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A Guide on How to Write Effective Technical Documentation

Damilola Adedoyin Ezekiel

13 Dec 2022

7 min read

A Guide on How to Write Effective Technical Documentation
  • Documentation

Imagine that you're working on a new project and you have to use a library, framework, or tool that you have never used before and there's no documentation for it. How easy do you think it would be for you?

Often, documentation is usually ignored and thought of as the last step in building a software project and this is not very effective. When a project has little or vague documentation, users will find it hard to use, which will not promote adoption.

Most successful software projects have very effective documentation to guide users through the steps on how to use it and this is because documentation is the first feature a user interacts with when trying to work with a new software project.

What is a Technical Documentation?

Technical documentation is a part of technical writing that describes and explains everything related to a software product and this could be internal documentation for teams to external documentation written for end users.

It is a detailed description of the software's purposes, how to use it, and what results may be obtained. The main goal of documentation is to allow users to work with a particular software product seamlessly.

Why is Documentation Important?

When you're working with a tool or product you're unfamiliar with, the first thing you want to check out is the documentation as this will give you a detailed explanation of how to use that product. This highlights the importance of documentation.

Many organizations create documentation to help users work with their product without going through so much stress and to avoid wasting time trying to figure out how to use the product.

How does Documentation Improve Developer Experience?

Developer experience describes the overall experience developers have while working or using a particular product. Well-detailed documentation is one of the keys that aid good developer experience. A first-time user coming across a new product interacts with the documentation. When documentation is not clear and concise, this may cause the user to abandon that product and will most likely affect the retention of that product.

Documentation of a product plays an important role in developer experience as this largely determines the adoption of the product.

The following qualities should be included in good documentation:

  • It should be clear and concise.
  • It should be up to date.
  • It should be beginner friendly.
  • It should contain lots of code practices or examples.
  • It should be skimmable.

What are the Types of Documentation?

Every type of Technical Documentation falls into two main categories which are Product Documentation and Process Documentation.

Product Documentation

Product documentation is a type of technical documentation that contains all necessary information about a product. This includes the features, functions, and how to use the product.

Types of Product Documentation

  • User guide/manual: A User guide explains in detail how a product works to the users. It is used in onboarding new users to a product and helps the users to navigate through the product seamlessly.
  • API Documentation: API which is short for Application Programming interface facilitates communication between two platforms. API Documentation is a piece of document that explains how developers can integrate an API between two or more applications. It also helps to explain the things that can be achieved using a particular API.
  • SDK Documentation: SDK short for Software Development Kit is a collection of software development tools in one installable package. It contains a building block that allows developers to build custom apps that can be added on, or connected to, another program. SDK docs help to guide developers on how to create custom apps for a platform. SDK docs comprise the API, code samples, libraries, compilers, debuggers, etc.

Process Documentation

Process documentation is a step-by-step guide that explains all the processes involved in carrying out a task. It guides you to know what you need, to execute specific tasks.

Types of Product Documentation

  • Onboarding document
  • White papers
  • Project Plan
  • Tutorials.

Forms of Technical Documentation?

Technical documentation is not just one thing, instead, it is made up of four different things that define what documentation is.

Tutorials

Tutorials are instructions that lead the reader step-by-step through a project's many phases. It helps a new user navigate the product and also learn how to be proficient in using the product for everyday use cases.

A tutorial is a practical step that leads to the completion of a task and it is usually geared toward beginners. It is learning-oriented.

An example of a tutorial is learning how the React library works for the first time. On the React documentation page, there's a tutorial section for people who have no idea how React works.

Screenshot 2022-11-30 at 10.52.10.png

How-to Guides

How-to guides are directions that take the reader through the steps required to solve a real-world problem. It gives basic information as it is geared toward people who have some experience. It assumes the user already has the experience and wants to get a particular task done.

How-to guides walk the reader through the procedures required to handle a real-world problem.

Example of How-to Guide.

