What is Documentation?
Documentation is a written or electronic description of any product or service. It helps the end users in understanding the different characteristics, features, and attributes of a physical or intangible product. Other than this, users can get help from documentation to follow a set of instructions in achieving a task.
The instructions that come along when you’re buying a new TV, sofa set, software, or drug, all come with an instruction leaflet on how to use the product. This instruction leaflet is also a piece of documentation.
Every industry from manufacturing to services relies on documentation. Government policies are also a part of the documentation.
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What Are the Types of Documentation?
Documentation comes in all types, from internal documents accessible to developers and in-house teams to user guides, manuals, and knowledge base, available for end users.
The two main types are developer docs and software documentation. The rest is all the various forms of documentation and resources that fall in these two categories.
Let’s see them in more detail.
1. Developer Documentation
Documentation and resources that developers use are specific for internal purposes during the development of software, API, or algorithm. Here are some words that developers use for it:
- Release notes – The date/time of releasing a new software update, and the list of features, and codes that come with it.
- Readme files – A set of files in PDF, DOC, or TXT offering a brief explanation of system documentation, the software itself, and the requirements of the installation.
- API references – This document explains the process of integrating and working with third-party vendors.
2. End-User Software Documentation
What happens if you don’t know how to use a product or service? You would refer to customer support, who can further direct you to an agent or a set of documentation on the service provider’s website. This is the end-user documentation. It contains all types of reference materials for the users of a product so that they can figure out how to install, use, configure, and make changes to it.
For example, you may have a problem using a video editing program. You would read the documentation available on the developer’s official website to know how to use the product. This is also known as external or customer-facing documentation.
It has many helpful resources such as:
- Knowledge bases – A set of predefined questions with answers
- User guides – Like knowledge bases, user guides provide an in-depth look at how to perform a specific task
- Tutorials with screenshots and videos – A set of topics with complete steps of how to perform a task, such as installing the software, and accessing the features.
- Troubleshooting manuals – A guide on solving the most common problems during installation or usage of the product.
- Requirements – Understanding the basics of the software/product/service and the minimum requirements of the installation.
Before purchasing software, it is imperative to check if their official website has the above-mentioned project documentation.
Your program or application is much more than code. If your end user cannot understand how to use it, there is no point in building your software. The only way to retain customers is through excellent software documentation.
Software documentation is a type of technical writing that enables software developers and users to better understand the code and functionality of programs, web apps, and mobile apps.
It can take many different forms, including user manuals, how-to guides, API references, and code comments.
3. Project Documentation
Project documentation involves covering key details about a project. It’s about creating comprehensive documentation to explain what’s needed over the course of the project to execute it in a proper manner.
Some examples of project documentation include project proposals, project plans, business cases, status reports, and so on.
4. Legal Writing
Attorneys and lawyers write documents covering essential information and details about the case, with reference to applicable laws, and share them with their clients.
Without proper documentation, lawyers cannot keep records of cases and solve them in a successful manner.
5. Compliance Documentation
Companies need to comply with several state and federal laws. That’s where technical writers help them in writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for regulatory compliance. Many employees need to have a clear understanding of laws to ensure the company remains compliant. Technical writers help the company in achieving this aim.
6. Request for Proposals
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is a project that a company announces, against which it wishes to secure bids. The RFP defines the project, sets clear goals, and outlines the contract terms including the bidding process. Companies and government agencies often use RFPs to announce their new projects.
However, writing an RFP is not an easy task. It is the job of technical writers to understand the complex nature and details of each project and convert it into a well-formatted RFP.
7. Product Manuals
How to put together a chair? A sofa?
How to assemble a ring light? How to assemble a bicycle? The set of instruction manuals that you refer to when assembling and putting together any physical product, is also documentation.
Every manufacturer ships a set of instruction manuals and user guides with its product. From one of the world’s most valuable companies, Apple, to a a simple toy manufacturer, every physical product needs a set of instructions for its users.
8. Medical Writing
All types of medical writing such as clinical research reports, patient information leaflets, academic medical journals, and literature reviews, are also documentation.
Medical writing is a subset of technical writing. Medical content is often complex to understand. It is the job of a technical writer to have a solid understanding of the subject matter and write content that is easy to understand for the target audience.
Patients, most of the time, do not have enough medical knowledge of the side effects of a drug. The pharmaceutical company ships the patient information leaflet with the drug detailing its use, side effects, withdrawal symptoms, and other details.
