Good docs provide 24/7 support, facilitate onboarding, and enable knowledge transfer
Engage docs early, use real-world examples, and develop style guides
Treat docs as a living resource with continuous user feedback and contributions
I have come to appreciate the advantages of creating comprehensive and well-structured documentation. Not only does it provide valuable information to users, but it also offers a range of benefits that extend beyond the initial purpose of the documentation itself.
Technical documentation plays a pivotal yet often overlooked role in the software development lifecycle. It acts as a repository of team knowledge, a reference guide, and a silent mentor to users navigating your product's functionality.
"Focus your thinking on the business value that documentation provides, such as improving product adoption, deflecting support cases, and increasing the value of existing engineering work." - Write The Docs
At its core, documentation is about enabling a smooth developer experience. Robust docs allow developers to orient themselves in a new codebase quickly, find answers to integration questions, and reference implementation guides on the fly.
Well-written docs minimize frustration when developers inevitably get stuck debugging issues at 2 am. They empower developers to deliver features faster by making tribal knowledge readily accessible. For developers, great documentation acts like a seasoned teammate who has their back through every development lifecycle stage.
That's why we must prioritize creating exceptional documentation to facilitate developer productivity and preserve institutional knowledge.
In this article, I will delve into the multilayered benefits of crafting documentation that is both comprehensive and well-structured, and I will also share some best practices to ensure that your documentation not only meets the needs of your users but also creates lasting value.
Why High-Quality Documentation Matters
Delivers 24/7 Self-Service Support
Like having an omnipresent help desk, good documentation enables users to self-serve information to resolve issues independently. You can deflect support tickets and minimize inquiries by providing context-specific troubleshooting guides and FAQs tailored to user needs. This lightens the burden on support staff, allowing them to focus their efforts effectively.
Accelerates Onboarding for New Team Members
For greenhorns, technical documentation serves as a blueprint for navigating through unfamiliar territory. By mapping out key processes, APIs, code conventions, and best practices, you can help new hires climb the learning curve faster. The easier you make it for new recruits to find their footing, the quicker they become productive team players.
Preserves Team Knowledge
Hard-won insights can be lost in the tech domain when team members transition out. Robust documentation captures this intricate knowledge accumulated through years of experience. This prevents reinvention of the wheel and loss of information, ensuring continuity even after personnel changes.
Best Practices for Impactful Documentation
Start Early, Evolve Often
When documentation is an afterthought, inaccuracies creep in. The most seamless docs treat writing as an integral part of the development cycle. Starting early allows sufficient time for creating, reviewing, and refining documentation. For example, Linode's (now Akamai) technical writing team contributes documentation from the initial stages of product development. They view docs as living document that evolves continually based on user feedback.
Speak Your Users' Language
"The really difficult task, in documenting code as in any other software interface, is determining what the user needs to know to succeed in their tasks." - Write The Docs
Stick to simple words and intuitive terminology your users are familiar with. Avoid ambiguous jargon and be clear about the prerequisites needed to understand the material. Define unfamiliar terms on the first usage. Adopt your users' vocabulary and perspective when writing documentation.
Turn Abstract Concepts into Concrete Examples
Humans grasp concepts better through examples. Replace generic placeholders like Foo, Bar, and ABC with realistic variables like customerName, orderTotal, or emailID that relate to your product domain. Illustrate through specific use cases and sample inputs/outputs to make abstract ideas tangible.
Implement a Consistent Writing Style
Maintain a cohesive voice and uniform style across your documentation. Define standards for tone, formatting, naming conventions, and language use in a style guide. This improves professionalism, enhances findability, and makes your documentation more readable.
Make Documentation Visible and Discoverable
Implement well-structured information architecture, automate as much as possible, and make finding and updating groups of related topics easy.
During implementation, developers frequently refer to the documentation. Ensure easy accessibility to reference docs from code via contextual help links. Highlight documentation to new employees during onboarding. Promote visibility through internal announcements and your developer portal.
Managing Documentation as a Dynamic Asset
Continuously Gather User Feedback
"It helps to talk to your users to find out, but you can’t expect them all to work the same way. And we have to be aware that our personal preferences don’t necessarily match those of our readers." - Write The Docs
Actively collect user inputs through surveys, interviews, and analysis of support tickets. Identify gaps and areas of improvement. Iterate based on this feedback to keep your documentation relevant.
Store Alongside Code for Easy Updates
"All code samples in docs are unit tested, we execute all library docstrings as unit tests, and we treat deprecation warnings as exceptions." - Erik Bernhardsson, Modal
Using docs-as-code tools allows you to store documentation alongside your codebase under version control. This connects docs to code and maintains accuracy as features evolve via changes to a single source of truth.
Empower Users to Contribute
"Docs as code brings tech writers and developers together through shared tools and workflows." - Nathan Melehan, Linode/Akamai
Leverage tools that allow collaborators to suggest edits, vote on proposals, or submit feedback directly on documentation pages. Recognize outstanding contributors to foster engagement.
Well-written documentation reduces customer support needs, enables self-service, and improves onboarding.
Start documentation early, use real-world examples, implement style guides, and make docs visible.
Continuously update documentation by soliciting user feedback and maintaining it alongside code.
High-quality technical documentation saves time and resources while providing immense value.
Creating exceptional documentation is a worthy investment that pays dividends across the product development lifecycle. The principles and best practices covered in this guide will help you maximize its value and establish documentation as an indispensable asset for your team.
So, invest the time and effort into crafting comprehensive and well-structured documentation, and reap the rewards it brings.