fix, a change to a policy, or a new language version of a content asset. The important thing is to make sure everyone knows when the content has changed so they are aware and can act accordingly.

Tools for Writing Effective Technical Documentation

Creating effective technical documentation requires the right tools. With so many options available, choosing the right one for your needs can be difficult. The key is to find a tool that meets all your requirements and makes writing and managing technical documents easier.

When selecting a tool for writing technical documentation, consider features such as automation, collaboration capabilities, and integration with other software. Automation will help save time by streamlining processes like document versioning and content distribution. Collaborative features will allow multiple users to work on a piece of content simultaneously and provide feedback in real-time. Integration with other software can facilitate data and content transfers between systems, making it easier to keep documentation up-to-date with minimal effort.

Some might recommend tools like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Confluence, or Notion. While these are great tools for creating a single version of a document, they don’t offer all the features and capabilities you need to manage your documentation.

A component content management system (CCMS) like the Paligo CCMS is the best tool for creating and managing technical documentation.

A CCMS provides a structured authoring model that enables you to create your content in reusable components (or topics) that can be used in multiple documentation types. So the product overview is created once and then reused in all documentation related to that product (the developer guide, use guide, admin guide, etc.). The warning message or code snippets can be reused in multiple sections or documentation types. But that’s only one reason to choose a CCMS.

If you want versioning, collaborative workflow, translation management, and the ability to publish to multiple channels and in multiple formats, then you will need a CCMS. We could go on and on about the value a CCMS like Paligo brings to your documentation team, but I think an actual end user could say it much better.

PointClickCare is an innovative, cloud-based technology advancing the senior care industry. They provide information to healthcare providers worldwide, and that information must be accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. They needed a streamlined content creation workflow with a clear-cut review process so authors and contributors would have defined standards and guidelines. They also wanted to reuse content to ensure consistency and reduce time and costs. Everything published had to be up to strict standards and approved by content experts.

“One of the things that excited us most about using Paligo was the ability to structure and reuse content. It was so much more efficient to be able to reuse fragments in multiple topics and then reuse those topics multiple times in PDFs and help files. We could also reuse topics within other publications going out to other markets. Now, we can make the most of our time, and we know that the information we deliver is up-to-date.” Emma Pindera, Content Strategist, PointClickcare.

Effective Technical Documentation is Essential For All Businesses

Creating comprehensive technical documentation is essential to any successful product or service. It is a worthwhile effort that pays off for both customers and businesses. By following the best practices outlined, businesses can provide their developers, end users, and customers with easy-to-understand guides to using their products and services. They will also help save time and reduce the costs of developing documentation and customer support interactions.

We hope this guide has provided valuable insight into creating effective technical documents for your business. If you’d like to understand more about how the Paligo CCMS can help you create your technical documentation, request a demo, and we’ll show you how.