9. Grant Writing
Not-for-profit organizations, biotech firms, pharma companies, and startups pitch to potential investors to receive grants for expanding operations and/or continuing with research. Grant writing is also a part of the documentation that includes:
- Description of the problem or opportunity (Statement of need)
- Purpose of proposal
- Background of the problem
- Scope of the proposal
10. Feasibility Studies and Reports
Feasibility studies, investor reports, annual financial reports, cash flow reports, and profit and loss statements, require an extensive amount of detail, in-depth research, and unique writing abilities so stakeholders at all levels can understand them.
These reports have graphs, figures, and charts for an in-depth comparison with other competitors. It also includes the analysis of business and economy to highlight future projections on the success or failure of a business.
This is also a type of documentation.
11. Technical Documentation
Repair manuals, maintenance guidelines, owner manuals, technical manuals, minimum specific requirements, and engineering specifications, are all types of technical documentation. It requires subject matter expertise so that the end user can use the product without any problems.
For example, only a technical writer with a strong background in engineering can write the specifications of a car, such as horsepower, torque, fuel consumption, body weight, and so on.
12. Policies and Procedures
Technical writers write and develop a set of policies and procedures (Standard Operating Protocols) for an organization, which then distribute these to their employees. It sets the expectations straight for employees and employers, ensuring mutual compliance.
Since the end user is not technical, technical writers develop policies and procedures that are easy to understand for any employee.
13. White Papers
White papers are well-researched documents that highlight a complex issue and propose solutions. Companies publish whitepapers on a regular basis to cement their authority in the field.
For example, automobile companies such as Toyota, Tesla, and Hyundai publish white papers on automated driving, presenting challenges and proposing solutions from their respective ideologies.
What Are the Benefits of Documentation?
You have a great product. But how would your customers know it is great? You cannot expect to launch a product expecting your end users to figure themselves out using it.
This is where user documentation comes in. When you develop the documentation, it helps your customers to get the most out of your product and set the right expectations.
1. Helps in Increasing Customer Satisfaction Rate
It defines how professional you are as a software development individual or company. Create documentation of your product as and when you are building it. Software documentation has a direct impact on the customer satisfaction level.
Good documentation is all about providing the best possible experience to your customers. When you show your customers that you care and feel for them, you get repeat business.
As a result, when your customers are happy with your product, they will continue to become repeat buyers. If there are errors in your documentation, or it fails to describe how your product works, your customers will switch to your competitors with better and clear documentation.
2. Updates Developers and End Users
Today, software development companies and organizations need to continue updating their database and records of documentation. This is imperative because when technology continues advancing, the software starts getting more complex with extra features. The documentation that worked out well for a previous version, may not do the same for the latest build.
The same holds true for any physical product.
While it isn’t rocket science to write documentation, it needs a lot of time, effort, and focus. With the right documentation tools, you can address users’ pain points and become a champion of your niche.
3. An Easy Reference Guide for Customers and Developers
Excellent user documentation is not only for the customers but also for product support specialists and developers. Support specialists can refer customers to the guide and ensure that the query receives a response.
Due to the time it takes on calls and emails, 70% of customers prefer visiting the developer’s official website to access documentation and learn more about the product.
4. Imperative to Maintaining Quality and Process Control
When it comes to quality and process control, it is vital to have a unified method of completing a task. This is possible through documentation.
Documentation helps companies remain coherent and allows team members to maintain consistency across all departments.
Documentation leads to knowledge sharing, which helps teams to understand processes and the outcome of every finished project.
5. Reduce Duplicate Efforts
Healthy communication is vital to reduce duplication, which is not possible without having an efficient mechanism for documenting every task.
Why reinvent the wheel when you can improve the current documentation? When you have complete documentation in one place, it will reduce duplicate efforts in creating new manuals and guides. This is true for internal and external documentation.
7. Improve the Process of Hiring and Onboarding
Your team will not stay the same. As existing employees leave, new members jump on board. Documentation improves the process of hiring and exiting the company.
Your new hires will have access to guides, directions, and notes to reduce their onboarding time.
What Are the Essential Elements of User Documentation?
While no one user documentation is the same as others, there are best practices in every industry. Documentation is no different. Excellent user documentation should have the following essential elements:
- Plain and easy-to-understand language – Most of your customers may not have expertise at all. Write content that covers every type of your customer
- Simple – Avoid using jargon and technical terms. Do not have long blocks of pages and text
- Visuals – Include visuals such as annotated screenshots, videos, GIF animations, and graphics to better illustrate your point. You cannot undermine the importance of having visuals that provide a solution
- Hierarchy and flow – Good documentation has everything from start to finish in a flow. Do not show the advanced features of your product unless you have provided information on the basics in the beginning
- Problem-solving – Focus more on solving a problem, rather than discussing how your product works
- A table of contents – It helps in organic rank and helps deliver traffic. Plus, it saves users time in searching for relevant problems
- Links to other resources – You can also add links to other sources such as your social media profiles including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter
- Accessible documentation – Make your documentation accessible for people with disabilities such as the visually impaired and hard of hearing
- Great design – This point relates to having stunning visuals because a good design will entice users to continue reading and getting the most out of the documentation
Who Is the Audience of Documentation?
