The Ultimate Guide to Writing Stellar Software Documentation

what is software documentation types and why you need it

Developers put all their might into creating the best software product, keeping users’ problems and preferences in mind. 

But one important thing that’s often overlooked is documentation. This can be the root cause of users discarding a software product and switching to something that’s easier to understand and use. 

After all, what’s the point of using a product that makes users tear out their hair in fistfuls and get no value in the end? 

No matter the amount of hard work that went into coding, if the software doesn’t come with a document or if you didn’t do justice to the documentation, it’s highly likely that users will eventually switch to software that offers a better experience. 

Software documentation is a critical part of software development that must not be missed at any cost. 

Learn how to write software documentation with online documentation software and much more in this blog.

What is Software Documentation

“What is software documentation?” is a popular search query on Google as for some people, it is still a confusing concept. 

Business Dictionary defines software documentation as – “Comprehensive information on the capabilities, design details, features, and limitations of a system or application software.”

Software documentation is a type of technical document that explains the development of software and its features, along with how it works and its various use cases. The document covers everything related to a software product, right from its development process to how it can actually be used. So basically, it comprises the entire Software Development Lifecycle, more commonly known as SDLC.

It is created with the primary goal of helping developers and end-users work with the software and solve any problems that they face along the way. 

Software documentation is an umbrella term that includes – 

  • Product Documentation
  • Process Documentation

Slide to the next section to learn about them in detail. 

Types of Software Documentation

Software documentation is mainly of two types, as mentioned above – Product Documentation and Process Documentation, which can be further broken down. Let’s take a look.

1. Product Documentation

As the name suggests, an online product document explains the product in its entirety and how it can be used to achieve specific goals. Its principal objective is to provide users with instant answers to any questions they have regarding the product. 

It can further be divided into – 

A. System Documentation

This document focuses on the underlying technology of the product. It includes design, maintenance, limitations, source code, architecture, and other such aspects of a software product. 

System documentation is of great help when there are updates in a software product, and these updates are to be carried out by a different team – not the one who created the product in the first place. This new team can have difficulty in understanding the basics of the software which can impact the updates they make. 

With system documentation in place, the new team of developers can get familiar with all essential details of the software and make the updates with minimum hassles.

B. User Documentation

This documentation is created mainly for end-users of a software product. It includes how-to guides, installation instructions, troubleshooting steps, video tutorials, among other information resources that can familiarize users with the product and help them solve problems on their own. 

Read More: How to Create the Perfect SaaS Product Documentation

2. Process Documentation

It documents the entire process that takes place while working on the software product, right from ideation to completion and everything in between. Process documentation also includes product development plans, progress reports, coding and design standards followed by your company, and all essential information that forms a part of the development process. 

Developers can use the document to stay updated with the software development process and modify the content as soon as there are any changes in the software.  

Read More: How to Create Process Documentation

Importance of Software Documentation

Building software documentation has more than one benefit. While it makes end-users independent problem solvers, it allows developers to keep track of the development process and much more. 

  • It facilitates seamless knowledge transfer about a software’s development process, use cases, and much more to all developers in the team. 
  • New developers can get familiar with the software and its development simply by referring to the documentation. This ensures that their learning curve is short and they get up to speed quickly.  
  • Tracking the process of software development, making updates, and identifying gaps get a lot easier with documentation. 
  • It helps end-users understand the software, install and configure it and troubleshoot issues on their own. 

These are some of the substantial benefits that can be reaped by writing a good software document. Let’s now learn the basics of writing software documentation

How to Create Software Documentation

Writing software documentation requires in-depth knowledge of the software lifecycle. The process can be challenging and exhausting since it involves a lot of writing, analyzing, and updating from time to time. Following the below-given steps will make the process simpler. 

1. Determine Your Target Audience

Before beginning with the writing process, have a broader perspective and identify who your target audience is. Software documentation is of different types, so the process can confuse writers if they aren’t aware of your ultimate goal and target audience. 

That’s why setting an objective and defining the audience is essential. 

So, for example, if your audience is developers, make it clear to the team that the document is strictly for internal use. This will set a strong foundation for the course they take during the content creation process. On the contrary, if the document is aimed at end-users, the course of writing the content would be very different. 

In this exercise, make sure that you: 

  • Define the audience properly. 
  • Identify the pain points of the user and communicate the same to your team of writers. 
  • Determine the content delivery format. Whether you want the document to be in the form of a wiki, FAQ, user manual, or comprehensive documentation. 
  • Learn about your audience and give your team all the necessary information to create content that’s in alignment with the users’ needs. 

2. Craft a Content Strategy

Writing software documentation is undoubtedly a lengthy process. Regardless of how simple or complex the product is, documentation must cover every aspect of the software and its development. 

Without a conscious approach and a practical strategy, the process can go haywire, leading to poor execution. 

Therefore it’s essential to do your analysis right and create a strategy to guide the efforts of your writing team. It will help you manage the time and effort that goes into documentation, determine the track of work, and speed up execution. 

Besides, a powerful strategy aligned with your audience’s needs ensures that there is minimum confusion and maximum efficiency.  

3. Choose a Template

First things first, you need to have a ready software documentation template with a proper framework, a table of contents, and predefined sections and subsections to get you started on the right foot. With a template, the first few steps are to add your logo, brand name and customize the template however you like. Once you are done, start filling the template with content. 

Ready to use free software documentation template

4. It’s Time to Write

Once you have a template, the next step is to write content, which is super simple. Modern documentation tools come with rich editing functionalities that make the writing process a piece of cake. With an array of editing, styling, and formatting options, it is easy to add the line and page breaks, embed media, change alignment, and much more just with a few clicks.

