Challenges of software documentation and how to master them

Working with software is nothing unusual in this day and age. There are hardly any professions that can manage without a multitude of digital assistants for communication, organisation, management, design, configuration, control or monitoring purposes.

Although software is a practical tool, expert software in particular requires users to absorb large amounts of information, as they have to learn many concepts and processes first before they can work reliably and efficiently with a piece of software. It is no surprise then that there is an unrelenting need for good software documentation in the form of manuals, online help guides, tutorials or e-learning tools. This need will continue to rise along with the increasing digitalisation of the working world.

So what is so special about professional software documentation? What challenges are companies that produce documentation-intensive software being faced with?

A wide range of topics in software documentation

A typical feature of software documentation is the variety of topics and target groups. This is best explained using the following example: take for instance an IT company that is offering software to control production processes. What does the documentation need to cover?

Firstly, there are the users of the software. In our example, users cannot only use the software to control processes, but also – and most importantly – design the process logic, meaning we already have two very different user groups: system operators and project developers.

In addition, software administrators make up a third target group, and because this software can also be programmed via an API, there exists a fourth group of software developers.

Each of these target groups completes various different tasks with the help of the software. Each target group has its own information requirements, which must be considered in the documentation as a whole.

Typical challenges of software documentation

This is the classic initial situation that arises for every software project and software company regarding documentation. There are also a few other challenges:

Let’s go back to the content of the documentation. Whether just one version of software or several versions need to be documented at the same time makes a big difference to the documentation. An additional level of complexity arises if the software can be configured according to customer requirements, and the technical writing team does not know specifically which performance package the users are working with when creating the documentation. The translation requirements are also an important factor.

Another typical challenge for software documentation lies in the authoring process. Many companies nowadays are developing software using agile methods. This is certainly a good decision, but the documentation requirements must also be considered systematically in the agile process design. Only then is it guaranteed that the documentation will be available to the customer at roughly the same time as the software.

Whatever the circumstances, one thing companies have to face is ever changing user expectations regarding support measures. For software users in the professional environment in particular, the digital acquisition of information is standard today: they want to find detailed information relating to the problem quickly and easily. Purely document-related approaches where the details are hidden in PDF manuals hundreds of pages long systematically ignore these requirements. The need for concentrated knowledge that can be used immediately is also reflected in the increasing relevance of instruction videos. It comes as no surprise then that more and more software suppliers are beginning to prepare concept knowledge or simple processes as moving images.

A system for achieving goals

As a software company, what is the best way to deal with this myriad of requirements? It is important not to start from just anywhere, but instead to control the further development of the documentation in a targeted manner. If you are faced with this particular challenge, you should take the following three points into consideration in your optimisation strategy.

Target group-oriented media concept

Which information media and channels do you wish to make available to your customers? And which content do you wish to or need to communicate? If we go back to our example once more, the media concept for the software company could be as follows:

Only content that must be available in printable format for legal reasons is supplied as a PDF. A modern, browser-based help guide in HTML5 format is the main information source for the system operator and software developer target group. Videos can also be displayed in addition to traditional text and images and information structures can be optimally designed using modern presentation methods. The contents have a modular structure and are indexed intelligently, so users have direct access to specific content.

In addition to the help guide, there is also a web-based knowledge base that users can access via an internet browser. The knowledge base is optimised based on answers to specific issues and consists of help content and additional aids such as FAQs provided by the support team.

With the exception of PDF files, all media can be automatically updated. This ensures that the main information sources (HTML5 and knowledge base in our example) are always up to date.

Suitable processes

Who creates what information within the company? How are development and authoring interlinked productively with one another? What standards apply to text, graphics and moving images? How must information be indexed?

These are all questions relating to the authoring process. The more channels you have defined in your media concept, the more important it is that the work processes run smoothly.

Professional tool environment

A modern component content management system is an indispensable aid in this context. With a CMS as an organisational tool, the required channels can be flexibly supplied with content from a single data source. A number of different team members can also be involved in the authoring process, from technical writers and project managers through to technical experts and reviewers.

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