The target audience of documentation is the end user. Writers will compile and write documentation with the assumption that the end user does not have enough expertise on how to use the product. The language is plain, simple, and clear so that even a novice user, with no prior experience in using a product, can understand it.
There was a time when companies would print user documentation. While this is still the norm with all physical products, we are now living in an online world where most users are on their smartphones and tablets.
If you are a manufacturer, you also need to publish your documentation online and customers search through it. For example, you can have a set of documentation published on your website that users can access through a browser including Edge, Firefox, and Google Chrome.
Focus on the accessibility of your documentation in all formats; print and electronic.
Include graphics and images as much as possible to show rather than tell your customers how to use your product. For electronic documentation, use video and GIFs.
What Is a Software Documentation Tool?
Documentation tools are software programs that aid a team of writers, developers, and management in creating user documentation. These tools streamline the documentation process in an easy and fast manner.
These tools work best whether you’re writing internal documentation for team members or customer-facing help guides.
Every documentation tool is different. It is critical to perform thorough research on choosing the best tool that can explain your product without hiccups.
How Can You Measure the Effectiveness of Your Documentation?
It is imperative for all businesses to measure the effectiveness of their documentation. This is important as management can get insights into how customers are using the products/services, and what issues are they facing.
There are a few metrics that you can use to measure the effectiveness of documentation. The following list is not exhaustive, but you can take a quick glance at the most important metrics.
User Opinion and Feedback
A great way of measuring effectiveness is through user feedback. The number of likes, shares, and comments dictates an unbiased response from your users. You can also have a few questions at the end where you ask users about the effectiveness of your documentation.
A question such as, “Was this page helpful?” can go a long way in measuring documentation feedback.
However, if your customers/users keep coming back to you, it means your documentation did not solve their problems. This is the right time to review your documentation and address user feedback to improve it.
If your documentation solves the problem but users cannot find it, it is time to reconsider the visual appeal and style of the documentation. Many times the solution exists, but users are not aware of how to get the most out of the documentation.
There is no harm in reaching out to customers and getting their feedback. Many times, your users won’t provide you the feedback unless you approach them. Don’t hesitate and get to know what’s working and what’s not.
You can use free tools like Google Analytics and Search Console to collect basic and useful information about how your audience reacts to your documentation. Here are some metrics you can focus on:
- How much time your audience has spent on the page?
- How many pages your audience has visited?
- What were the exit pages?
You can then analyze this information to your advantage and improve the documentation to make it easy and appealing for your audience.
If some pages have more viewership than others, you may need to improve the quality of the content by including GIFs, videos, or other visual elements to ensure your visitors get the best experience
There is a specific purpose for creating documentation. You need a few metrics to determine how effective your documentation is. For example:
- Measure the number of support calls if the purpose is to let customers perform a specific task without any assistance
- Measure the installation time if the purpose is to reduce the installation time of a software or hardware
- Measure cloud deployments if the purpose is to allow customers to deploy without any help
There are two reasons for users to contact customer support:
- When the product/service does not work according to the documentation
- They cannot help themselves from using a specific product/service feature
This means your documentation does not live up to the users’ expectations. The documentation needs to best represent features to make it easy for your users. This is where you need to go back and improve your documentation.
Documenting the product is as crucial as the product itself. A great product/service cannot achieve its business objectives without proper documentation. But an average product can achieve its business goals if the content team and developers work together to create useful documentation for the customers.
You will not buy a TV if there was no documentation with it. The same goes for any product, service, or software that you’ve purchased. Now that you’ve gained ample knowledge of documentation, it is time to start creating and improving your documentation to win new clients and keep existing ones.
What is Process Documentation?
Process documentation is the method of capturing the information from your internal teams to execute a process within your company. Whether it’s software development or manufacturing a physical product like a toy or furniture, process documentation is a continuous process.
What Are the 3 Rules of Documentation?
Good documentation has a visual appeal, easy-to-understand, and serves the purpose of the end users. With appropriate writing techniques, your users need to skim through it without any issues.
You also need to maintain the documentation with regular updates.