Product documentation is the documentation that comes along with a product. This documentation contains the details of the product’s work, guidelines to use it, disclaimers, and other important details related to a product.
Product documentation is a broad term and is not just meant for consumers' use. Product documentation also covers the information for a product or service for internal organizational use. These documentation files include the product design, logic, infrastructure, program source code, and specification sheets.
What is Product Documentation?
Product documentation describes the information related to a product and includes the method to use this product. The information includes the product specifications, manuals, logic, disclaimers, and information on all the features of the product.
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Two Types of Product Documentation
Although there are many types and sub-types, product documentation can be divided into two major categories:
- System Documentation
- User Documentation
System documentation contains information such as architecture, design, and source code that is used by product designers and manufacturers. The technical part of system documentation is aimed at a highly technical audience such as researchers and engineers. The business part of system documentation is aimed at business developers and marketers. System documentation is not generally released to the public.
Use documentation is the content you provide end-users with to help them be more successful with your product or service. Depending on the product, the information is aimed at either a technical or a non-technical audience. Examples are user manuals, quick start guides, and troubleshooting manuals.
Types of System Documentation
Product Requirements Document: defines the requirements of a particular product, including the product's purpose, features, and functionality It serves as a guide for business and technical teams to help build, launch, and market the product.
Technical Architecture: contains the detailed technical architecture for both the hardware and software components of a product. It serves as a reference for engineers and programmers who work on developing the product. The architecture is also a valuable resource for engineers who will develop later versions of the product.
Test Documentation: contains detailed results of testing that the product has gone through.
Source Code: especially relevant for software products and contains all the source code for the software.
Product Roadmap: contains a plan of action for how a product or solution will evolve over time. Serves as a guide for both business and technical teams.
Types of User Documentation
Knowledge Base: a published collection of documentation that includes answers to frequently asked questions, how-to guides, and troubleshooting instructions. It’s designed to make it easy for people to find solutions to their problems without having to ask for help. A knowledge base can encompass many forms of content, including FAQs, step-by-step process guides, introductory articles, video demonstrations, glossaries and definition lists.
Quick Start Guide: a shortened version of a manual, meant to make a buyer familiar with his or her product as soon as possible. It usually consists of illustrations with a limited amount of explanatory text.
User Manual: a detailed technical document that is designed to educate users on a particular product. Usually written by technical writers or product designers, its purpose is to inform users and help them solve any problems pertaining to the product.
Installation Manual: a manual written that describes the installation of either a hardware or software product. It contains detailed step-by-step instructions related to product installation.
Troubleshooting Manual: a technical manual that contains step-by-step instructions for resolving or troubleshooting common problems.
Release Notes: technical documentation produced and distributed with a product update (e.g., recent changes, feature enhancements, or bug fixes). Release notes briefly detail specific changes included in a product update.
Case Studies: show potential customers the real-life application of your product or service.
White Papers: in-depth reports or guides about specific topics. They are used to convince readers of your expertise and subtly suggest that your product is the best product to solve their problem.
Datasheet: also known as a spec sheet, contains a detailed listing of technical specifications of a product. Useful if you need to quickly find out if a product supports features and specifications that you need.
Both system documentation and user documentation offer multiple benefits.
System Documentation Benefits
Helps build better products: documents such as product requirements documents are developed after a lot of market research and input from all teams working on the product. The result is a product or products that meet and may exceed user expectations or even changes the perception of what users think they need. Example: iPhone!
Guides product development: documents such as product roadmaps serve as a guide for technical and business teams as they brainstorm and ideate about building products that improve on previous versions.
Helps collaboration: the technical and business-related aspects of a product are inter-related. System documentation helps technical and business teams work together for product development and marketing.
Serves as an information repository: a common feature of organizations is employee turnover i.e. people leaving and new people joining. Good system documentation helps new team members come up to speed and start to contribute in the least possible time.
User Documentation Benefits
Adds value to the product: documentation is part of the product, and good documentation enhances the value of a product.
Unlocks product potential: good documentation not only informs users about the full suite of product features but also guides users on how to effectively use those features.
Builds customer confidence: users often judge the professionalism and the quality of a product based on its documentation.
Drives sales: especially in business environments, many buying decisions are based on the quality of documentation and customer support that accompany a product.
Reduces burden on customer support teams: Even the best documentation won’t eliminate all customer support calls, but creating user guides and manuals that are clear, comprehensive, and concise will go a long way to reduce the overall volume of support requests.
How to Create Product Documentation?
