Every day, technical documentation is being used more and more. Both potential and loyal customers need technical documentation to properly evaluate their products and services. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to ensure your company’s documentation is clear, concise, accurate, and helpful to users.
Lucky for you, we’re sharing our secrets to writing great technical documents and publishing informative content for users. Whether you’re a newbie, an industry veteran, or somewhere in between, you can write technical documentation that breathes new life into your content creation process in just five simple steps.
- Technical documentation is any piece of written content that describes a product or service’s use, purpose, creation, or architecture.
- Great technical documentation is thoroughly researched, planned, and reused
- Some of the most popular types of technical documents are user training manuals, user onboarding flows, API documentation, FAQ & knowledge bases, and software install guides
- Software, automobile, medical, and consumer product industries are the most likely to create technical documentation
Great technical documentation is easy to write when you thoroughly research, plan, and reuse your content.
What Is Technical Documentation?
You can’t write technical documentation without understanding the basics. Well, you can try, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be any good.
In a nutshell, technical documentation is any piece of written content that describes a product or service’s use, purpose, creation, or architecture.
There are many types of technical documents, all of which are written for a specific audience. Technical documents are typically the responsibility of technical writers, but sometimes product managers or subject-matter experts write too. Some of the most popular forms of technical documentation are:
- User training manuals
- User onboarding flows
- API documentation
- FAQ & knowledge bases
- Software install guides
- Press Releases
- Product Release Notes
Regardless of its form, technical documents should educate their intended audience on the details needed to properly use a product or service.
Why Is Technical Documentation Important?
Simply put, technical documentation provides essential information to people or organizations that need it. In order for people to solve problems by using products and services, they first need to know how to properly use them:
- End users. For end users, technical documentation lets them fully enjoy a product and maximize both its functionality and lifetime. Not only that, but companies can save money on replacements and customer service if end users use their guides to troubleshoot any issues.
- Internal users. Technical documentation can enhance the efficiency and productivity of employees. With access to well-written technical documents, internal users can easily learn how to perform procedures. Technical documentation also helps to align an organization’s goals and objectives.
- Potential users. When potential customers want to learn more about your products and services, your company’s technical documents are a great place to start. By publishing high-quality technical documents, potential buyers can use these materials to assess whether or not your products and services meet their needs.
Although documents can vary between end, internal, and potential users, their purpose is always important. Without technical documentation, organizational productivity and efficiency would be rare.
Which Industries Create Technical Documentation?
Despite its name, technical documentation doesn’t always relate to technology. Some of the most common industries that commonly create technical documentation are:
- Software. The software industry creates technical documents that are intended for other software developers or consumers. These kinds of documents usually require a bit of coding and software development knowledge.
- Automobiles and heavy machinery. Automobiles and heavy machinery call for an outlined operating procedure to ensure safety. These usually come in the form of technical documents that specify procedures and parts.
- Medical and health care. Technical documents in the medical industry usually detail regulations and equipment use. Brochures and pamphlets that describe diseases, medications, or operations also count as technical documentation.
Consumer products. Software, recreational items, and even furniture all require installation or assembly instructions. Product user guides and video tutorials are also common forms of technical documentation for consumer products.
The Technical Documentation Lifecycle
The basic flow for creating technical documentation is probably familiar to you: plan, write, review, and publish.
Every organization adds tweaks to this basic workflow to align with their business goals, personnel dynamics, and individual content creation requirements, yet these four pillars are structural mainstays.
We can’t show you how to create technical documentation processes that are bespoke to your organization, but we can give you a solid footing to start from.
Throughout this article, we might mention capabilities specific to Heretto, but the underlying principles apply to all tools. An important thing to note from the beginning is that tools cannot dictate your processes, but they can certainly influence them.
Let’s get into it.
1. Research Your Topic
When writing product content, it’s easy to fall into the trap of leaning on your own presumed expertise.
Want to know one of the rarest skills in the modern workplace? Asking good questions and then listening for the answer. Technical writers do the tough work, asking the tough questions and the “dumb” questions.
The temptation might be to lean on your own knowledge but be careful. Every assumption carries with it the risk of undermining the entire writing phase. If you make an assumption and you are wrong, the best-case scenario is that it gets called out in the review phase. The worst case is your mistake goes to the market alongside the product.
Do the research, ask the tough questions, and don’t forget to ask the questions that seem silly or dumb. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but you need to swallow your pride and talk to other experts.
