Software User Documentation Best Practices

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If you’re reading this article, then there is a good chance you’re thinking about whether or not you have the best documentation practices for your software application. The fact that you need this article tells me that you are interested in becoming better. And that’s amazing. Everyone should strive to be as good as they can be at what they do, and that includes anyone in charge of writing user documentation for their software user interface.

With the increasing demand for a user-centric software, documentation plays a major role in designing an interactive, user-friendly, and engaging interface. This article will give you invaluable tips and tricks to help you create better documentation for your product.

You’re a seasoned technical writer who’s just been assigned to write up an installation guide for your company’s new software product. You don’t want to do a half-assed job, but it seems that the software product is badly lacking in any documentation. How can this be fixed? This could be one of the circumstances where dms software and documentation best practices are critical to achieving success.

You can’t avoid it; every software company out there puts out documentation for their products. They shouldn’t but they do it anyway. Whether we realize it or not, as end users, we’ve been trained to accept poor product documentation as normal. We should be able to expect formal, in-depth documentation for any business software that we buy. As practitioners or observers of the software industry, we should hold the software development and retail industries to a higher bar when it comes to the quality of their product documentation.

What is User Documentation?

User documentation (aka user manuals, instruction manuals, etc.) is the content you supply for end-users to help them get the most out of your product or service.

Here’s an example of end-user documentation you’ve probably seen (and perhaps spent an afternoon reckoning with) before:

Ikea furniture user documentation

(Source)

User documentation guides your customers, helping them to use your product properly while also assisting them with any difficulties that arise.

User manuals can be delivered in a variety of formats. In the case of IKEA furniture, it’s an illustrated guide, but instructional documentation can be provided through other mediums such as video guides, digital text, images, or a combination of many forms of media.

No matter if your product is a lawnmower or a piece of accounting software, there’s always a learning curve for new users. Your user documentation helps users through the initial learning phase and teaches them to be more successful with your product.

It Enhances Your Customer Experience

Great user documentation shows your customers that you really care about them getting the most out of your product. And customers who feel that you care about them beyond just profits are likely to become advocates for your brand.

So, if you like the idea of users shouting to the high heavens about how much they love your products, then supplying remarkable user documentation is an essential part of the customer experience. 

Not only that but after putting so much effort into your product or service, it’s a shame to let users not get the best from it or run into issues they can’t solve. By enhancing their post-purchase experience you’ll help them to reap the full benefits of your offering.

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Tips For Writing Better User Documentation

Okay, so you’re ready to start writing better user documentation. Let’s jump in and find out how:

1. Start With A Plan

Most things in life work out better when you start with a plan and creating user documentation is no different. That’s why it’s important to begin by asking a number of key questions:

  • What is the goal of my user documentation?
  • What do my users need to know to get the best out of my product or service?
  • What are the most common problems my users face and the best ways to solve them?
  • What’s the best way to structure my content for ease of understanding?
  • Where is the best place to make my user documentation available?


To help you come up with answers, here are three easy things you can do:

Take a walk in your customer’s shoes

Make an effort to test your product in every possible scenario before jumping into creating user documentation. While testing, imagine that you’ve become your end-user. Note down any features or functions that you find tricky or complicated. You can bet your bottom dollar that if it’s tricky for you, then it’ll be tricky for your users too. 

Consult with your customer service team

Almost nobody will know your users better than your customer service team. They’re a goldmine of information that you can use to inform the content of your user documents. Listen to them and you’ll quickly discover common themes and problems that users are facing. The goal of your documentation should be to solve these problems.

Check out your competitor’s user documentation

If you’re drawing a blank about where to start, there’s nothing wrong with having a look at your competitor’s user documentation. If they’ve got a very similar product or service, chances are many of the questions that their users have will be the same ones your customers have. Just make sure you improve upon your competitor’s documentation to deliver the best experience for your customers.

2. Write in Plain Language

When it comes to user documentation, fancy words and elaborate sentences don’t impress anybody. Nothing will enrage your users more than having to continuously re-read your documentation to understand what you’re trying to say. 

Remember: the goal with user documentation is to clearly communicate the solutions your users are seeking – not win a literary prize. So, always strive to write for the user, not the technician.

However, writing in layman’s terms can actually be a little harder than you think – since you know your product inside-out, it’s easy to overestimate the average user’s base level of knowledge.

So, avoid using overly technical or industry jargon that’ll go right over a user’s head and always assume that the person reading your documentation is a total beginner. 

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You can use a tool like the Hemmingway App to assess your writing and help you make comprehension easier. It’s almost like having a virtual editor.

