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Technical Documentation: What It Is and How to Do It Well

Have you ever felt puzzled by a confusing error message, found yourself navigating a new software program with difficulty, or wished for a simple guide to understand the instructions for your latest gadget? If you have, then you’ve experienced the world of technical documentation, and it can be frustrating.

Technical documentation refers to comprehensive written guides and materials that explain the design, development, and usage of a system, software, or product, facilitating understanding, troubleshooting, and maintenance for users, developers, and other stakeholders.

Why is this important? Whether you’re someone who knows your way around technology, a homeowner figuring things out, or someone who is just trying to keep up with the digital world, clear technical documentation is crucial for your success. It gives you the tools to understand new technologies, solve issues with confidence, and make the most out of the products and processes you encounter.

In this article, you will explore the various types of technical documentation, delve into their diverse applications, and learn some essential tips for crafting your own clear and user-friendly technical guides.

What Is Technical Documentation

Technical documentation serves as the bridge between complex systems and the people who interact with them. It’s a vast umbrella term that covers any written material that explains the functionality, use, and inner workings of a product, service, or process. Technical documentation is written by technical writers in collaboration with subject matter experts (SMEs), and it comes in various forms:

  • Project documentation: This type of documentation consists of plans, specifications, and reports that track a project’s development, like software development lifecycle documents or engineering blueprints. It is usually meant for internal use of an organization’s teams.
  • Product documentation: This type of documentation is aimed at the end user, offering guides, tutorials, and FAQs that explain how to operate and troubleshoot a product, such as user manuals for smartphones or software help files.
  • Process documentation: This type of documentation outlines standardized procedures for internal operations, like quality control checklists or training materials for new employees.

The quality of technical documentation can greatly affect the user experience and productivity, irrespective of whether these users are your external customers or internal employees. Here are a few other reasons why you should focus on creating good technical documentation:

  • Empowers users and developers: Clear instructions enable users to maximize product potential and equip developers with the knowledge to maintain and improve it.
  • Boosts efficiency and collaboration: Easily accessible documentation reduces time spent on explanations and enables seamless teamwork.
  • Documents internal knowledge: Documented decisions and processes build a historical record that is valuable for future reference and training.

How to Write Good Technical Documentation

Now that you understand what technical documentation is and why it’s important, it is time to learn some of the ways in which you can improve the quality of your technical documentation. This section will not go into the basics of how to write technical documentation but rather focus on some key tips you can use to improve the quality of your technical documentation.

Create an Easily Navigable Structure

The first thing any reader would notice when they come across your technical documentation is its structure. It is usually not possible for a reader to go through the entire documentation for a product or service to find what they are looking for, so having a structure that is easy to navigate and allows convenient searching of commonly used concepts or pages becomes very vital.

There are other benefits of keeping a simple, easily navigable structure for your technical documentation:

  • Reduced cognitive load: A well-organized document minimizes the mental effort users have to apply to search for information.
  • Improved findability: Clear headings, subheadings, and navigation elements direct users to specific sections quickly.
  • Enhanced scannability: Readers can easily skim the document to grasp its overall flow and identify relevant sections.
  • Increased engagement: Users are more likely to persist and complete tasks when they can find what they need easily.

Some changes you can make to your document’s structure to improve it include the following:

  • Clear table of contents: Provide a comprehensive overview of the document’s content and hierarchy.
  • Informative headings and subheadings: These act as anchors, guiding users to relevant sections.
  • Logical hierarchy: Information should be organized progressively, from general concepts to specific details.
  • Strategic use of formatting: Set in boldface key terms, use bullet points for lists, and use white space strategically to improve readability.
  • Integrated navigation elements: Use breadcrumbs, sidebars, and internal links to allow users to jump to different sections easily.

The Firebase documentation is a great example of a good structure that makes it possible to navigate through a huge knowledge base easily. The entire documentation for all products is first categorized based on the purpose of the services (ie app development, release and monitor, or engagement):

Highest-level divisions in the Firebase documentation

Then as you go into each category, you find detailed docs arranged based on the individual services and the platforms that they work on:

Lower-level divisions in the Firebase documentation

Without such a hierarchy, it is very difficult to find what you’re looking for when you’re working with one of the many Firebase services.

Make Sure It’s Accessible, Jargon-Free, and Easy to Understand

Technical documentation usually consists of information that is entirely new to its target audience. In such a case, it becomes all the more important to present the information in a way that allows readers to understand it easily. Excessive use of technical jargon and complex language can make it difficult for new readers to quickly read and grasp the concepts. Simple language can also assist experienced users in quickly finding information, and your team members have to answer fewer questions from the users.

Here are a few key points you can keep in mind to make your technical documentation simpler:

  • Use plain language: Avoid overly technical terms and opt for everyday equivalents. For example, replace utilize with use and parameterize with set.
  • Embrace active voice: It makes your writing more engaging and easier to follow. For example, instead of saying “The button is to be clicked,” say “Click the button.”
  • Define key terms: Introduce and explain technical terms the first time they appear. Consider using a glossary for quick reference.
  • Write concisely: Focus on essential information and avoid unnecessary details. Remember, less is often more.
  • Collect feedback from real users: Get feedback from people who represent your target audience. Their perspective highlights areas needing simplification.

