Greg DeVore

By: Greg DeVore on June 17th, 2015

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You Just Got Put In Charge of Your Product Documentation - Where to Start

Software Documentation Tips | Documentation Managers

Your boss just told you, “We need to do some product documentation. Can you look into that?” It documentation_managementcan seem like a simple task at first but quickly gets overwhelming. We speak with a lot of people who have just been given the task of recommending a documentation strategy for their product and they aren’t quite sure where to start. Hopefully this article will help you out a bit as you try to break the task down into manageable chunks.

Here are the questions you need to answer?


  1. What is your primary goal for improving your documentation?

  2. What documentation do you already have?

  3. Who is creating it?

  4. What tools are they using?

  5. How are you delivering your documentation to your customers?

Determine your goals


If you don’t know what your goals are then you will never know if you have been successful. You might think that you need to get these goals from your boss, but in our experience, many times your boss may not be clear on what your goals should be either. They just know that they want better documentation.

Here are a few goals you can choose from:


  1. Decrease customer support (the most popular goal we see)

  2. Improve customer onboarding

  3. Improve customer training

You will probably say, “I want to do all of those!” Well, you can’t - at least not at first. You need to start out with a single primary goal, tackle that and then address the next most important goal. Focusing on one goal will give you much better results than trying to do everything at once.

What documentation do you have?


Start to figure out what documentation you currently have. You may have content in Word files, user forums, videos, PowerPoint files, wikis, somewhere else? Don’t worry about collecting it all right now but make a list of where it all resides.

You also want to determine how effective it is right now. Is the documentation you currently have written effectively following best practices (see our Creating Docs that Rock articles)? If they aren’t, then it may be easier to start fresh with your documentation. That sounds crazy, but we have found that trying to rework documentation that isn’t written with an effective structure is often more difficult than rewriting the documentation from scratch.

Who is creating it?


Is anyone writing documentation right now? If so, who are they and why are they writing it? You may be able to leverage their help as you make this transition. They may also have some valuable insights into what is working and what isn’t.

What tools are they using?


You want to get an idea of what tools your team is using. You may find that everyone on your team is using a different set of tools. If this is the case then it will be difficult to make your documentation look professional and consistent. You don’t need to decide on a set of standard tools right now, but at least make a list of what tools are being used.

How are you delivering your documentation to your customers?


We have seen all sorts of ways to deliver documentation to your customers - PDF files, Word files, PowerPoint files, canned email responses, forums, and wikis. You need to align your delivery method with your primary goal. In the majority of cases you should be delivering your documentation through the web. In certain cases you may need to deliver your documentation as PDF files as well. Delivering documentation as Word or PowerPoint files is almost always a bad idea.

Once you have answered these questions you will have a good idea of where you are at. In a future article we will talk about next steps for moving forward.

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About Greg DeVore

CEO of ScreenSteps