Product documentation is a vital step for a product. Here are some steps technical writers can follow while creating documents for a product:
1. Identify your Target Audience
Just like in the creation of every other technical documentation, a technical writer should also identify customers and users before writing it. The user’s understanding of product usage and working is fundamental, which is why this step has become a prerequisite to writing the document.
Know your audience and identify their expertise level. Whether they are novices using your product or industry specialists, adapt a relevant tone so that your writing is readable for whichever audience the product is meant for. Write the documentation according to the user’s comprehension.
2. Categorize the Information
Categorizing leads to a better structure. With the help of categories, you can segment your information and make it more readable for the users.
Technical documents require information categorized from a reader’s standpoint and not from a developer’s perspective. After identifying the audience, categorize your information into sections and sub-sections.
3. Provide an Entry Point in the Product's Description
A clear landing page with proper instructions highlights the key points of documentation. Documents become easily accessible for the users through this entry point. It also explains the ways a product is useful for the consumer. This way a reader is aware of the advantages and uses of a product even before they use it.
4. Keep it Simple and Handy
As stated earlier, the document should be clear and must avoid irrelevant information. It should be readable and direct. Make sure that your documentation conveys the exact message without any ambiguity in its usage.
According to a survey, a product is used for its 20% features only. Keep such facts in your mind while writing the documentation.
Documentation should help the readers and not stuff them with a thousand words, so do not list all possible information you have regarding a product. Write only what's usable for readers.
5. Utilize a Documentation Plan
A plan helps in formatting and puts everything all together. Use actionable insights by checking the documentation of an already existing product documentation. Decide what is redundant, what is necessary, and what is outdated.
Use templates and style guides to professionally format the document and establish its consistency. You can use different tools to save time for formatting and conversions in the documentation development process.
6. Use Infographics and Diagrams
Annotating the information, you want to convey to users through screenshots or flowcharts is a good approach.
We recommend you use flowcharts, and infographics in the product documentation. Do proper labeling of pictures. This way, you can deliver your information in a more readable way.
7. Proper Access to Information
This step involves a careful structuring of the contents. Structure your information so that easy access to relevant information should be available for the end-users.
8. Provide Solutions
Users usually do not read a product guide unless they encounter an issue with the product. So, you must provide troubleshooting to those issues that a user may commonly encounter.
There are some products that are delivered in parts and the users have to assemble the parts on their own. If you have such a product then make sure that you provide a clear guide to gather the parts together. The main of this writing is to assemble the product in a working condition.
These are some of the methods that you can use while creating your product documentation.
What are the Advantages of Product Documentation?
Documentation compliments the product. Some startups may find it expensive but when done properly, good documentation can bring you more sales. Here is the list of advantages you can benefit from good documentation:
1. Ads Value to the Product
Documentation enhances the value of a product and lists the ways a product is used. A product is designed with hard work, attention, and after several quality tests. Practicing the same steps in your documentation will be a value-addition to the overall product.
2. Unlocks the Product Power
Well-written and well-structured instructions enhance the potential of your product. This also explains how to effectively use full features. This way user knows the various methods to use a certain product. Such practice unlocks the potential of the product.
3. Builds Customers Confidence in Using your Product
A detailed guide to using a certain product can build a user’s confidence in using your brand and product. A user judges the professionalism and the quality of a product based on your documentation. So, the better is the documentation, the more is the customer's confidence in you.
4. Sell More
A detailed guide that includes the complete ways to use a product serves its role well in marketing too. Good and professional documents build a customer’s trust in you; hence they can bring more customers.
5. Help you Support your Product
A customer rarely reads product documentation except for a few cases. They turn to product documentation only when they encounter a problem. That is why it is a good practice to list the solutions to the problems that a customer can face while using it.
There is no doubt that product documentation depicts the professionalism of a business. It also grows your audience. You can make use of these benefits through good product documentation.
The product documentation includes the information regarding the working of a product, its features, release notes, troubleshooting methods, and relevant details.
Product documentation has two types; System Documentation and User Documentation.
For system documentation, the target audience is developers, manufacturers, and industrialists. It includes technical information, code documentation, and references. While User Documentation includes the tutorials, how-to instruction guides, and discussion materials for a particular product.
We recommend you to write a technical document by keeping in view the audience's level of expertise. Properly formatted, well-structured, and readable documentation helps customers build their trust in your business.
Although drafting documents is another expense for your business, you can build customers’ trust, and increase product sales. It reflects professionalism in your work. All this refers to great productivity with better business growth.
If you are new to product documentation are looking to learn more, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn the fundamentals of managing and creating product documentation.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.