How to Write Software Documentation in 7 Simple Steps
If you want to launch a software product from scratch and guide users to adopt it, then you’ll face challenging and unpredictable variables. The concept of software documentation emerged to keep everyone on the same page and make an otherwise overwhelming journey easier to navigate.
Software development teams, testers, and users alike (and everyone else related to the project) need some guidance to help them with their goals. With adequate documentation, everyone wins.
But that itself is a complicated process, requiring technical writing expertise. Even if you’re not a technical writer, you can learn how to prepare excellent technical documentation for your product. If you're interested in learning via video, then watch below. Otherwise, skip ahead.
To that end, in this article, we’ll discuss:
- What software documentation is
- How to write software documentation in 7 easy steps
Let’s get started.
What is Software Documentation?
Software documentation refers to the documents, tutorials, and other material describing a software product’s development, functionality, and use. It is one of the many forms of technical documentation.
The purpose of software documentation is simple: to streamline the communication between all the parties involved with the product.
Within an org where the software is being developed, a technical document can be considered a wiki page – a guiding blueprint that the development team can refer to when working on it. Additionally, it can also help those who use the finished version of the product.
To be more specific, adequate software documentation can help:
- Align Expectations with Understanding—one of the main concerns of any software company is to ensure that the software engineers work towards bringing the stakeholders’ vision to life. An error in documentation can cause discrepancies between what’s required and developed.
- Aid in Helping the End-User—in addition to guiding the programmers in implementing requirements, software documentation also helps the audience set up the software, understand the user interface, and follow the best use-cases.
- Record Progress—another internal use of software documentation is to keep track of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). This can help a company measure progress, learn from mistakes, and make better decisions in the future.
Every tech company—from small startups to well-established giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google—uses some form of software documentation.
Programmers, stakeholders, and users alike benefit from this form of technical communication.
The Different Types of Software Documentation
Before learning how to write software documentation, it’s essential to understand the different types of technical documents you might be required to work on.
They are mainly distinguished based on the specific goals they accomplish.
Depending on the methodology/approach it uses, a company may not use every type of document (those that follow an agile approach don’t usually engage in heavy documentation in the beginning).
With that out of the way, software documentation can be split into two broad categories:
When talking about software documentation, people mainly refer to product documentation.
As the name suggests, this category includes all the documents/material that contain essential details about the product. Of course, it can be for both the software developers and the end-users.
We can further classify product documentation into the following types:
- Requirements Documents – these are created at the very beginning of the project. As the name suggests, they’re intended to clearly communicate what is expected from the software (the functionality, features, goals, etc.) to the software engineering teams. They are also known as “ReadMe” documents.
- Architecture/Design Documents provide an overview of the software’s architecture and highlight the design principles to be used.
- Source Code – this includes documents containing the software product’s actual code (Python, HTML, etc).
- End-User includes all the user documentation, such as user guides, user manuals, reference manuals, etc. The purpose is to ensure a smooth user experience. If the solution is an API, the material is referred to as API documentation.
In addition to the above, a document detailing the marketing strategy/research can also be filed under product documentation.
This category includes all the documents describing the underlying processes that bring a product from ideation to launch.
Process documentation aims to break down the software development journey (and provide a vision for all the teams involved in the project).
Process documentation can include:
- Plans – not to be confused with the requirements, these are also typically created before the development starts. They include cost estimates, schedules, etc.
- Progress Reports help measure the success of the software’s development (using certain metrics) and ensure that the development team is on the right path.
- Working Papers – these special documents record the ideas, thoughts, and notes that the engineers, developers, and systems administrators have during development.
- Finally, development teams need to specify the coding and design standards that they stick with to keep things consistent.
While product documentation is intended for both internal and external audiences, process documentation is mainly intended for the people developing the product.
How to Write Software Documentation [in 7 Steps]
Writing software documentation is tricky. While workflows vary from company to company, there are certain best practices that, if adhered to, can make the process a lot smoother (and yield the ideal results).
In 7 simple steps, you can create any type of software documentation, irrespective of its goal(s). We won’t be talking about the use of templates or any documentation tool such as GitHub, Confluence, etc. The steps we’re about to discuss are generic – ones that may only require a basic text editor.