Using Hemingway to simplify user documentation language

3. Use Visuals to Speed Up Understanding

As humans, we’re a visually-oriented bunch. In fact, up to 90% of information transmitted to our brain is visual.

If you’re like most people, wading through large blocks of digital text without any visual relief makes you miserable. Given that our brains process images 60,000 times faster than words, we just don’t have the patience for long drawn-out sections of text.

Visual content is way easier to understand, faster to absorb, and plays a huge role in helping users understand how to perform certain tasks. It’s also more fun to develop.

The best user documentation makes liberal use of visual content such as images, graphics, and videos to quickly show users how to solve their problems. Use a free design tool like Canva or Venngage to make simple graphics and illustrations to enhance learning and break up text for maximum engagement.

4. Break Complex Tasks Into Simple Steps

When you combine using visuals with breaking down tasks into simple step-by-step instructions, you create a powerful medium to solve problems for your users. 

Step-by-step guides help break up daunting blocks of text and provide a crystal clear method of accomplishing a certain task. They’re incredibly easy to understand and provide a better user experience than trying to read text instructions on their own.

Screengrabs can be particularly helpful for showing users how to go through a series of precise steps. LICEcap is a free application that lets you record your on-screen actions and save them as GIFs for clearly showing users how to undertake a given task.

Notepad GIF

Take your time when recording gifs – while an action might only take you 2-3s, it’s easier for people to follow if you go through the process slowly.

5. Follow a Hierarchy That Makes Sense

Great user documentation needs a logical hierarchy of topics and sub-topics that let users quickly discover what each section will teach them. What’s more, when the flow between these topics mirror the users learning process, you’re onto a winner.

For example, you don’t want new users to land on a page discussing the advanced features of your product if they haven’t yet mastered the basics. So, begin with the easy stuff, and then as your users become more competent you can guide them toward the cutting-edge functions.

Wealthbar makes it easy for users to find the information they need

Wealthbar has done an excellent job of categorizing their self-service help center with unique icons that help users quickly and easily find the page they’re looking for.

6. Make It Searchable

When you have a problem these days, where do you look for an answer? Most of us turn to Google. There’s just something so frictionless about a search.

But alas, Google can’t answer everything. Especially when it comes to the finer details of your product. So why not take a hint from Google and make your user documentation searchable too?

Search-enabled user documentation gives users rapid access to the content they need and helps them to seek out solutions on their own without contacting your support reps.

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7. Include a Table of Contents 

There’s nothing worse than being lost in a document and being unable to find out where you need to go. The solution is a table of contents.

A table of contents appears right at the start of your document – which not only gives your user an overview of everything that’s coming, but also helps them easily navigate to the section they’re interested in.

A screenshot of Estimate Rocket quickstart guide web page

Life’s too short to spend flicking back and forth through a document – make sure you don’t waste any of your user’s precious time and let them see all the major headings and sub-headings right from the off.

8. Test, Analyse & Reiterate

It’s rare to hit a home run with your first user documentation. But thankfully, there are lots of ways you can analyze their performance and tweak them until they’re just right.

One method is to create an online survey and send it to beta-testers. Their feedback will be extremely valuable for discovering any oversights you made while writing your documents.

You can also dive deeper with in-depth analytics. These stats will help you learn how users are interacting with your documents by providing information such as: 

  • What your users are searching for most often
  • How many support tickets you’re preventing
  • Which pages users are spending the most time on

A screenshot of Helpjuice analytics

Wrapping Up

Writing excellent user documentation makes your user’s life easier. It helps them have the best product experience while also reducing the amount of work your support team’s workload.

The best user documentation is clear, to the point, visually appealing, and most importantly, an answer to your user’s problems.

Sure, creating great user docs isn’t the easiest thing in the world. But with a little effort and the right resources, you can produce user documentation that knocks the socks off your audience.

Conclusion

The software world is full of innovation and future. It is growing rapidly than ever for software users. People who are working in this industry may dream of a better tomorrow. We can say that dreams come true with the passage of time and development in technology. Over my career as a software developer and technical writer, I’ve read a lot of software design documents. Sometimes they’ve been complete, and sometimes they haven’t. Successful software development begins with communicating your ideas. By using the right methods, you can write a solid design document and engage your team in the writing process to ensure buy-in and comprehension of the product you’re building.

If you’re new to writing interactive documentation, take a look at our Interactive Documentation FAQ for more information about what this term means. Welcome to the world of engaged software users. It can be a bit intimidating if you haven’t been here before. But the tools for creating and sharing your documentation are at your fingertips. You just need to know how to use them.

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