Know Your Audience and Ensure the Documentation Has the Correct Level of Depth

Imagine explaining intricate financial strategies to someone unfamiliar with finance—it can be overwhelming. Similarly, in technical documentation, understanding your audience is essential. Customizing your content to your audience’s specific needs and knowledge level is crucial for creating clear and impactful documents. This approach enhances the quality and effectiveness of your writing, ensuring it resonates with the audience and serves its purpose effectively.

Tailoring the writing style and depth to your audience’s understanding prevents confusion and frustration. Beginners require more explanation and context, while experts appreciate conciseness and technical details. Providing the right level of detail saves users time and effort, allowing them to quickly find and apply relevant information.

To do this, you need to first know your audience. Start by defining user personas and creating profiles representing different user types. Then conduct surveys, interviews, or usability tests to understand their needs, expectations, and technical knowledge. You could also look at user support tickets, forum discussions, and app analytics for insights into the user challenges and information needs.

Once you have a clear idea of who your audience is, customize your technical documentation to their technical understanding. Here’s a quick list of tips to help you get started:

  • Beginners: For beginners, focus on basic principles, provide step-by-step instructions, and clearly define technical terms. Be generous with visuals like screenshots and diagrams to enhance understanding.
  • Intermediate users: For a more experienced audience, offer more detailed explanations, introduce relevant technical vocabulary, and provide troubleshooting guides for common issues.
  • Advanced users: If you’re aiming for an advanced user base, you can assume prior knowledge, delve into complex technical details, and offer reference materials for further exploration.

In some cases, it might be hard to put your audience in just one of these categories. The Twilio documentation is a great example of this case. Twilio’s users encompass all technical levels, so Twilio provides a detailed glossary of concepts while offering interactive tutorials and guides to help everyone get started at their preferred pace:

Twilio's documentation

The key is to know your users.

Include Examples, Visuals, and Interactive Elements

Technical documentation can often feel like a text-heavy slog, stranding readers in a sea of words. That’s where visuals, examples, and interactive elements become crucial. They aren’t just there for decoration; they’re powerful tools that can turn your documentation from boring to interesting, making it easier for readers to understand and remember the information.

Visuals and interactivity in technical documentation can help in catering to different lifestyles. As not everyone learns best by reading, visuals, like diagrams, screenshots, and videos, can explain complex concepts more intuitively, appealing to visual learners. More often than not, a wall of text can be intimidating.

Integrating visuals creates interesting breaks, making the document more scannable and engaging. Interactive elements like quizzes, simulations, and clickable tutorials allow readers to experiment and learn by doing, solidifying their understanding. Therefore, you should consider using visuals, examples, and interactive elements in your technical documents.

However, you must also remember not to overdo it. Always make sure that your visuals and interactive elements directly relate to the content and enhance understanding. Invest in high-resolution images and clear diagrams. Blurry or poorly designed visuals can hinder comprehension. When working with visuals, ensure all of them have alt text for screen readers and consider color contrast for visual impairments. Remember, interactive elements should engage, not overwhelm. Always balance their complexity with the target audience’s skills.

The Stripe documentation is one of the best examples of using interactive and visual elements to the fullest while not overdoing it. For instance, their Quickstart page on Stripe-hosted payments features a follow-along tutorial with interactive code blocks and preview windows to help you visualize what your integration’s final result will look like right on the documentation page itself:

Stripe docs

Building such documentation requires great effort, but it pays as well. The key is to understand how your document can benefit from visual and interactive elements and make use of them effectively.

Periodically Update the Documentation

Creating technical documentation isn’t a write-it-once-and-forget-it task. The technology landscape, processes, and user expectations change quickly. To keep your documentation valuable and effective, it requires regular updates.

Outdated information in technical documents leads to confusion, frustration, and wasted time for users. Updating ensures that users have the right instructions and procedures at their fingertips. Additionally, new features, bug fixes, and changes in workflows need to be reflected in the documentation for users to stay on top of things. Also, regular updates demonstrate your commitment to maintaining high-quality resources and building trust and credibility with users.

To make sure you’re updating your technical documentation effectively, here are a few tips you can follow:

  • Establish a schedule: Set a regular review and update cycle based on the pace of change in your product or process.
  • Use version control: Implement a system to track changes and maintain previous versions for reference.
  • Seek user feedback: Actively look for feedback from users about outdated information or areas needing clarification.
  • Apply small, focused updates: Break down updates into manageable chunks, addressing specific changes rather than rewriting the entire document.


Clear technical documentation gives your users the tools to understand your technology, solve issues with confidence, and make the most out of the products and processes they encounter.

This article covered what technical documentation is, its various types, and its practical use cases. You also learned handy tips on how to create effective technical documentation.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, check out websites like the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and the Microsoft Writing Style Guide for detailed guidelines and best practices around technical documentation and communication. Books such as The Art of Technical Documentation by Katherine Haramundanis l and Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry by Sun Technical Publications offer more in-depth insights. These resources can help you continue to refine your skills in creating user-friendly and effective technical documentation.

Kumar Harsh

By Kumar Harsh

Kumar Harsh is an indie software developer and devrel enthusiast. He is a spirited writer who puts together content around popular web technologies like Serverless and JavaScript.