On April 20th, 2010, a massive explosion on BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and began the largest marine oil spill in history. Before the spill was over, 206 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately affecting wildlife and water-quality along hundreds of miles of Gulf coastline. According to BP’s Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, reasons leading to the accident were lack of good technical documentation and non-adherence to the documents that did exist.
Quality technical documentation plays a pivotal role in the success of any business, yet company executives, managers, engineers, and developers sometimes overlook the importance of creating good documentation. While catastrophic consequences like the Deepwater Horizon accident are fortunately rare, a lack of focus on technical writing can result in significant problems for your organization, including customer frustration, regulatory compliance failures, poor sales, high training costs, and much more.
Technical documentation refers to any document that explains the use, functionality, creation, or architecture of a product, software application, or process. This documentation is necessary in almost all workplaces to turn specialized technical information into content that is easier for readers to understand. By helping users perform a task, technical documentation serves to facilitate the communication with both internal (employees) and external customers that is vital for business success. A variety of users can benefit from good technical documentation to help with performance of daily tasks:
- External customers – User guides, release notes, online help systems, training programs.
- IT – Product manuals, system and information architecture manuals, for system administrators.
- Internal customers – SOPs, workflows, company policies, company structure, proposals.
- Developers – Functional and technical specifications, software development guides.
- Marketing – Presentations, web content, white papers.
Benefits of good technical documentation include:
- Reduced training time and costs – With good documentation, new hires can quickly and easily learn about the processes and software systems that they will use without costing your existing staff time and effort. These benefits often translate into a favorable ROI.
- Enhanced operational efficiency – Good documentation provides an easy reference for employees and thus helps to ensure that all of your company’s processes are running as consistently and efficiently as they can be. Operational efficiency is usually enhanced if the technical writers are using a component content management system.
- Improved outsourcing – If you decide to outsource parts of your business, good documentation (e.g., SOPs, training programs, etc.) helps all of your outsourced employees know what they are doing and what is expected of them.
- Builds company value – Well documented processes and hardware/software systems are of enormous value to a potential buyer of the company. As such, good documentation is a tangible asset that can increase a company’s future share value and sale price.
- Improved regulatory compliance – For companies operating in regulated environments (e.g., GxP), good documentation practice (GDP) is required by regulatory agencies. Good technical documentation meets regulatory compliance standards and provides required consistency.
- Efficient system upgrades, maintenance, troubleshooting, and validation – Good technical documentation dramatically improves the efficiency of software system upgrade, maintenance, troubleshooting, and validation activities.
- Increased sales – Salespeople can improve their performance dramatically when they have good marketing collateral such as white papers to share with potential clients.
While these benefits are compelling for an organization, creating clear, accurate and engaging technical documentation is not a simple task. It takes a lot of skill to create technical documentation that gets your users quickly up to speed on a process or product.
A poorly written technical document can be even more painful to read that write, leaving your users frustrated and cross-eyed as opposed to empowered. Good technical documentation serves to not only empower your users, but also helps to build your brand and enhance trust with your customers and employees. In part 2 of this blog series, we’ll discuss best practice strategies that will assist your organization in creating technical documentation which will enable the above-mentioned benefits.