Also, if, by any chance, you have content in Word docs, PDF, or PPTs, you can import it directly to your software documentation. Writing the same content all over again will be taxing, so this works well if you have useful content stored in different files.

5. Harness the Power of Visuals

Software document doesn’t have to be all dull and drab. No matter the technicalities, you can still make it engaging and interesting with the right punch of visuals. 

A text-only document has a bleak probability of users reading it beyond a certain point. As human beings, we tend to get attracted to colorful images and engaging videos to understand concepts. They are short and easy to grasp. But, that doesn’t mean you should avoid text altogether. 

The idea is to have a judicious mix of images, videos, screenshots, and text. Some articles might require more text, while others that explain a process will need to have screenshots and videos. So, try to evaluate how you can leverage multimedia effectively in your software documentation.

Import video and pdf content in software documentation

6. Tailor The Document to Suit Your Brand and Audience

Stitch your online documentation in a way that it blends with your brand and, at the same time, serves your users. 

You can add your firm’s logo and brand name, use colors, themes, and designs that look professional and minimalistic. Give your document a unique appearance that aligns with your brand and also connects with your audience. 

Watch this video to find out more about how you can design your document.

Another important aspect of the documentation is its language. Whether the document is for your developers or users, it should be created in their native language. While it is not possible to write software documentation in multiple languages, you can allow readers to translate it into their preferred language. 

ProProfs offers 90+ language support that covers the major languages spoken across the globe, allowing quick translation in the native language of your audience.

Edit, modify and add your brand logo in your knowledge base

7. Bring Software Experts Under One Roof

Software documentation requires the concerted effort of all experts to build content that’s audience-specific. The tech team has people working at different levels, and each has a certain level of expertise and experience. This knowledge can be leveraged to create documentation that is accurate and relevant. 

While this collaborative approach to bringing experts from the development, engineering, and support team together speeds up work, it also evenly distributes the workload. 

The best documentation tools offer features that help in role assignment and permissions management. As a master administrator, you can add as many people as you want to the writing team and assign each of them a specific role – contributor, editor, or administrator. These roles define the scope of work of each individual and group.

Manage-roles-in-Sales-Documentation

8. QC the Document for Errors

To steer clear of errors, a regular quality check of software documentation is paramount. If content goes without experts reviewing it for flaws, consequences are bound to follow.

Keeping an eye on content quality is easy when all articles go through a strict review process before going live. Writers can assign each article they work on status, depending on its stage. While an article under progress can be set as – In Progress, and those that are completed can be called – Ready for Review. 

These are basically workflows that automate the task of content management and infuse transparency in the review process.

Set Workflow of your software documentation

9. Focus on the User Experience

User experience is a crucial factor that determines the success or failure of software documentation. Especially if the target audience is end-users, special attention should be given to how your documentation looks and feels. 

Is it easy for users to get what they need? Is it easy to navigate through the detailed document? Is the search function working properly? 

Test the documentation to learn about the UX elements, including search, structure, and design, and make improvements to enhance its performance.

Honestly, getting the written information right is just half the battle won. To win the other half, ensure that: 

  • Information architecture, i.e., the document’s structure is on point 
  • The search function is powerful enough to deliver accurate results 
  • The document is visually rich and appealing 
  • Navigation is painless and directs readers smoothly to the desired destination in the document 
  • It is easy for users to access the document through a device and browser of their choice

Read More: How You Can Improve Your SaaS Product Experience

10. Don’t Forget to Improve and Update

Writing software documentation is a never-ending process. Continuous iteration based on new features and users’ experience is essential to turn the document into an evergreen piece that delivers the most accurate information today, tomorrow, and beyond. 

Understand that the document’s ultimate purpose is to inform and make problem-solving easier both for developers and end-users. That is possible when your tech team works to the best of their abilities and keeps reviewing, rewriting, and improving the content. 

With the right documentation software, you can get access to built-in analytics around how the content is performing. From which articles are the most viewed to which articles are the most disliked, you can explore and work upon a world of insights.

Best Practices to Take Your Documentation From Average to Excellent

The steps listed above will surely help you craft the right content the right way. But if you want to take the document one level up, here’s what you should do: 

  • Keep updating the document in case of any change in code or product features. 
  • Identify what’s working and what’s not with your target audience and accordingly make changes to the document. 
  • Keep the tone consistent and clear throughout the document
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs
  • Explain technical concepts and jargon using tooltips, and popups
  • Provide a guided tour of your product with the help of lightboxes
  • Top up the content with visuals
  • Use bullet points wherever you can. It’s a great way to keep users hooked to the document. 
  • Make the document comprehensive and ensure that you don’t miss out on even the most basic details. 

All Set to Write a Software document

The first step in creating software documentation is identifying your requirements and who your target audience is. Whether you want it for your developers, or is it the end-users you are focusing on? Then zero in on the kind of software document you should create. 

While creating, follow the steps and software documentation best practices mentioned above. Create a content strategy, make the most of visuals, set up a strong review process, and keep updating the document every once in a while. 

Watch this Video for more details on creating a software documentation –

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About the author

Brayn is a knowledge management expert. He has been published in CustomerThink, PointVisible and Apruve. As a customer support specialist at ProProfs, Brayn has been instrumental in building a robust knowledge base and documents that help support executives keep every customer delighted. You can catch up with Brayn on Twitter and LinkedIn.