How To Write Technical Documentation in 7 Quick Steps
How To Write Technical Documentation in 7 Quick Steps
May 16, 2023
May 16, 2023
Tango Head of Marketing
Nick has been leading high growth teams and scaling early stage tech startups for 10+ years (most recently at Clearbit). He's been in a fantasy football league with his best friends from high school for just as long...and has never won. 😂
Technical documentation explains how to use a software product, describes its features and functionalities, and documents important details during the product development process.
It’s true that technical documentation hasn’t always been the easiest, fastest, or most fun to make. But it doesn’t have to be such a dreaded task. With a few tips and a single tool, technical writers, developers, and project managers can take how to write technical documentation from a necessary evil to a routine delight.
That’s great news since lots of people rely on technical documentation to get unstuck. Without it, you can expect long customer support wait times, disjointed projects, and teammates who struggle to get on the same page.
If your documentation is tough to update, find, or understand, you can also expect a lot of questions. But with a little planning (and a helpful technical documentation guide 😉), you can create content that will help people get unstuck, fast.
Stick around to see how to write technical documentation in seven simple steps below, with examples and actionable advice.
(Note: When we talk about “products” in this post, we’re referring to both products and services.)
1. Research the product or process
First things first: Research the topic(s) of your technical documentation.
It could be a specific product your company sells or a routine internal process. Either way, you need to have a good handle on it.
The prewriting phase is a great time to confirm things like the:
Scope of what you’ll cover (and what you won’t)
Purpose of the document and what people can expect to get out of it
Existing resources that can help people with their next steps
Timeline and deadlines for the document itself, plus any related to the product or process
Types of documentation needed (since products typically need more than one)
Intended audience and what they need to know beforehand (which we’ll cover in Step 2)
Outline, structure, and format of the document itself (which we’ll cover in Step 3)
The first bullet point might be the most important. Without knowing the scope, you won’t know what to cover. For example, rather than covering the entire installation process for your product, you may choose only to cover how to troubleshoot common startup problems.
Although the scope may change as you learn more, establishing guidelines early can help narrow your focus and save time. After establishing a high level roadmap, you can dive deep into the product or process.
In many cases, it’s almost impossible for a non-expert to create technical documentation without help. If that rings true for you, reach out to the experts (likely on your product and sales teams). Crowd-sourcing input and insights up front will help you create more relevant, accurate, and helpful content on the first try.
Tip: Standardize your team’s technical documentation process to create consistent guides. This can include prebuilt templates, processes for requesting SME interviews, and guidelines for improving stale documentation.
Pop quiz! How can you update this scope to be more helpful?
💡 Pop quiz! How can you update this scope to be more helpful?
This document will cover how users can log into [X, Y, Z] software.
This is a good thought and likely an FAQ, but it's a little too vague to help people self-serve. Are you trying to help users sign on for the first time? After they've experienced a crash? Let's add a few more details to specify what this hypothetical guide covers.
If you're writing about starting the software after experiencing issues, you could say something like:
This document will cover how users can log in to [X, Y, Z] software after experiencing one of the following issues:
Software crashes on startup
Software starts and freezes at the login page
Software crashes repeatedly at startup
What this document won't cover: How to turn on this software for the first time, or any steps needed for installation.
2. Define your audience
Knowing who you’re writing to can make a big difference—especially if you’re toggling between internal and external audiences.
Writing to the product team? You can probably omit introductory information and cut to the chase. Connecting with a new customer? Default to low-context and skip the jargon.
Do your homework to determine:
Your reader’s level of expertise, so you can understand what you do and don’t need to cover
Specific information or training they’ll need, so you can set expectations around what they should know
Their goals, so you can tailor your format and content to them
What they should be able to do after reading your document, so you can keep their end goal top of mind
As you dig in, you may also uncover a few persistent knowledge gaps. For example, you may learn that your teammates are constantly missing a step because it’s not documented—or it’s documented unclearly.
To surface knowledge gaps within your internal team, you can analyze current documentation, discover trends in team reviews, and ask your teammates for feedback.
To surface knowledge gaps with customers and others outside of your team, you can ask your sales and customer support teams for their most common questions, check your team’s support forums, and find questions that pop up a lot online and on social media.
💡 We've got another pop quiz for you! See anything wrong with this audience description?
This document is for customer service team members.
Another solid start with an opportunity to add more specificity.
We can try, "This document is for customer support team members who will help troubleshoot issues with enterprise customers."
3. Structure and design your document
Save people some mental energy by using a simple structure. If it’s clear how to go from Point A to Point B, you’re golden.
What’s one way to set people up for success? Categorize and sub-categorize information to help readers quickly find the knowledge they need.
Nailing down the structure first can help guide the rest of your writing process (and ensure you hit all of the important parts).
Every document is different, but most include these core elements:
A title, to describe what your technical documentation covers.
Key points, to summarize the most important details of your guide.
A table of contents (TOC), to show the subtopics your document is covering.
A product and/or document version, to list the version number of the document.
A date last updated, to explain when your team last updated the document.
A document’s scope, to summarize what you are and aren’t covering.
An intended audience, to describe who this documentation is for and what experience or level of expertise they should have.
FAQs, to cover common questions from those involved in the process or product.
Additional resources, to list other documents and resources that can answer specific questions or point people towards next steps.
Tip: When creating dynamic documents (read: not PDFs!), create a sticky TOC that follows users as they scroll down and makes it easy to jump from one section to another.
