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. 😂
If you’re in the business of helping people understand how to use software, you’re probably already using more types of technical documents than you realize. API documentation is just the tip of the iceberg.
Everything from user guides to case studies play a role in helping people understand the problems and pain points they can solve with your product.
While there’s no shortage of options for content to create, it’s not always easy to create technical documents at scale. Chances are you need internal *and* external materials, to help your team become product experts and your customers become product evangelists.
In both scenarios, you need to create documentation that guides non-technical viewers through complex processes. (Ideally literally, not just figuratively!) And you need to deliver them fast, with minimal friction and time from subject matter experts.
To do that, you need to understand what you’re working with. We’ve rounded up a list of 15 types of technical documents so you can do just that—and understand how you can help everyone create top-tier technical documents while working smarter, not harder.
Let’s take from the top, starting with user guides. ⬇️
1. User guides
A user guide includes simple instructions to help people use all of your product’s features. When done well, user guides help both customers and team members who are stuck self-serve and find the knowledge they need to get unstuck.
Most people don’t have the time to read through a full paragraph of explanation (let alone pages of dense text).
Before you give a user guide the green light, encourage your writers to think of how your user guide can help people find answers fast and stay in focus mode. Is it easy to follow? Check. Is it up to date? Check. Is it accessible to all? Even better. 💃
Want to see an example? Tango’s Team Workspaces Guide is geared toward teams that have questions about how to manage their Workspace.
2. Product manuals
Product manuals focus on each product’s features and how they work. They’re typically associated with physical products, but many use “product manuals” and “user guides” interchangeably.
Product manuals can go in depth on steps to repair a physical product or how the physical product or software should operate. These manuals will also either include diagrams, screenshots, or photography to help people visualize the steps and features.
Remember when Bissel’s Little Green Portable Carpet Cleaner went viral? We can use their product manual as an example:
3. API documentation
This type of technical documentation helps developers outside your team understand how to use and integrate your product’s API.
For the non-technical people out there (🙋♂️), API stands for application program interface. API documentation includes references, tutorials, and examples that help developers use your API, understand how to get started, and share feature changes and other updates.
API documentation is also a great opportunity to stand up a formal feedback process with developers. They’re naturally finding (and solving) issues with your API that your team could and should prioritize.
You can check out Notion’s API Reference pages for a great example. Their guide shares information on integration capabilities, endpoints, and how each object works.
4. Quick reference guides (QRG) and quick start guides (QSG)
QRGs and QSGs are different but have the same goal—to get information to your team and customers quickly.
Think of QRGs and QSGs as the “too long; didn’t read” version of a user guide for people who want to hit the ground running. This kind of documentation can focus on instructions for your product’s most popular features, or can be tailored to suit specific use cases.
As hard as it is to narrow down what to highlight, remember that your readers want to get unstuck fast. Long videos or tedious explanations aren’t the move. Short sentences, plain language, and visuals are. ✨
Troubleshooting documentation is typically for software and other non-physical products. (The physical product version = a repair manual).
The more straightforward these guides are, the better. Troubleshooting guides are the types of technical documents people turn to when software won’t boot up or a feature isn’t working as expected.
People who seek out troubleshooting documentation are probably a little frustrated, so help your team remember how important it is to reduce friction wherever possible.
Annotated screenshots, scannable headers, and succinct explanations can make each step clear and save your team and customers precious mental energy. One thing to keep in mind: These documents can become outdated as you make product improvements over time.
If you’re in marketing, sales, or customer success, we don’t need to tell you how helpful it is to have a library of 🔥 case studies.
Case studies give you real results to refer to when you’re convincing customers to adopt your product or software. Internally, you and your team also get a chance to see what’s working well and brainstorm how to amplify your best success stories.
Check out this case study highlighting how LinearB scaled its SEO processes across 10 freelancers and teammates with Tango. It’s a great way to show how existing and prospective customers can use Tango to save time when creating complex documentation.
8. White papers
White papers typically shed light on industry-wide pain points, offer an opportunity to position your product as the best-fit solution, and give companies a platform to establish themselves as thought leaders.
If you’re reviewing a white paper, keep an eye out for problems your product solves, reasons why your solutions to common challenges are better than others, and bold, contrarian points of view that put a stake in the ground on relevant topics.
Since these types of technical documents are typically long-form documents, your team will have the real estate to go more in-depth than they could in a blog or social media post. They’re also a lead generation tool that can be used alongside case studies.
Another type of white paper is a security whitepaper, which summarizes how teams protect people’s privacy and data.
Dropbox Business has a security whitepaper that covers information like app security, network security, and compliance practices.
9. Request for proposal (RFP)
An RFP is a document to request bids and proposals for a job. These documents include the project’s goal, scope, and requirements bidders need to fulfill.
RFPs can come from either public or private organizations. Public RFPs are typically posted publicly and follow strict rules. Private RFPs generally don’t have as many restrictions and aren’t always shared publicly.
We can look at this bid opportunity from the California State Contracts Register (CSCR) for an idea of what they entail. Proposals include a description of the project, requirements for proposals, and details of the pre-bid conference.
10. Project plans
Project plans help project managers steer the (figurative) ship—and prevent the project from steering them. 🏴☠
It includes everything a project needs to succeed: project timeline, goals, roles and responsibilities, scope and budget, risk management plans, capacity planning, and more. It also includes day-to-day details that help project managers keep everything on track.
A strong project plan can help your team avoid common project management challenges like scope creep, missed deadlines, communication breakdowns, and more.
Release notes give quick explanations of updates, bug fixes, and other changes to products. They keep people up to date on the product’s changes before release and updates made after release.
A not-so-obvious benefit of release notes? You can use them to show people that you’re listening and taking action on their feedback.
They’re typically written for customers, but your internal team can also use them as a quick reference for product updates.
Tango’s release notes page details all of our newest features and updates to our web application, desktop application, and browser extension.
14. Business requirements
Business requirements keep the big picture in mind for projects. These documents explain a project’s purpose and how it contributes to your team’s larger goals. It can also include information on the people who will benefit from the initiative and how success will be defined.
PandaDoc’s business requirements template gives an in-depth example that includes sections for business objectives, functional requirements, and personnel requirements. Your business requirements document may be more succinct or include information from other documentation.
15. Style guides
While everyone has their own style, style guides typically share some common characteristics.
Your UX team’s style guide might include UX-specific details, like rules for buttons and breakpoints for different screen sizes. Your marketing team’s style guide may focus on other areas, like your brand’s primary personas or unique value proposition. Both guides may cover information like color palettes or typography.
Canva has a section of its site dedicated to its brand guidelines. This includes information on their tone of voice, typography, and their overall guiding principles.
The bottom line
All types of technical documents are good and great—providing they get used and shared.
Think about it: How often have you spent hours putting together guides like work instructions and SOPs, only to end up with multiple screen share requests or complaints about customer support wait times?
When you empower people to capture and share their unique knowledge, you can work together to improve your documentation from the bottom up. Which is especially important when dealing with complex and evolving technical topics.
The right tools can make a big difference. Using a tool that can streamline knowledge sharing (like Tango!) helps everyone submit feedback directly, while they’re in the flow of work. Guidance Analytics can also shed light on how your guides are (or aren’t) being used, and who your power users and potential product evangelists are.
Once you’ve got a plan to create and manage your institutional knowledge, everybody wins. Including the technical experts who want to continue improving their craft. 🌟
What are the main categories of technical documents?
You can break up technical documents into product documentation and process documentation.
Product documentation focuses on information about the product’s design and features. Examples include working papers and project plans.
Process documentation focuses on information about how people will use the product or follow a product-related process. Examples include troubleshooting guides and quick start guides.
What’s the difference between technical documentation and a technical document?
Technical documentation is the process of capturing technical knowledge for a process or product. On the other hand, a technical document is where people house this knowledge. Many people use these words interchangeably.
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