Well-written documentation increases the value of every software product.
It helps customers use the technology, reduces the number of tickets your support receives, and can even generate more sales.
However, describing all aspects of a product doesn’t automatically result in successful documents.
To provide your readers with actually helpful content, you have to know how to structure the information.
Finding an effective approach to writing documents will also help your team streamline the creation process.
In this article, we’ll show you the best practices for writing software documentation. With these tips, you’ll be able to develop helpful documents project after project, for everything from API documents to user guides.
Write Just Enough Documentation
The guiding principle in writing software documentation should be finding the golden mean between covering too much and too little information.
You can do that by following the Agile approach to documentation which consists of writing as little documents as possible for understanding, and in a collaborative manner. Let’s see how.
We’ll start from the fundamental Agile values, one of which is prioritizing working software over comprehensive documentation.
In spite of the prominence of this value, taking it too literally and creating no documentation at all would create a chaotic atmosphere for your developers and customers alike.
On the other hand, documenting every single aspect of your product would result in cluttered docs that are equally unhelpful.
This is quite similar to how writing more lines of code doesn’t necessarily result in better code.
Agile teams overcome the dilemma of too many and too few documents by documenting only what’s necessary, and not a line more.
To make sure you include the adequate amount of information, it’s best to also carefully decide when to create documents.
For instance, this Reddit user advocates documenting code during development rather than after. This strategy helps you focus on documenting the most relevant parts of the product.
Therefore, one of the best practices for creating software documentation is to write just enough, just in time.
You may now be wondering how the Agile approach to documentation works when there are several contributors to your software documents.
That’s a fair question; the lead developer and the technical writer may have different ideas of what information is crucial to include
Here’s the point where another Agile value comes into play, the one about prioritizing collaboration and interactions.
For instance, if you were writing API documentation for your product, a tech writer could think that the REST standards should be explained.
However, developers know that their peers—who are also the primary readers of API docs—don’t need clarification on such common concepts.
In the spirit of just enough documentation, it would be better to refrain from including it in order to keep the documents on the shorter side.
With Archbee, you can take a collaborative approach to writing software documents, just like Agile advises.
Different team members can use Archbee to comment on the documents while they’re still in the making to ensure the quality of content from all perspectives.
That way, you’ll create documents that are informative without wasting a line or a minute of your readers’ time.
To sum up, if you want to maximize the efficiency of your documents, you should ensure that they only contain the most relevant information.
The Agile principles of collaboration and prioritizing the actual product over documents can help you on the way there.
Standardize the Software Documentation
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in software documentation. Once you find a successful format formula, you should make it a standard for all your future documents.
To see an excellent example, we’ll take a look at Stripe’s API reference, a praised piece of software documentation.
As you can see, the documents have a three-part structure consisting of a table of contents on the left, an API description in the middle, and code samples and responses on the right.
You’ll notice the same structure in other popular API documents, which means that the readers respond well to it.
So, rather than coming up with an innovative format for documenting your software, it’s better to stick to a tried-and-true one.
By standardizing the way content is organized, you’ll provide your readers with a reliable resource they can easily navigate regardless of the topic.
The easiest way to standardize the content is with templates.
Templates, like the ones you can create in Archbee, can help you retain the consistency in content structure by providing the outline your technical writers can rely on.
Likewise, you can standardize the language throughout your documentation to boost consistency in writing and, ultimately, increase the readability of your content.
Technical writing style guides, like those created by Apple or Microsoft, are valuable tools for this.
Using style guides, especially those designed for technical writing, will ensure the uniformity of vocabulary.
That way, your readers will always know what you’re referring to—no more confusing users by switching between the words feature and functionality when talking about one thing.
Moreover, style guides often provide helpful suggestions for standardizing code documenting.
For instance, the Apple style guide that we’ve mentioned above suggests using different fonts for different purposes.
Having clear instructions and best practices in place will help your team generate standardized software documentation, even if multiple authors are included in the process.
Of course, you don’t have to follow ready-made templates or style guides. You can use these as a starting point or a direction for creating your own resources.
Either way, the more time you invest into setting up the standardized processes for recording information, the less time you’ll have to spend on polishing the documents retroactively.
Use Visual Aids
Whether you’re creating your software documentation for marketing purposes or to answer users’ questions, there’s one best practice you have to implement: using visual aids.
We can see an excellent example of visuals in software documents in the user guide designed by Vizury, a customer engagement platform.
