How to write technical documentation: Tips and tools

How to write technical documentation: Tips, tools, and explanations

What is technical documentation?

Technical documentation is a catch-all term for writing that tells the end-user how to use your product, and what it can do. In relation to software engineering, technical documents can take many different forms. The goal of this type of writing is to explain everything the reader needs to know, in a way they can understand. Relative to the software development life cycle (SDLC), these documents also keep objectives clear for the developers and shareholders and maintain the organization. Simple, right? Unfortunately, it can be far more complex than that.

When using Agile methods, not much documentation is needed in the beginning stages. However, as the project progresses, documentation becomes more necessary. There are two main categories of documentation: product documentation, and process documentation.

Product documentation is the how-to guide for everything in the application. These writings can be either for end-users in the form of guides, manuals, and overall use of the software. It can also be an explanation of the system itself; system requirements, design and architecture plans, and source codes are some examples.

Process documentation describes the methods used to make the software. It also includes things such as notes on meetings, test schedules, design plans, and reports. Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at what the writing itself entails.

Writing technical documentation

The number one focus of all technical writing is clarity. You want your intended audience to understand what you’re saying. Like with research papers in university, technical documents require a lot of careful planning. Before you jump in, you have to prepare.

What to include

No matter what type of documentation you’re working on, these are the things you absolutely need to include.

  • Credentials and service systems
  • Hosting information
  • Running requirements
  • Source code information

Step 1 – Outlining and Research

All projects need a structure, including writing. Maybe you remember how to create an outline from basic school. If so, those skills will help here. But unlike your 5th grade science report on crickets, this outline is more complicated, and is referred to as a ‘documentation plan’. Here’s what you need for your plan:

Deadlines: When is this documentation due, and will it be done in deliverable increments? Knowing the due date is key when project planning.

Goals: What you want the reader to learn from your documents. Without a clear goal, you’ll find yourself adding and cutting information much more than you would if you had a clear purpose.

Resources: Are you creating a new guide, updating an out-of-date one, or something else? You’ll need the old resources to draw from, or remove from the system entirely, if needed. You also need to figure out where you’ll be getting your new information from.

Style guide: Some companies are particular, and require a style guide. Having your guide handy will keep you from making any style mistakes.

Topics: Of course, you need a list of all the topics you’ll cover, as well as the points you want to include for each of them.

Step 2 – Layout and Structure

We, as humans, have a low tolerance for bad layouts. People give up quickly when met with a block of fine print and no discernable headlines or subsections. Designing your documentation to be clear, and easy to use is paramount to making your writing useful for the reader.

You should focus on a user friendly interface, and make it easy for the eye to follow. The reader should be able to find what they want quickly. Another important point is to make your sections logical, and use common sense to organize your topics. Also, use headings, subheadings, and bullet points where applicable.

Step 3 – Write the Content

It’s (almost) as easy as it sounds. Here are some things that will help you get the best possible final product.

  • Drafting and editing – It won’t be perfect on the first try, and that’s okay. Rewrites and editing are all a normal, and valuable, part of the process.
  • No assumptions – That technical term everyone in your office knows? A reader from another company or another country might not know it. Don’t assume people know acronyms or other niche technical terms; explain them in your work.
  • Clear language – Technical documentation is the exact opposite of creative writing. Keep it simple, straight forward, and only write words that are absolutely necessary.
  • Peer reviews – Have your peers check over what you’ve written. They’ll see the gaps and inconsistencies in your documentation, and give you tips on what you can improve.
  • Diagrams and visual aids – People love visuals. Nothing grabs the eye like a nice chart or graph. Moreover, visual aids can convey a lot of information with just a few words. While they may take longer to make than a paragraph does, they help the reader absorb information fast. This is useful for new team members who must adjust to the flow quickly.

Once you’re happy with how everything looks and all the information you’ve presented, it’s time to publish for others to see.

Step 4 – Go live

This step is only for documentation that will be accessed via computer or other electronic devices. After publishing the documentation, you must do a few things to ensure it works properly.

  • Navigation audit – Check that all the links work and go to the correct pages, and that the page design is user friendly and easy to navigate. Also test the documentation across multiple platforms.
  • Safety audit – Double check that the user will not inadvertently expose any personal information, or cause damage to their computer in any way when using the guide.
  • Maintenance schedule – Make a schedule for updates, and general upkeep.

Best tools for writing technical documentation

  • Adobe Framemaker – Adobe is known for their outstanding software, and FrameMaker is no exception. It comes with several hundred templates, easy image insertion and resizing, and works well for large industry documentations.
  • ProProfs Knowledge Base – Another tool for creating your technical documents, this program works on all types of devices which makes editing easy wherever you are. Other features include revision history, and a large collection of designs and fonts to make your writing stand out.
  • Gleek – This is a tool for creating all the diagrams you could possibly need. It’s great for beginners and experts alike, and you don’t even need to use a keyboard. Along with templates and design controls, you can also collaborate with others in real-time and export your designs in several different formats.

Blocshop specializes in custom software development, and also created Gleek. We can assist with your software development for long and short-term projects, and now we can also help you with your documentation diagrams. Click here to learn more about Gleek, and get started for free today.

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