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Mastering the Art of Product Documentation & Education

Clear and effective product documentation is critical for developers to understand and use software effectively. Without proper guidance, even the most innovative products can struggle to gain traction. Strong documentation is not only essential for product usage but also for user adoption. Broken links, outdated information, and a lack of clarity can leave a potential user frustrated and lost within seconds.

To shed light on how to make sure your product documentation is up to par, we at Draft.dev recently hosted a webinar titled “Mastering the Art of Product Documentation & Education” featuring Garrett Frohman, Founder of Mendable, and Randall Degges, Head of Developer Relations & Community at Snyk.

In this post, I will recap some key points and summarize their solutions to common product documentation challenges. I’ll also dive into practical approaches for addressing varying levels of expertise and ensuring your documentation remains a valuable resource throughout the developer journey.

The Key Ingredients of Effective Product Docs

Let’s face it, wading through walls of technical jargon and convoluted instructions is enough to send even the most patient developer running for the hills. To avoid this, it’s necessary to focus on the key ingredients for creating effective product documentation:

User-Centric Design and Communication

Your product’s website should be the first impression, and it needs to be clear and concise. Avoid technical jargon and marketing fluff. As Randall mentioned, 

“If you’re a developer… you have to be able to understand it, and all the enterprise buzz words… are just a distraction.”

A good example of this is AssemblyAI’s homepage - it immediately tells users what the product does in plain English. This simplicity helps developers understand the core value proposition without getting bogged down in details.


Aligned User Expectations & Intuitive Product Design

Your product should be intuitive and align with how developers already think about similar solutions. Heroku excels in this area. Their documentation assumes a basic understanding of web app deployment and fills in the knowledge gaps specific to their platform. 

Heroku Dev Center

By aligning with existing mental models, you reduce the learning curve for users, allowing them to quickly grasp the core functionality and get started with your product.

💡Explore more examples of outstanding product documentation.

Clear Organization and Navigation

Even with clear design and aligned user expectations, product docs won’t be successful if they’re not easy to navigate. Therefore, it’s essential to present information in a way that is simple, usable, and easily searchable.

Randall emphasized that the goal should be to provide the simplest possible explanation for users. Skip the fluff and get straight to the point. Simple documentation is easier to maintain, easier for users to understand, and makes it more searchable for AI language models like ChatGPT

Garrett added that it’s easy to get carried away when launching a new feature and you want to document everything in excruciating detail. However, people don’t understand your product like you do, which is why it’s so important to keep it digestible and user-friendly.

To improve the searchability of your product documentation, semantic search can be a valuable tool for large and complex documentation sites. This helps users find the information they need even if they don’t use the exact keywords.

Tailoring Your Documentation for Diverse Audiences

Another important aspect of product documentation is to make it understandable for all audiences, be it different technical levels, industries, or cultures. This means embracing strategies that prioritize clarity, inclusivity, and adaptability, ensuring your documentation speaks a language everyone can understand. To illustrate this point, Randall Degges shared that:

“People can always self-select into things. But at the end of the day, a topic is going to be interesting to people of all different levels of experience if you present it in the right way.”

Here are some key strategies to ensure your product documentation is generally clear and understandable to everyone:

  • Assume no prior knowledge. As Randall emphasized from his experience, it’s always best to start with the basics and build your content progressively. Don’t assume your audience has any existing knowledge about the topic.
  • Break down complexity. Even for advanced subjects, explain concepts in a clear and understandable way. Imagine you’re teaching someone completely new to the field.
  • Balance education with entertainment. Effective documentation should be both informative and engaging. People are more likely to retain information presented in a way that’s interesting and easy to follow.

Additionally, consider these advanced strategies to fine-tune your product documentation for specific audience segments:

  • Identify your user personas to represent the different types of users who will be referencing your documentation. This helps you understand their needs, experience level, and preferred learning styles.
  • Offer multiple content formats to cater to different learning preferences. This could include written tutorials, video demonstrations, or interactive code samples.
  • Use techniques like progressive disclosure to reveal more complex information only when users demonstrate a need for it. This can be achieved through collapsable sections, advanced topics placed later in the documentation, or links to deeper dives on specific subjects.

From a cultural perspective, Randall emphasized the significance of building a company culture that values diversity and inclusion, extending this ethos to the creation of documentation:

  • Unify your company narrative and vision. For instance, Snyk’s vision of “helping fix security problems for developers” guides their documentation style and content, maintaining a unified voice despite being produced by various contributors and thus, resonates with users across diverse backgrounds.
  • Embrace diverse voices and perspectives. Incorporating a wide range of voices and perspectives within the documentation team allows you to create documentation that connects with a broader audience.

How to Tackle Customer Feedback?

Randall offered valuable insight into the contrasting approaches for handling customer feedback in both small startups and larger enterprises. 

In a startup environment, developers often wear multiple hats, including building the product, writing documentation, and providing user support. This creates a close connection between developers and users, allowing for a highly responsive approach to feedback.