Rather than describing all the ways Vizury can help you reach customers, the document authors have created a simple graph showing the most popular channels.
That’s a convenient, engaging, and effective way to convey the message.
Still, you shouldn’t insert visual aids for the sake of it. Instead, each visual you include in your documents should serve a purpose and provide value to the reader.
That’s why the type of visual aids to use depends on the type of your document.
For instance, if you’re writing user-focused documents, such as product guides or manuals, it’s best to focus on educational aids in the form of instructional screenshots or tutorials.
In the image above, you can see how Slack enriches its help center instructions with relevant screenshots that tell the readers exactly what to do.
However, if your documents are intended for more advanced users, you’ll have to adjust your approach to visual aids.
Say you were writing API documents. In that case, you probably wouldn’t have to incorporate step-by-step screenshots about installing your product.
Instead, you could use visual aids to offer a more approachable overview of high-level concepts needed for understanding your product.
Apple does precisely that in the part of the API document about reducing the app memory use.
However, we do have a word of caution when it comes to using visual aids in software documentation.
To be helpful, your documents have to be accessible to all users. So, make sure not to bury the essential information in visual elements only.
If a visual element is the only way to communicate a message, it’s a good idea to include the alt text and make it readable with screen readers.
That way, no part of your user base is left behind.
Make Your Documentation Discoverable
Another best practice you should implement is to treat every page of your documents as page one.
In other words, each piece of your content should be informative and illustrative of your product as a whole because you never know what page the users will land on.
Most likely, that’s not going to be your carefully crafted homepage, seeing that only 35% of visitors land on the homepage.
There’s even a content strategy principle based on that piece of information.
“Every page is page one,” the principle developed by technical writer Mark Baker, urges the authors of technical content to polish each element of their documents as if it were the first one the reader sees.
Think about it—users rarely browse software documents for fun. Instead, they usually look up specific elements of the solution to solve a problem.
So, regardless of what page of your docs comes up as the first result, it has to look great and provide helpful information.
Documents designed like that will encourage users to keep reading further, showing them the quality of your product.
You can boost the visibility of your documents by actively optimizing them for search engines.
One of the ways you can make your docs SEO-friendly is by separating the content into smaller pages, as advised by Taylor Krusen, documentation developer at Dropbox.
That approach will make your content more discoverable to both search engines and human users.
Remember, software documentation is only helpful if users can find information without digging for it.
Therefore, SEO optimization is a valuable investment because it ensures that your documents appear in the results when users type their questions.
If you want to learn more about increasing the visibility of your software documents, this guide created by Read the Docs could be helpful.
The guide was specifically designed with technical documentation in mind, so you can find relevant tips on organizing code, images, URLs, and other document elements related to describing software.
Once you polish each individual document of your knowledge base and optimize the docs for SEO, you’ll be able to relax knowing that whatever page your users land on will successfully display the quality of your product and all its aspects.
Update Documentation Based on End-User Feedback
The process of creating software documentation shouldn’t end with clicking the publish button.
To maximize the value of your docs, you should keep updating them based on the feedback you receive from end-users.
From how you advertise the product to how you handle customer service, end-user feedback tells you what you’re doing right and what you could improve.
The same goes for documents because, in software products, documentation is as important as the product itself.
The most direct way to obtain feedback on your documents is by placing a feedback section at the end of each document.
You’ll get more actionable input if you also ask users to leave additional comments in addition to clicking stars or smiley faces.
Here’s how Twilio, a communication API company, does that.
By asking users exactly what they think of specific documents, you’ll be able to upgrade your knowledge base and make it more informative for all future users.
Also, improving your documentation based on the feedback from your users shouldn’t be considered an additional chore, seeing that each new version of your product already warrants documentation updates.
And if you’re already updating the documentation to match the newest version, why not also address the issues raised in the comments you’ve received.
Although internal documentation usability testing is a helpful method for polishing your documents before the release, nothing can replace the feedback from real end-users.
So, bear in mind that writing software documentation is an iterative process, and you’ll be able to improve the state of your documents with each update, increasing their usefulness.
Writing effective software documentation may be a demanding challenge, but it’s not impossible—especially with these best practices in writing software documentation we’ve laid out.
Of course, you’ll probably have to tweak the practices to fit with your product and the documentation processes you already have in place.
Still, we hope we’ve provided you with a basis for designing documents your writers will love creating, and your users will love reading.