Let’s dive in:
1. Understand the Purpose and Audience of the Document
Before anything else, you need to take a step back and ask yourself why you’re about to create the said document.
Since there are so many software documentation types, even the most experienced technical writers are prone to mixing up the main purpose or the audience they’re addressing.
For that reason, you first need to highlight the purpose of your document. A simple tip is to open up a blank doc and type up its purpose as the title.
For instance, if you’re creating a document that conveys the expectations of the stakeholders to the software developers, the title could be something along the lines of: “The Vision for XYZ Software.”
Furthermore, highlight the audience of the document. Go one step further and create personas of the type of people who would read your technical content.
These may sound like trivial things to do, but they help.
2. Jot Down Important Questions
Creating a technical document that doesn’t address the pain points or answer the audience’s questions is pointless.
Once you’ve identified the goal and the audience for your technical document, the next step is to anticipate (or better yet, ask about) the questions the readers might have about the product.
This is where your personas will come in handy.
List down those FAQs somewhere. But don’t include them in your main document just yet.
The goal of identifying the questions is to collect your thoughts, design your document accordingly, and provide the most relevant information that delivers maximum value.
3. Outline Technical Documentation
Figuring out the outlining process is an essential aspect of writing software documentation.
That is why the next step is to develop an appropriate design for your document.
If you’re writing a particular type of document for the first time, you may need to prepare a structure from scratch.
There is no universal template for every type of software documentation as with everything else. The design and outline of your document will be based on the specific goals you want to accomplish and the comprehension level of your audience.
Here’s what it should include, in order:
- The title and the audience
- An executive summary of the document
- The problem statement and the scope
- The goal(s) of the document
- Requirements for the reader (if applicable)
- Instructions/Steps/Solutions/Findings/Code (whatever is applicable)
- A timeline (if applicable)
- References (if applicable)
You know your audience better than anyone. Include anything else in your outline that might help.
Structure the information in the most helpful way. You may need the assistance of a graphic designer.
You can then use the outline/design as a template for all future documents to maintain the consistency of communication and make minor improvements along the way.
If you’re looking for a more detailed process of writing technical writing documentation, check out our Technical Writing Certification Course.
4. Gather the Required Information
Depending on your level of familiarity with the subject, you may need to conduct some heavy researching to gather and validate all the relevant information for your document.
This may entail interviewing experts or users, talking to the stakeholders, going through existing documents, and conducting research over the internet.
Process the research data into usable information, compile it over your outline, and provide references wherever necessary to add credibility to your writing (if it applies).
5. Write Documentation Drafts
Now that you’ve laid a strong foundation for your technical document, all that’s left to do is to draft it.
If you’ve created a solid outline and gathered all the required information beforehand, the actual drafting process shouldn’t take very long.
Here are some quick writing tips:
- Don’t write more than you need to
- Wherever possible, avoid using jargon
- Use plain English to convey your thoughts
- Avoid being unambiguous
- Don’t edit while writing
While drafting, keep referring to the goal and the audience to stay on track.
6. Leverage Good Documentation Visuals
After you prepare your draft, you should include a few visuals (flowcharts, illustrations, screenshots, etc.) to augment your document.
If they’re available, you may also choose to add the graphics as you write the draft. Some writers even prefer adding them during the outlining phase. You’re free to do whatever feels correct based on your particular circumstances.
Technical writers can use these visuals to emphasize a point, further explain a technical concept, help the reader, and make your document look much better.
7. Perform Final Editing
We’re still not done yet.
The only thing left to do now is to edit your technical document.
Depending on your researching, formatting, and writing skills, it can take anywhere from a single to multiple rounds of edits to get the final document.
This entails having an editor (if available), a subject matter expert or just another pair of fresh eyes look at your document for any grammatical, technical, or contextual errors.
Final Note on Technical Documentation
The secret of good software documentation—whatever it may be—is comprehensive planning. Like any other form of technical writing, software documentation cannot be rushed.
Furthermore, it’s not always a one-person effort. It requires close collaboration with the relevant stakeholders, software developers, and other parties directly or indirectly involved with the project.
By following the best practices, touching all the pain points, and most importantly, staying within the scope, you can easily prepare excellent software documentation in no time.
If you are new to technical writing and are looking to break-in, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn the fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.