Technical Documentation – Types, Required Skills, Challenges
Technical Documentation in the Software Industry – Unlike different types of writing, the mantra of generating a technical document is reusability. Although the core context of content can be modified, the best technical document can be created by reusing or remodeling the material previously available. Technical documents vary with nature and the domain that you are writing for. But every company have their style guide and format you need to abide by. Though it is an arduous journey, the end result is worth it. Without wasting much time, let’s dive into these five steps to help build your technical document:
1. Go through the style guide and related documents: This is a very crucial step. For generating standard content, every company has its style guide. Style guide guides you through the framework of the content, roadmap to build a document, self-verification techniques, and grammatical rules that you should stick by. This is where the concept of reusability is applicable. You follow the basic outline and try to adapt the content likewise.
2. Adapt with the document generating tools: Learn to use the necessary tools you need to make a technical document – for instance, DITA, Sphinx, and many more.
3. Identify your domain: Identify the area that you are writing for or will write. Before documenting any product, make sure you have core knowledge of the product in and out. Spare some time to understand the functionality and objectives to be met. You can consult developers, quality engineers, engineering managers, product owners, head architects, and so on to get the guided overview.
4. Try it out for yourself: After you get a definite roadmap to accomplish your technical document, use the available version of the product. Remember, you will be guiding your customers with a detailed stepwise process they need to follow to get something done. For instance, if you are preparing a stepwise guide to install the product ABC. You should install the product ABC beforehand you start documenting the installation method.
5. Self-review and verification of the content: After preparing the document, do self-reviewing, which includes; checking the grammatical accuracy, validating the steps written, and sentences that generate false interpretation have to be done. You need to confirm the content of the document with your engineering managers or product owner before sending it out for the final review.
Important Skills for a Technical Writer
Here are some important traits to succeed as a technical writer;
- Technological Knowledge refers to the potential grasp of technology. Before you start writing, do your research. Do not worry if you do not understand everything, but keeping up with enough is highly important for delivering effective and meaningful information to your audience.
- The ability to write clearly is an absolute skill of any technical writer. Always try to understand then pass the information clearly and concisely. Do not worry if you commit mistakes while writing. Use tools such as; Grammarly or seek help from the SME (Subject-Matter Expert).
- Problem-solving or troubleshooting skill is basic yet fundamental. Many software documentations require problem-solving and troubleshooting skills. Hence, do not panic, instead, stay calm and try to find the solution.
- Getting along with a cross-functional team is vital while drafting a document. You need to stay updated about deadlines, product releases, and facts related to products.
- The ability to interact with SME (Subject Matter Experts) is crucial while you are working on a product. Communicating with SME will bring a holistic approach to your research document. SME’s can be your Engineering Manager, Product Owner, or Head Architect-someone who knows a subject better.
- Flexibility in terms of working overtime to continue with last-minute change or inefficient writing during product release is indispensable if you are a technical writer.
- The ability to represent complex ideas graphically is not a necessity but adds value if you work as a technical writer.
Don’t worry if you aren’t a good writer. Writing can never be perfect, there is always room for improvement. However, iterating a document is essential.
Subject Matter Expert in Technical Writing
Subject Matter Expert(SME) is the one who has command in a particular area or subject. In the software development industry, SMEs have a broader definition as one with a higher degree of technical expertise, particularly gained through experience and self-study.
In the technical writing industry, an SME is hired to teach, train, improve, approve, and guide fellow technical writers. SME understands a product and documentation from a holistic point of view. Manuals and release note is developed by a technical writer in conjunction with SME’s. After the completion of a first draft, an SME reviews it with feedbacks to be incorporated. Also, sometimes an SME is interviewed to extract and communicate suitable information to an audience. A technical writer also works with SME to help develop training material. Overall, an SME is required to authentically verify the technical accuracy and sign off a document. Hence, the involvement of SMEs is crucial during documentation.
Interestingly, there are many SMEs involved in documentation. Sometimes, technical SME’s are a software developer implementing the product and product features or even a quality assurance engineer. The product managers are known to be as the business SME. They know where the product lies. The role of an SME depends on the organizational structure. SME is the one who understands a subject but a technical writer bridges the gap between SME and audience. A technical writer is not an SME. However, a technical writer can be a Document Architect with years of experience.
Challenges Faced by a Documentation Team with Agile Scrum
The struggle of a documentation team with an agile scrum is a well-known unspoken fact. Involving a technical writer throughout the product delivery model becomes essential. However, technical writers are overlooked during product delivery and are bought at the forefront of product release.
Here are ten struggles listed, a technical writer encounters while working with a company that follows the agile model for product delivery;
- A technical writer needs to invest a lot of time rewriting the content for the same task. As a result, the output is less productive.
- While working with a cross-functional team, the requirement keeps changing. Sometimes it becomes difficult to match the pace with a cross-functional team. Aftermath, the situation is even more clumsy.
- Any meeting (regular meeting, planning meeting, or retrospective) is related to tasks accomplished, issues that popped up, and ways to solve them by a cross-functional team or product group. The context of the discussion is not much of use for a technical writer except for an important deadline or topics on product release.
- The content or input is given at the last moment or during the last week. Hence, collecting information is an arduous job.
- Before a product release, a technical writer does not have much to do.
- There is no detailed reference documentation available for a technical writer to understand the requirements.
- A technical writer can need a repetitive explanation for a particular case while the product team does not have much time.
- A technical writer works on a document for more than a month and the documentation process is randomly dismissed.
- The phase of document delivery is three-layered and sometimes four. Finding a middle ground during the conflict of interest among a product group for content written is a continuous and crucial process yet challenging.
- A technical writer takes sole responsibility for the delivery of content. Sometimes, false interpretation or forgetting to anonymize crucial information can make a company suffer.
Why Documents In-Progress are Randomly Dismissed or Terminated?
While a technical writer invests an ample amount of time for documenting a product, sometimes the documents in progress are either randomly dismissed or terminated. Below are the five reasons quoted by technical writers;
- Documents initiated without analyzing the impacts and requirements.
- Documents that need change over the period of time as it does not align with the business strategy and objective.
- Documents related to those projects that are no longer a priority for software companies.
- Documents that are not up to the mark or standard in terms of clarity, completeness, and conciseness. Also, known as Poor Documentation.
- Documents (for instance, manuals) that cannot be delivered within a deadline.
Hence, documents are the expensive efforts made by a technical writer to give a voice to a product. It is highly important to understand a product from its holistic viewpoint. Getting started with a document right away is not a necessity, rather invest in understanding the status of a product, and why change is required in the first place.