Software Documentation Challenges to Overcome

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Claudiu
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This article will discuss the challenges you need to overcome when creating and maintaining software documentation.

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Creating and maintaining software documentation can be a daunting task.

And that’s not surprising if you consider that we’re talking about a resource that should have all the information about a software product, be accessible to an audience with a wide range of preexisting knowledge, and always be relevant.

Therefore, software documentation comes with its own challenges that you need to overcome if you want to provide a valuable resource.

Let’s take a look at what those challenges are and what you can do to conquer them.

Maintaining a Consistent Style

Content consistency is one of the challenges you need to overcome to have software documentation of the highest quality.

Companies and brands are increasingly aware of the importance of providing a uniform experience to users.

A consistent style makes your brand recognizable on the market but also provides your users with a sense of security—they know they can expect a certain level of quality from a brand and have no reason to look for other products.

Nicola Evans, a product content strategist with a lot of experience in dealing with customers, sums it up like this:

Illustration: Archbee / Data: GatherContent

A crucial part of that consistent experience is your software documentation.

It isn’t unusual to have, for example, technical writers, developers, the QA team, and the sales team all working together and creating documentation.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, you can probably already see the challenge: how to maintain a consistent documentation style if multiple people contribute to the documentation, each in their own way?

The answer is to create a style guide.

A style guide provides rules and guidelines for creating documentation.

No matter how many people contribute to your documentation, with a style guide, they can all know what terminology to use, what voice and tone to aim for, how to format the content, etc.

Many companies have their own style guides, so let’s look at one example.

Mailchimp’s style guide is a comprehensive resource. Below, you can see what categories it covers.

Source: Mailchimp

One of the defining elements of the Mailchimp team’s writing style is their voice and tone.

As they establish in their style guide, they use a conversational voice and simple language to be as understandable as possible to their readers.

We understand the world our customers are living in: one muddled by hyperbolic language, upsells, and over-promises. We strip all that away and value clarity above all.

And they apply that across all of their documentation.

For instance, below is a part of their guide for creating email marketing campaigns.

Source: Mailchimp

Phrases like “don’t sweat it” and “a lot on your plate” fit perfectly with their laid-back and conversational tone.

Providing your customers with consistency across all of your documentation will help you build a solid user base of people who know what they can get from you.

More importantly, they’ll stay with you because you fulfill their expectations.

Eliminating Obstacles to Collaboration

As we’ve mentioned earlier, software documentation is usually created by multiple people working together to make a helpful and comprehensive information resource.

However, that brings us to another challenge for teams to overcome.

The people doing their part and contributing to creating software documentation shouldn’t work in isolation.

Teamwork is essential to creating high-quality documentation. Contributors should have a way to communicate and collaborate on documents to achieve their common goal efficiently.

That way, they can help each other with issues, bounce ideas off each other, and know at every moment what the others are working on and how.

Those are all integral to the creation of consistent and helpful documentation.

And that’s not just our opinion. Research by Zippia indicates that about 75% of employees consider teamwork and collaboration very important.

Illustration: Archbee / Data: Zippia

So, how can you facilitate collaboration in working on software documentation?

One of the most efficient ways is to have a documentation tool that allows team members synchronous and asynchronous communication.

For example, many documentation tools allow integrations with other software tools for communication.

That’s the case with Archbee, our own documentation solution, and Slack, one of the most popular communication software tools.

If your team already uses Slack, you can integrate it with Archbee and get many useful collaboration features like authenticating using Slack accounts, getting notifications when someone works on documents, etc.

Source: Slack

Connecting software tools like that efficiently improves collaboration and makes the entire team more productive.

There is data that supports that. McKinsey researched the role of technology in manufacturing and found that digital collaboration tools have the potential to unlock a lot of additional value.

According to their figures, better collaboration can boost productivity by 20 to 30%.

Illustration: Archbee / Data: McKinsey

It goes without saying that manufacturing and creating software documentation are two very different fields, but teamwork is the foundation of success in both of them.

When people can efficiently work together, the results can be outstanding.

Therefore, eliminating any obstacles to collaboration should be one of your priorities.

Establishing Proper Version Control

Software documentation is never in its final form. As the software product changes and evolves, its documentation should also reflect those changes.

That means that the software documentation you have today most likely isn’t the same as the one you had a month ago, not to mention a year ago.

Some changes will be more significant than others, but the point remains the same—documentation goes through many versions and tracking them all can be a real challenge.

That’s why you need to establish good version control.

Here’s how the University of Glasgow explains what version control is:

Illustration: Archbee / Data: University of Glasgow

At this point, you might be wondering why you would even want control over different versions of your documentation. Isn’t the most recent version the only one that matters?

That would be true if humans were flawless machines who never made mistakes. However, we’re not, and having control over earlier versions of documentation can be valuable.