However, as a company scales, maintaining this one-on-one approach becomes impractical and unfeasible. Consequently, implementing a more strategic and data-driven approach becomes essential.

Garrett discussed how his team utilizes AI-powered search to analyze user queries within their documentation. By identifying frequently asked questions that lack corresponding documentation, they can prioritize content creation and ensure their documentation addresses user pain points.

How to Measure the Success of Your Product Docs?

Creating quality product documentation is an ongoing process, so you may be wondering what are the metrics to rely on when you continue building your docs. 

While page views offer some insight, they don’t tell the whole story. As Randall pointed out, high view counts might indicate user frustration rather than success. So let’s  explore more insightful metrics to evaluate your documentation’s impact:

  • Support Ticket Reduction: A decrease in support tickets related to topics covered in your documentation indicates users are finding the information they need independently.
  • Time to Value/Time to Success: How quickly are users able to achieve their desired outcomes after referencing your documentation? This can be measured through surveys or user testing. For example, Snyk prioritizes “time to fix” as a key metric. Their documentation is designed to expedite the process of users identifying and resolving security vulnerabilities within their code.
  • Engagement Metrics: Tools like analytics software can track user behavior within your documentation, revealing areas of confusion or frequent reference.

Maintaining and updating your product documentation throughout the product’s lifecycle is essential and one of the biggest challenges our speakers mentioned is the tendency to deprioritize documentation updates until problems arise. 

Smaller teams often face resource constraints that make dedicated documentation maintenance difficult. So, how can we navigate these challenges and ensure our documentation remains a valuable resource?

Build a Strong Foundation

  • Start drafting documentation well in advance of a new feature launch. This allows time for internal review, feedback from beta testers, and revisions based on real-world usage.
  • Facilitate close collaboration between product engineers and the documentation team. Ideally, engineers should be involved in the writing process to ensure technical accuracy and clarity. As Randall emphasized, “isolating the documentation team from product development leads to problematic situations like launching features without documentation or with unclear, technically inaccurate explanations”.

Use Feedback for Continous Improvement

  • Once your product has launched, customer feedback becomes one of the key areas to monitor. Implement systems for gathering user feedback on documentation. This could include simple “thumbs up/down” ratings, dedicated feedback forms, or even monitoring relevant channels like Stack Overflow or community forums.
  • Explore AI-powered tools that can assist with documentation tasks. This might involve automatic generation of documentation from code changes, or intelligent assistants that provide context-aware guidance to developers within their IDEs.

Finding the Right Tools

While the ideal toolkit for product documentation will vary depending on your specific needs and context, our speakers highlighted a few key tools and considerations:

  • Markdown Editors: Garrett shared that a good markdown editor is essential for efficient creation and editing of documentation content. Its simplicity and ease of use make it a popular choice for many teams.
  • Version Control and Collaboration Tools: Tools like the Github editor facilitate version control and collaboration, ensuring that documentation remains consistent and up-to-date.
  • Content Management Systems (CMS): For projects requiring more complex content management, consider exploring options like headless CMS platforms, which offer flexibility and customization.

Beyond specific tools, both speakers emphasized the importance of establishing clear guidelines and expectations around content maintenance. This includes determining the expected lifespan of different types of content (e.g., videos, blog posts) and establishing procedures for updating or archiving outdated materials.

A Glimpse Into the Future of Product Documentation

Integrating artificial intelligence into product documentation is a major turning point. It will change how users find, understand, and use technical information. 

One of the biggest impacts of AI is currently seen in search. Traditional keyword searches often fail to understand what users really want. AI-powered search engines, on the other hand, can analyze natural language and deliver relevant results, even if users don’t know the exact terms. As Garrett explained:

“More companies are using AI search tools within their documentation. This helps users find what they need faster. Imagine saying, ‘I want to do X, can you help me do that so I can achieve Y?’ and the AI points you to the right information.”

Looking ahead, AI has the potential to power intelligent assistants and guides within documentation. These AI companions could provide context-specific help, instantly answer user questions, and even suggest relevant information based on user behavior and past interactions. 

Secondly, AI has the potential to assist with the creation and maintenance of documentation, automating tasks such as generating routine content, updating documentation based on code changes, and ensuring consistency across different versions. As Garrett mentioned:

“AI might even eliminate the need for us to write or update documentation manually. Imagine it detecting code changes and automatically generating or updating documentation.”

In conclusion, the future of product documentation is deeply connected to the progress we’re seeing in AI. While we already benefit from AI-powered tools like intelligent search, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As AI technology continues to develop, we can expect a significant shift in how we create, manage, and interact with documentation, leading to experiences that are more dynamic, personalized, and user-focused. 

Want to dive deeper into the world of DevRel and Developer Marketing? Join our upcoming live webinars with Q&A sessions where we’ll be discussing similar topics with insights from industry leaders.

Annika Puura

By Annika Puura

Annika is an Operations Manager here at Draft. With a background in international business, finance, and education, she is fluent in Estonian, English, and Spanish. When not at work, she enjoys running, dancing, and doing HIIT workouts.