Developers have no problem slinging hundreds of lines of code every day, but when it comes to writing a few hundred words about their code, they get stuck. That blank page can be intimidating, even for savvy experts who enjoy writing.

Technical docs are a “source of truth” for an organization. They can be referenced for decision-making purposes, customer support, brainstorming and ideation, and providing general-purpose information to the broader organization.

What is technical documentation?

Technical documentation is a term that describes the collection of text, images, and other assets that help humans understand software code, configurations, data flows, and more. It can be as simple as a single document containing a few sentences.

Why write technical documentation?

In the world of software development, it’s important to write technical documentation for two main reasons:

  1. Software is complex and difficult to manipulate. Onboarding new team members to a code base is a laborious process, and documentation is the best mitigation. Fixing bugs without any documentation substantially increases the risk of forgetting the context of the fix.
  2. Humans have limited memory and cognition. The complexity of software makes it difficult to remember what code was written for what purpose and why it was implemented in a particular way. Developers who have to return to their own code are unlikely to be able to jump right in, especially if it’s been several months since they last touched it.

Technical documentation examples

There’s an endless variety of technical documentation: project briefs, process flow diagrams, mind maps, requirements documents, wiring diagrams, best practice documents, and plenty more. Software engineers write and consume all of these documents and more.

·  Project briefs help devs know what they’re building, how long they have to complete the project, who’s the customer or user, or recipient of the code, who’s in charge of the effort.

·  Best practice documents help articulate and codify the expected behaviors of a developer on a team. The bigger the dev team, the greater the coordination required.

·  Process flow diagrams, mind maps, and wiring diagrams visualize processes and interactions. Process flow diagrams describe interactions between API endpoints and end users; mind maps show the relationships between ideas and terminology; wiring diagrams show pin layouts, connector specifications, and other details to demonstrate interactions between two physically-connected systems.

·   Requirements documents lay out the minimal specifications for a project to be successfully completed. Requirements often change over time, so these docs are essentially references as sources of truth for what needs to be accomplished.

The benefits of technical documentation templates

Because the term “technical documentation” is so broad and diverse, providing technical documentation templates can be especially helpful. Instead of staring at a blank document and asking, “Okay… what now?” a developer can start with a template that guides them through the documentation process.

Templates can vary from mad-lib style “fill in the blanks” to long, thorough outlines that ensure documentation requirements are fully met. Beyond helping individuals write documentation, templates can also ensure standards and best practices are being followed.

Top technical documentation templates resources

The need for thorough and timely documentation has led to a variety of high-value tools and articles hitting the market. Here are some of the best ways to get started with technical documentation and templates.

Swimm

Swimm’s Continuous Documentation platform is designed to help developers produce code-coupled documentation that lives right inside the code repository.

Swimm has a bank of templates to help developers get a jump start on writing docs. Each template offers a step-by-step guide to creating a doc on a topic of your choice. With these documentation templates, it takes just a few minutes to get your doc written, cutting out the potential of being plagued by the dreaded empty screen.

Swimm currently has six code documentation templates:

  • How to Add a New User Configuration Value
  • Adding an Instance of Component
  • Testing Overview
  • Dev Environment Setup
  • Adding a new CLI Company in {Project Name}
  • Incident Report

Each template has a list of questions and specific instructions to guide you through the creation of a doc. Here is an example of one such template for adding a new user configuration value.

Swimm is developing new templates, so stay tuned for upcoming ones. Swimm has documentation-related articles and resources on the Swimm blog, as well as technical docs about Swimm’s code-coupled documentation platform.

The Documentation Compendium

The Documentation Compendium is an open source project on GitHub providing “templates & tips on writing high-quality documentation that people want to read.”

This worthwhile project:

  • Explains why documentation is important
  • Addresses best practices
  • Provides links to links to templates, writing guides, and other valuable resources
  • Recommends free README editing and review services
  • Allows contributions

Overall, it’s an excellent resource for getting started with documentation and understanding what makes a worthwhile documentation effort.

The Good Docs Project

The Good Docs Project is another open source project on GitHub providing “best-practice templates to help build documentation for open-source software, which incidentally is directly applicable to other domains too.”

Their templates are split into three categories:

  • Concept: “Describes how and why something works.”
  • Task: “Gives specific instructions about how to get something done.”
  • Reference: “Contains structured information or specifications that users need to make a product work.”

They have helpful templates for API docs, tutorials, log pipelines, and more.

Document360

Document360 is a knowledge base platform for producing and consuming documents. They have an article called “How to Create Technical Documentation with Examples” showing how technical docs are used for APIs, maintenance, user experience, and system administration.

Their guide provides illustrations from various projects, including many of their own, alongside a breakdown of why each example is effective. The projects and advice cover the following:

  • Technical documentation in the software development life cycle (SDLC)
  • Product documentation
  • Establishing credibility
  • Audience, topical research, and knowledge capture
  • Reviewing and collaborating on technical content
  • Publishing do’s and don’ts

Awesome Read the Docs project

The open source Awesome Read the Docs project on GitHub provides a “curated list of awesome documentation projects, useful to learn from and for bootstrapping new documentation projects.” It’s a worthwhile project not only because of the documentation examples provided but because they are working to “inspire people writing documentation, developing new documentation projects, or updating existing ones.”

What’s most interesting about this project is that they provide technical documentation “outside of the traditional field of software documentation.” They provide a thorough list of Sphinx-, API-, science-based projects, and some example projects. Read the Docs has separate websites for non-profit and for-profit businesses.

Who reads technical documentation?

Tech docs don’t exist for the sake of existing. They are critical assets for many people who have a stake in the success of a technical effort.

  • A product manager may read technical documentation about specific implementation details of a feature to understand the implications of future feature ideas.
  • A network administrator might read technical documentation to know how to best configure a firewall to handle scaling needs for an application.
  • A salesperson may need to know whether a product meet’s a potential customer’s security and compliance requirements.
  • Computers can be recipients of technical documentation for cases like autonomous infrastructure and dynamically-provisioned APIs.
  • An end user may read technical documentation to understand how a product or service works and can be used to solve a problem.

Create low-maintenance documentation with Swimm

Developers may be tempted to look at technical docs as a distraction from writing code, a necessary evil or a chore, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Technical documentation is an essential part of a high-performance product team. Docs provide self-service help to people who need answers about their organization’s work.

Teams should consider using templates for consistent document structure and formatting, simplifying the work of the documentation writer, reducing and preventing rework and reinvention, and reducing errors.

Swimm is fully-dedicated to helping developers and technologists create low-maintenance technical documentation. We have seen continuous integration transform the lives of product teams and believe documentation is the next frontier. This is why we’ve built an entire ecosystem that plugs directly into CI/CD pipelines and helps developers with their docs.

You can get started for free today by signing up for free.