What is technical documentation?
Technical documentation provides information about a certain technology like a software application, hardware system, or an API. It specifies important details related to the technology’s underlying architecture, components, and process. Those reading technical documentation refer to it to work with the technology, integrate with it, or build on top of it.
Technical documentation can describe the API routes and endpoints developers can access, or it can explain the SDK’s integrations, dependencies, and libraries. Software engineers often reference technical documentation when writing code. Programming languages and frameworks also have their own technical documentation providing key information for developers.
We’ll describe 9 types of technical documentation and show examples of highly effective technical documents created by the world’s leading organizations.
This is part of a series of articles about software documentation
The purpose of technical documentation
Technical documentation offers users, developers, and other parties information about technical decisions related to a software product. It typically explains how to use a software product, how to solve common problems, and how to integrate with or build on top of the technology.
Explain the technology to different users
Users can refer back to the technical documentation when they need to clarify aspects related to the technology. However, not all users need to refer to the same information. You can create different documentation for end users, administrators, developers, support teams, and other audiences, providing each reader with the most relevant information. For example, you can create a quick start for end users, and a detailed design document for onboarding new engineers.
Support developers in their work with the product
Developers can greatly benefit from technical documentation when they are building a custom integration and need to learn more about your software. Anyone integrating their product or service with your software requires access to your detailed technical documentation.
Always consider your audience when writing technical documentation. Determine what your audience needs from the documentation, how they might use the information, and tailor the documentation to their needs.
Technical documentation examples
Here are examples of highly effective documentation – from end user documentation to API, SDK, and Requests for Proposal (RFP).
1. User guides
A user guide is a highly popular form of user documentation explaining how a certain product works to end-users. User guides strive to help users get their desired results quickly and efficiently. For example, a user guide can help end-users troubleshoot common problems, explaining solutions in simple terms and providing visual demonstrations to ensure beginners understand the information.
A great example of user documentation is the documentation for the professional version of Gmail, as part of the Google Workspace Learning Center.
2. Quick start guide
A quick start guide (QSG) assists users in quickly setting up and starting to use the software. Unlike user manuals, QSGs are very short and provide only the most relevant information required to start using the product. Quick start guides help improve clarity and understanding and improve the customer experience.
Below is the opening page of the PDF quick start guide for Microsoft Word. Click here to download the PDF guide.
3. API documentation
API documentation instructs users on integrating a certain product API, explaining how to use the API and its functions. It also includes all changes or updates to the API.
The image below shows the Stripe API documentation, which clearly organizes API reference materials, and provides useful links to developer quick start guides and resources for non-coders.
4. SDK documentation
A software development kit (SDK) contains instructions, resources, and tools to help build applications for a certain device. Companies provide SDK documentation to help install and use the product.
The image below shows Loom’s SDK documentation, which includes two SDK categories: embedSDK and recordSDK. The documentation provides instructions and code for both SDK categories and a separate section for troubleshooting and resolving installation queries.
5. Walkthrough documentation
Walkthrough documentation is a highly focused tour through the codebase intended to help the user grasp a certain pattern and understand it quickly. It moves from landmark to landmark, pointing out recurring patterns or describing interactions between blocks of code.
The image below illustrates walkthrough documentation that explains how to add a new command-line interface (CLI) command. It walks the reader through various areas of the code related to the pattern of adding a command to the CLI.
This high-level document offers nuanced insight on a certain subject, explaining the appropriate ways to use a product. Unlike other technical documentation, a whitepaper is presented similarly to a research paper rather than a technical guide.
The image below shows a whitepaper by Qualtrics, which introduces a complex industry topic and suggests different ways users can use the product for an omnichannel customer experience.
Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs) documentations include information that most (or all) users request. FAQs typically explain subjects that do not require technical support, covering topics you can explain in one or two paragraphs.
FAQ pages help improve the customer experience, providing clear information that helps customers make certain purchasing decisions. A FAQ can reduce the time customer support teams spend answering basic questions and increase your visibility on search engines.
Here is Etsy’s FAQ page, which allows the user to search for answers, and presents the most common questions about shopping on the eCommerce platform or selling products on it.
8. Project plans
Project plans docs define a project’s objectives and goals, providing a map to help achieve them. This document defines each step to complete a certain task or deliver a product. You can use project plans to stay focused on your project’s overall goals and set deadlines for tracking your progress.
Below is an example of a Gantt chart, which is often the core component of a complex project plan.
9. RFPs and proposals
A request for proposal (RFP) document announces and describes a new project in an attempt to solicit bids. A proposal document attempts to persuade investors or customers to buy a product or service. Organizations use RFPs and proposals to attract business partners such as customers, vendors, and investors. Both documents typically mention key points, including the project’s overview, scope, and goals, and the company’s background.
Below is an example of the opening page of an RFP for an electronic health records (EHR) software system. See this and other examples provided by Template Lab.
Related content: Read our guide to software documentation examples (coming soon).
Technical documentation management with Swimm
Swimm is a knowledge management tool for code. The most common complaints about internal documentation in software organizations is that it’s hard to keep it up to date and also hard to find it when it’s needed.
Swimm allows developers to create in-depth documents about their code by adding code snippets, diagrams and paths. Swimm then keeps these documents up-to-date with every code change. Swimm’s IDE plugins then help developers to find the documentation next to the code that it relates to.
Learn more about Swimm here