Version control allows you to see which changes were made, who made them, and when. Then, if there’s a need for it, you can restore the earlier version of the document.

To have proper version control, you need a documentation tool that allows you to do all that we’ve described.

For instance, Archbee allows you to see the history of document edits. Every change someone makes to a document is automatically saved, and that makes one version of that document.

Source: Archbee

On the left-hand side of the screen, you can see a list of revisions, who made them, and when.

Also, there’s an option to pick any revision on the list and revert the document to that version.

But the version control feature isn’t only for restoring older iterations of documents. You can also provide your users with multiple versions of the document at the same time.

Let’s say you’re working on a new version of a developer guide.

In that case, you can present the original version and the new version in your documentation so that both the customers who have updated to the latest product version and those who didn’t do it yet have the guide they need.

Source: Archbee

Tracking something so dynamic and prone to changes as software documentation is undoubtedly a challenge.

Luckily, with the right documentation tool, you can stay on top of every change and establish version control.

Maintaining the Software Documentation

As we’ve mentioned earlier, your software documentation should keep up with your software product.

That means that, as the product changes, so should the documentation. Software products change often—they get new features, old features are removed, the interface is redesigned, etc.

If the documentation doesn’t reflect those changes and your user can’t find any information about them, they’ll soon stop considering your resources as relevant and useful.

In other words, your documentation won’t have a purpose anymore.

In order to avoid that scenario, you need to maintain your documentation, however challenging that may be.

And it can be quite challenging. For example, according to data from Storemaven, the top apps are essentially in a state of perpetual change; they get updates every nine days or less.

Illustration: Archbee / Data: Storemaven

That means keeping a tight discipline when it comes to maintaining documentation if the writers don’t want it to become outdated.

But it isn’t only the question of how frequently the product changes—it’s the complexity of those changes, too.

As the software product evolves, it usually becomes more complex over time.

And as Piotr Zaniewski, a seasoned software developer, points out, increasingly complex products require increasingly complex documentation.

Illustration: Archbee / Data: ITNEXT

So, how to ensure that documentation is regularly maintained and stays relevant for the product users?

One of the solutions is to create a schedule for software updates.

The schedule will allow creators of software documentation to see when the company will release the update so they can prepare the documentation in time and release it very soon after the product is updated.

For example, Apple keeps a schedule of security updates for all of its products and operating systems.

Source: Apple

It’s a simple table with a software name and a link, a product for which the software is available, and a software update’s release date.

For example, as you can see in the screenshot above, watchOS 9.3.1. was scheduled to release on February 13, 2023.

Therefore, Apple’s documentation creators had that information and were able to make the relevant documentation for the upcoming release.

Source: Apple

If your software documentation team knows when an update should be released, you give them an opportunity to create a quality resource, and your documentation is constantly up to date.

Ensuring the Security of Documentation

Software documentation can contain sensitive information that can be compromised if proper security measures aren’t in place.

First, if you have software documentation that’s not meant for the public eye, you should take security measures to prevent unauthorized access, data theft, or any other type of intrusion into the company assets.

According to data from the Ponemon Institute, 62% of organizations had an overall encryption plan or strategy in 2022. In comparison, in the year before, only 50% of organizations had such a plan.

Illustration: Archbee / Data: Ponemon Institute

That spike of 12% in only one year is significant and indicates that many companies take security measures seriously.

When it comes to documentation, many documentation tools have password authentication, access controls, role-based access, and other measures to keep your confidential information safe from prying eyes.

However, your internal documentation isn’t the only thing you should protect.

Users of your software documentation are, for the most part, the users of your software product.

That means you have the personal information they provided when they signed up for your product.

Protecting that information can be crucial for the future of your organization.

And you shouldn’t take that task lightly.

Even the biggest companies aren’t immune to data breaches and leaks.

For example, in 2021, the data of 500 million LinkedIn users was posted for sale on one hacker forum.

Source: Cybernews

Eventually, that number was even bigger, as the data from more than 700 million users was leaked.

That included their full names, addresses, phone numbers, work-related data, etc.

In short, hackers had everything they needed for phishing attacks, spamming, and brute-forcing email and LinkedIn passwords if they wanted to.

LinkedIn bounced back from that incident, but most smaller companies would most likely suffer significant problems like:

  • Reputation damage
  • Costs of damage control
  • PR costs
  • Reimbursing the damages to users

Ensuring the security of your documentation means ensuring that your company and your users are both protected from potentially severe incidents.

You should use every tool at your disposal to create an environment free from danger.

Conclusion

Managing a resource as comprehensive and complex as software documentation is undoubtedly challenging.

However, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

If you acknowledge the hurdles that are in your path of successfully handling software documentation, you can avoid many problems.

We hope that with the knowledge from this article, you’ll be able to do that and provide your readers with great software documentation.

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