What’s equally important? Choosing the right format(s). For example, documentation that covers processes may need more annotated screenshots than text to give context. Why? Anyone looking at technical documentation wants to get unstuck, fast. Huge walls of text can be frustrating—and quickly zap mental energy. 🥱
Maintaining standardized templates can help your team get used to your documents and navigate them more easily. You can use our technical documentation template below as inspiration:
Now we’re at the fun part—capturing your knowledge and creating a succinct and comprehensive document. 😍 Spoiler: If you choose the right tool, these two steps can happen in tandem.
Take what you’ve learned and start outlining information. Make a note about sections that may need additional research, visuals, or an SME review.
Related: When you’re working with others, clearly assign responsibilities and deadlines so you can stay on track.
Remember to keep your readers and their goals top of mind. Defining your audience in Step 2 can help you decide how many (or how few) details to include.
Friendly suggestion: People are universally more likely to appreciate your documentation when you write like a person (and don’t force anyone to Google half the words you use!).
Other things to think about? Scannability and navigation.
There’s nothing like a big block of text to make people REALLY excited to read your writing. 😂 Save viewers some mental energy by keeping text scannable.
Headers, bolding, and bulleted lists can help people find what they need and get unstuck fast. Visuals can also say a thousand words (and save you from writing a paragraph or two).
Tip: Tools like Tango make it easy to generate beautiful how-to guides, with screenshots (in seconds, while you work).
We’ve got another quiz for you. How would you make this copy easier for non-experts to understand?
💡 We've got another quiz for you. How would you make this copy easier for non-experts to understand?
Begin your search by navigating to the top of the page and inputting your desired result into the product's built-in search engine. Once inputted, select "submit" to be taken to a list of relevant results pulled from the internal knowledge base. Select your desired result from the list. If your result is not populating the list, try again with different terms or contact our team for support.
If you thought 😵💫, #help, or "please simplify this," you probably aren't alone. Here's an example of how you could simplify the copy and use better formatting:
Navigate to the search bar, type your query, and select "search."
Select your desired result from the list.
Try your search again with different terms if you can't find what you need.
Contact our team for support if you're still having issues.
Want to make the instructions faster to understand? Add screenshots. Even easier? Automated screenshots. Even better for everyone? AUTOMATICALLY generated screenshots.
5. Test your technical documentation and apply feedback
Technical documentation is rarely 100% perfect on the first draft.
Putting your V1 to the test can help you surface any lingering knowledge gaps, questions, or other missing details—and get ahead of major revisions later on.
Here are some tips for testing your technical documentation:
Read it out loud to yourself to find spots to improve your flow.
Double-check the structure to make sure information flows naturally.
Fact-check information and (if applicable) run through the process yourself.
Look for sensitive or personally identifiable information that you may need to blur.
Review all of your screenshots to make sure they accurately reflect the current version of your product or process.
Do a couple of test searches so people can find your documentation with logical keywords and phrases.
Build in multiple testing or review rounds for complex documents.
Send your technical documentation for review to your SMEs, managers, and/or teammates who’ll use (or come in contact with those who will use) your documentation the most.
Ask a non-expert to review your documentation and see if it makes sense.
Specify what type of feedback you’re looking for, whether you’re concerned about navigation, accuracy, or the overall usability of your guide.
Request extra insight from the experts on your team that will help people save time or mental energy.
Double-check how your documentation looks when you export or share it on different platforms and devices.
💡 Tango Tip
Build an easy process to collect feedback. Send drafts to peers in the testing phase and look into options to suggest process improvements directly in your documentation.
A clear feedback loop can help you crowd-source more helpful insights and continue evolving your documentation.
6. Publish and promote
Congratulations, you just finished your first piece of technical documentation. Now it’s time to share it! 🥳
To keep the confetti coming—house documents where people can find them. Externally, you could link your latest product integrations FAQ under the “integrations” section of your help center. Internally, you could embed interactive how-to guides alongside any others in your team’s knowledge base.
You can also take advantage of your knowledge base’s organization features (like categories and tagging) to help your team easily find the knowledge they need, when they need it.
P.S. If you just published documentation for a new product feature, try promoting it in your newsletter and adding it in your team’s public-facing release notes.
7. Continue to optimize
Want to know how documents with procedural knowledge go stale? When pro tips can be found anywhere but your documentation.
To curate insights from your top performers and process experts (and keep technical documentation current!), make it easy for people to share their unique knowledge. This helps everyone—internally and externally— make fewer mistakes, save mental energy, and get better while they work.
You can also schedule regular updates or build in documentation updates as part of your project plans. Some knowledge sharing tools can also give some context. For example, some tools can show you how people search for and use your documentation.
Examples of technical writing
Technical documentation can serve lots of purposes for just as many audiences.
For example, work instructions and SOPs help people in different ways. SOPs go over what people need to do and the context they need to complete a process. Work instructions provide step-by-step instructions to explain how people can complete a process most effectively.
There are many different types of technical documentation and lots of ways to categorize them. We’ll go over product- and process-based documentation below.
Most people use technical documentation for their products. For example, user guides explain the different features of a product and how to use them.
While any product can include technical documentation, they are most common in the software development industry.
Public-facing documentation helps users learn how to use and troubleshoot the product. Internal guides can focus more on documenting topics like a product roadmap.
Here are a few examples of product-based documentation: