What Is Technical Documentation, And How Do You Create It?
Updated 6 September 2022
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Several industries use technical documents to describe their processes or how their products work. These easy-to-read guides can help consumers and internal teams learn about particular products or systems. If you are interested in a career in technical writing, knowing what technical documents are and how to write them can help you better understand the role. In this article, we define technical documentation and its categories, discuss its importance, describe typical audiences and industries that use such documents and provide steps on how to create one.
What Is Technical Documentation?
Technical documentation refers to documents explaining the purpose, functionalities, uses or architecture of any product, service or process in a written format that is easy to understand. Typically, organisations hire technical writers to create technical documents, but, if you are a project manager, developer or subject matter expert, you may write them for the processes or projects that are typical of your role.
Technical documents can be of various types depending on the product and audience, but all typically have one common feature. They describe an organisational offering clearly and in as much detail as possible. Some examples of technical documents include user guides, installation manuals, brochures, press releases, advertisements, handbooks, process reviews, business plans, proposals, newsletters, presentations and reports.
Related: What Does A Technical Writer Do? (With Job Skills)
Why Are Technical Documents Important?
Technical documents are important because they provide the necessary written information about processes and products to whoever requires it. This may include end users of a product or internal teams in an organisation. For end users, getting essential information about how to use a product can help them understand all its features without assistance. When end users can set up and use a product or service accurately, it can reduce or eliminate the need for a customer support team. This can be cost-effective for companies.
Internal teams may benefit from written documents to help them carry out tasks more efficiently. For example, accurate documentation on the steps of a software development lifecycle can allow developers to build a product with fewer defects. This may enable the company to release it sooner and increase client satisfaction.
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Industries That Create Technical Documents
Here are some of the industries and the types of technical documents they create:
Software: In the software industry, technical documents typically include installation guides, user guides, licence agreements and troubleshooting guides for software that the company sells to businesses or consumers. Internal technical documents may include guides for the development and testing teams.
Machinery: Many industries such as construction, energy, agriculture and mining use a variety of heavy machinery, such as turbines, cranes, excavators and trenchers. These machines typically come with technical documents such as user manuals, safety instructions, parts replacement guides and warranties.
Automotive: The car industry typically creates documents for end users detailing the car's features, safety requirements, parts, insurance and basic troubleshooting tips. They may also have internal technical documents outlining different manufacturing processes.
Healthcare: The healthcare industry may use technical documents for medicines, diseases, medical devices and procedures. Medicines typically have pamphlets or brochures while medical devices and procedures may require documentation about uses, safety and regulations.
Consumer products: Companies that serve consumer packaged goods typically have product documents for the end user in the form of how-to guides, troubleshooting tips, tutorials, installation guides and walkthroughs. Such documentation is available for almost all consumer products including daily-use items, electronics and recreational goods.
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The Typical Audience For Technical Documents
Technical documents can be useful for both end users and customers. End users in the consumer goods sector are typically the people who buy the final product from a retail store. An example of a consumer end-user document might be a guide on how to operate a smart television. End users within the company can be the teams who work on creating the product, such as the manufacturing team, the development team and the testing team. An example of such a document might feature use cases for testing cosmetic defects in a software program's user interface.
Technical documents can also help provide information about processes, policies and services to a company's various stakeholders. For example, a business proposal for new product development is a technical document that investors, customers and board members can peruse. Going through the written proposal can help them to evaluate the risks and gains associated with the potential release of the product.
Categories Of Technical Documents
The main categories of technical documents are:
Process documents are typically internal and provide information to internal team members or clients of an organisation. These documents typically include every task of a process from the beginning to the end. An example of a process is the renewal of a contract for software development. In this case, the document might begin with a proposal of the contract detailing resources, time and cost. It may then proceed to include the development plan for the software, the testing process and delivery methods. Each of these tasks can have sub-tasks that detail the step-by-step requirements of the entire process.
Related: What Is Software Development? A Complete Guide
User documents typically contain how-to guides for consumer products. Usually, these come in the box of the product that the end user purchases. For example, if a user purchases a new laptop, they may find a user manual describing the laptop's various features and a troubleshooting guide. Manufacturers may also make these documents available online instead of providing them in the box.
Another type of user document might be a set of written instructions for someone working in the same domain. For example, a database administrator may troubleshoot a defect in the system using a new approach. They can document this approach and store it in the company's internal knowledge base so that if another admin encounters a similar defect in the future, they can easily refer to the troubleshooting steps created previously.
Related: The Difference Between Consumer Vs Customer (With FAQ)
How To Create A Technical Document
Here are the steps you can follow to create a technical document that has all the essential information, is easy to follow and is helpful to the target audience:
1. Create a plan
You can start by finding out who the audience is, what resources are already available, who you can interview for more information and what language to use. Once you have this basic information on the requirements of the document, you can create a plan. This may include an outline of the topics and the sub-topics, style guides, tools and software that you can use to create and deliver the final document.
2. Design the structure
Most companies have templates for their technical documents that can help you with the structure of your design. If you are creating a template, you can structure the document in a way that it is easy for the user to navigate and quickly find the information they are looking for. For example, if it is a printed document, you can design the structure to include relevant subheadings with appropriate page numbers and notes. If it is an online document, hyperlinking the table of contents can provide ease of navigation.
3. Write the content
When creating the content, you can start with a draft with the information you gathered in step one. If you require more information, you can reach out to the subject matter experts after your initial draft. You can also ask your peers to review the draft before you proceed to write the final version. While writing the document, it can help to use accessible language that everyone can understand, regardless of their background.
Related: 4 Types Of Writing Styles And 12 Tips For Improving Yours
4. Test the document
Once you complete the document, you can invite members from other teams to test it and provide feedback. If they can understand everything clearly and navigate with ease, your document is a success. After their feedback, you may test it yourself to check for broken links, accessibility, safety issues, explanation of key topics, choice of words and grammatical accuracy. If you are translating the document into multiple languages, you can ask a language expert to ensure that it looks relevant and useful to users in every language.
Related: Accessibility Testing Tools (Definition, Types And Examples)
5. Perform periodic updates on the document
Most products go through periodic updates, and some products such as software applications release new versions more frequently than others. These new versions often have additional features or discard older features. A technical document for such products typically also requires updates with every new release. When creating a technical document, you can create a maintenance and update plan for it that matches the upgrade frequency of the main product.
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