Writing technical documentation sounds scary and complicated, but it doesn't have to be.
In this article, we'll explain:
- What technical documentation is
- Why it's important
- How to write great technical documentation
- And a few best practices to keep in mind while you do
What is technical documentation?
Technical documentation explains how to use a specific product and describes the features and functionalities of that product.
The most popular form of technical documentation is product-based documentation—user guides that explain the different features of a product and how to use them to their full extent. While any product can include technical documentation, they are most common in the software development industry.
The other type is process-based documentation. True to its name, this document explains the best way to complete a process. Process-based documentation typically includes internal content that companies create to help their employees become more productive.
Why is technical documentation important?
You can't use a product or implement a workflow if you don't know how.
Technical documentation educates readers, giving them the knowledge they need to execute specific tasks. The result? Happier customers and more productive employees.
You know what's not fun? Spending a bunch of money on a new piece of software, firing it up for the first time, and wondering, "What do I do now?"
Once you learn how to write technical documentation, your customers won’t have to ask that question again. They can simply refer to the document to troubleshoot their own issues, saving them from both wasted time and frustration.
Technical documentation can boost team productivity in two different ways:
- Fewer support calls: When customers can access technical documentation that explains how to use your product, they’ll be able to find the answers to their questions easily, and your company's support team will receive fewer calls. This will free your support team to focus on more critical customer initiatives.
- More efficient processes: As mentioned earlier, technical documentation can explain how to complete tasks, not just how to use products. Process-type documents are usually created for internal use. Once your employees have access to them, they'll be able to complete essential processes more accurately in less time.
How to write technical documentation in 5 easy steps
Now that we’ve covered what technical documentation is, let’s cover how to write it—and write it well.
1. Do your research
First things first: Research the subject of your product documentation efforts.
It could be a specific product your company sells or an internal process your employees are asked to complete regularly. Either way, you need to know it.
Take time to become an expert in this area. Use the product and learn everything about its feature set and potential applications. Or run through an internal process until you know it by heart.
We suggest talking to other experts as well. Your product and sales teams should have a lot of product knowledge to share. Learn as much from them as you can.
2. Structure your document
Now that you've researched the topic of your technical documentation, you can start structuring your content.
Your technical documents should flow from one topic to the next, making it easy to understand and implement the steps. How do you do that? Categorize and sub-categorize information so readers can quickly scan and find the knowledge they need.
To ensure your technical documents are organized and well-structured, use this template:
Technical Documentation Template
Product Name: [State the name of your product.]
Product Version: [State the version number of your product.]
Current Date: [State the date this document was created.]
Product Overview: [Give readers a brief summary of what your product can do.]
Product Objectives: [Tell readers why your product was created and the problems it solves.]
Product Features: [List every feature and explain how to use them.]
FAQ Section: [Answer common customer questions regarding your products.]
Additional Resources: [List other resources, including customer support contact information, that customers can use to learn more about your products.]
3. Write and edit your content
All of your research and planning have led to this. Now you just need to sit down and crank out the content that will benefit your end users: your customers or employees.
Speaking of end users, keep them in mind during the technical documentation writing process. The goal of your technical documentation should always be to help them accomplish their goals, so you should have a deep understanding of your end users and their current knowledge level.
Are they an expert in their field? You can probably use industry-related language. Are they beginners? Cut the jargon and speak plainly.
(Note: As we'll see in the "Best Practices" section below, always aim for simplicity when writing technical documents. That doesn't mean you have to eliminate all jargon from your content, but it does mean your documents should be easy to consume.)
4. Test your documentation
Once your technical documents are written, test them for accuracy and clarity. Your content won’t help anyone if it’s inaccurate or hard to understand.
How do you test your documentation? Ask people who aren’t as familiar with your product as your power users (like new users or external stakeholders) to take a look. Does the information make sense to them? Is it structured logically? Is there anything missing?
Taking the time to test and seek feedback will only improve your technical documentation and your user’s experience.
Congratulations, you just finished your first piece of technical documentation. Now it’s time to share it!
For a software product, you could publish your documentation to a public-facing online knowledge base. For physical products, you could include instruction manuals inside the boxes of each product.
3 best practices for better technical documentation
At this point, you know how to write technical documentation. Now we want to show you how to write it more effectively. Here are some best practices to help.
Keep it simple
Yes, you're writing technical documentation. But your content should always be easy for end users to understand. Eliminate jargon and use short sentences to create a better reading experience.
It helps to understand who your end users are, so spend a little time researching them, too—not just the product or process in question.
Also, make sure the fonts, writing style, and designs throughout your documentation are consistent to improve their readability.
Screenshots and other visual aids can help illustrate the topics of your technical documentation and make them easier to understand.
It might sound like more work, but using a tool like Tango can take the pain out of documentation by automatically generating a step-by-step guide while you walk through any process.
Your product development team works hard to improve your company's products, so your technical documentation should be updated every time a new feature is released.
The same goes for processes. Maybe you've found a better way to complete a task, or one of the tools you use received a long-awaited update. Processes evolve, and your technical documentation should change with them.
Out-of-date technical documentation hurts end users because they don't explain the most current product.
Elevate your business with technical documentation
Technical documentation might sound daunting and complicated, but writing it—and writing it well—is crucial to helping people understand your product and how they can best use it.
If you’re looking for a better way to show how your product works, documentation tools can help. With Tango, you can automatically create documentation while you work—without the hassle of manual screenshots or copying and pasting.