How to create a button component in React.

  • Import React
  • Create a ButtonComponent function that returns a div element
  • In the div element, create a button element.
  • Export the ButtonComponent
import React from 'react';

const ButtonComponent = () => {
  return (
    <div>
      <button type="button">Sign in</button>
    </div>
  );
};

export default ButtonComponent;

From the example above, the guide assumes that the user already has experience working with react and provides a step-by-step guide on achieving the task.

Reference Guide

A reference guide is a technical description of documentation and how to work with it. It is geared towards passing information. A reference guide tells users all they need to know about a product, how the product works, use cases for the product, things that make up the product, etc. It is usually information oriented.

Explanation

Explanation in technical documentation is also known as discussion. It widens the understanding of a reader about a subject. It provides background and context and it is understanding-oriented.

Guidelines for writing a Technical Documentation

The importance of good technical documentation cannot be overemphasized. There's a myth that a lot of people do not read documentation, but this is false. Many developers heavily rely on documentation when working with APIs, Libraries, frameworks, tools, etc.

Let's look at the steps to take to write well-detailed and effective technical documentation.

Do your Research

A lot of research goes into creating technical documentation. Before starting any piece of documentation, you should base your research on the following.

  • Who is your targeted audience for the documentation? There are different ways of passing information across to different audiences. Knowing your audience will help you write documentation that is focused with the right tone and guide.
  • What type of documentation you would be writing? As highlighted in this article, there are different types of documentation. When you know the type of documentation you want to write, helps you define your writing process.
  • What topics will be covered in the documentation? Finally, you need to research everything that will be included in your documentation, the areas you want to cover, and the aim of that documentation.

Documentation plan and outline

A documentation plan helps to outline and structure your content. It basically gives you an insight into how to organize your content and what information should be passed across. For example, most documentation follows a pattern where there's a getting started page, Tutorial, Features, Installation, Reference, etc. This outline points users to where they need to find specific information, instead of going through the entire documentation.

Follow a style guide

A style guide is a standard for writing a document. Following a style guide helps you to be consistent throughout the document even though multiple writers are working on that document. A good style guide allows you to know what kind of tone you can use to pass information, the grammars you use in constructing a sentence, and how to format and punctuate your sentences.

In simpler terms, a style guide will make your documentation organized

Use of visual images

Visual images help to communicate information to the users and it also makes it easy to understand complex concepts and procedures. Visual images are one of the ideal ways to pass information across without boring the user. Some people find it hard to read and understand long texts and using images and videos will help to enhance understanding and retention.

When a reader loads a document or any paperwork, their eyes are usually drawn toward the visual aids first. Asides from visual images being appealing to the eyes, they are the fastest way to understand a concept. A reader might not need to get to the end of the document before finding the answers they need.

Review

The reviewing stage is a very important one when writing documentation. The review is usually a collaborative process that involves the writer and the editor. This process allows the writer and the editors to go back on forth on the documentation to ensure everything works smoothly. Documentation might undergo multiple stages of review so there are no errors.

Publishing the document

After finishing the whole process of authoring the documentation, you want to host it on a platform for users to interact with. There are lots of online hosting platforms that you can use depending on the result you're trying to achieve.

Some organizations build their documentation management systems from scratch and this gives them access to customize and make changes suitable to their needs. However, for smaller organizations and individuals working on a documentation project, this might not be the best approach. Here are some documentation management systems that you can use with little setup:

Resources to learn more about technical documentation.

Conclusion

The importance of documentation cannot be overemphasized as it is the means of communication between an organization and its users. Documentation should not be thought of as the last step involved in building a new product because it is one of the key factors that determines user adoption.

Good documentation is not supposed to confuse the reader, instead, it should be able to answer the questions that the reader might have or help them solve tasks.

Did you like this article?

Damilola Adedoyin Ezekiel

Frontend Developer and Technical writer.

See other articles by Damilola

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