We guarantee if you think a question is dumb, several other people have had the same question but weren’t brave enough to ask it. Be the brave question-asker. The more expert voices you gather for researching your topic, the stronger your content will be.
Finally, if possible, interact with the product as much as possible. While this might not be research per se, it will enable you to ask better, more specific questions.
2. Create Your Documentation Plan
Don’t be hasty. Layout your plans before putting proverbial ink to the page.
A Documentation Plan is an official roadmap that technical writing teams build. It creates a structural outline, procedural consistency, and ensures that everyone is on the same page before getting started. Documentation Plans may differ slightly between organizations, but they share many common elements: scope and objectives, time estimates, workflows, resources, etc.
A common planning document among project managers is the Product Requirements Document (PRD). Your technical documentation team should be familiar with the PRD, and there shouldn’t be any glaring differences between the key parts of the PRD and your Documentation Plan. Rather than laying your plans separately from the ground up, coordinate your Documentation Plan with the PRD.
In short, the PRD lists what your product does, how it does it, and the more crucial granular details behind it. From the PRD, you’re going to want to look out for things such as:
- Product details
- Audience details
- Details relating to content requirements
By no means is that an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. If you’re looking to go further in-depth on PRDs, check out this article: Product Requirements Document: The PRD Is the Word.
3. Consider Content Reuse
How much content does your organization have that is identical or similar enough to be reused multiple times in different content deliverables?
When you’ve looked at your content and gauged where you can reuse parts of it in different places, reuse will save you the time-consuming task of replicating the same content over and over again.
In a Component Content Management System (CCMS) like Heretto, you build content in components — like blocks. Each block can exist on its own as a standalone component. Stacking several blocks together builds a document, a whole piece of finished content.
When a block can be used in more than one document, content reuse lets you write that block once and use it in multiple places. Then, if that block needs to be updated in the future, it only needs to be updated in the original block, and those updates will populate everywhere the block is used.
Even when you are creating content for a new product, there will likely be a fair amount of overlap with existing products. Find those overlaps and take note. Don’t think of content blocks as being limited to a single document, product, or deliverable. This can be a massive time and money saver. Calculating potential reuse throughout your content repository is an initial investment that stands to bear fruitful returns.
Need some help grasping reuse? Piece of cake. Or pie: DITA Reuse, Pie, and How Copy-Pasting Content Is Copy-Wasting Time.
4. Identify Gaps in Your Content
Once you’ve identified the opportunities for reuse within your content library, you have a clear view of the remaining gaps in your content.
Identifying these gaps is a critical step. Think about every component of content as a chunk of road or highway. Your reader is following a predetermined highway of knowledge that you’ve laid before them. Now imagine that suddenly they come to a large gap in the road where there should be a bridge.
Technical content is similar but much more subtle. Getting users to understand a direction is a task that can’t afford gaps. Frustrated users are much more likely to search for answers elsewhere, like YouTube videos and online forums, or search for products elsewhere.
Taking an occasional content inventory is necessary for identifying content gaps that may lead to user experience pain points. What’s more? Users will often straight-up tell you where something is lacking, unclear, or difficult to parse. Use their feedback alongside your own content self-analysis and close those knowledge gaps.
5. Write, Review, Test, and Deploy Your Content
Get it done. Get it done well. Be proud of it.
Finally, the part that you love. Writing. I’m not going to use a lot of space telling you how to do a job you know how to do, just some baseline things to remember when writing:
- Remember your audience and write for them
- Avoid knowledge assumptions about your audience
- Focus on the BLUF (bottom line upfront)
- Be concise, but don’t sound robotic
- Think about tagging any potential variable content (product names, company names, feature names, etc.) that you may need to access down the road
Once the content is written, or perhaps during the writing phase, get the eyes of experts involved. Make sure that during reviews, the right people see the right documentation. Just like finding the right experts during research, you also need to find the right experts during the review phase.
When the right eyes see and review the right content, your job as an editor is leagues simpler. When you’re done there, take a moment to see what your content will look like live. Preview test runs will help identify any remaining errors, however minuscule. Plus, you can see how great your work looks and be proud of it before sending it to the world.
Write Technical Documentation Like A Pro Today
What are you doing? Go get your expert-level technical documentation content in front of your audience!
Still not sure it’s up to par? Heretto’s multi-channel publishing capability allows you to create your content once and publish it to every output your organization uses. Faster, better, easier content that you have every right to be proud of.
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With Heretto you can cut down on content production costs while enabling growth.
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