May 22, 2023

How to Write Effective Product Documentation for Your SaaS (Best Practices)

As a software company, your product documentation is one of the most important touchpoints with your customers. Well-written product docs make your app easy to learn, leading to higher satisfaction, adoption, and retention rates.

However, many SaaS companies struggle to create documentation that effectively guides users while promoting key features’ value. To write product documentation that drives impact, follow these best practices:

Use An Interactive Product Demo Tool

Here are some key points for using product demo tools when writing documentation:

Create clear visual demonstrations.

Product demo tools allow you to easily record actions within your software’s interface as a video or interactive demo. This provides a visual counterpart to written instructions that clarifies complexity.

Illustrate multi-step processes.

Demonstrations can walk users through workflows involving multiple interface elements and actions in sequence. This shows relationships between steps that the text alone struggles to convey.

Highlight key interface elements.

Using highlighting, zooming, and annotations within demo recordings, call out specific buttons, fields, and options that users need to interact with for tasks you document.

Embed demo clips within docs.

Product demos can be embedded directly into documentation pages next to relevant written explanations. This offers readers a visual supplement for each process you describe.

Test instructions.

Have users attempt to follow along with embedded product demos to ensure your written instructions are unambiguous, easy to implement, and aligned with the demo.

Update demos over time.

As you refine documentation based on testing and feedback, record new demo clips that reflect improvements and further optimize instructions.

Foster self-service.

Clear visual demonstrations of functions and processes enable users to implement instructions independently with little need for support.

Tools like Folio allow you to capture interactive product demos that users can pause, rewind and control the playback speed of - enabling them to implement the instructions at their own pace. Integrating product demo recordings can transform your written product documentation into an interactive multimedia experience that drives comprehension and actionability to a whole new level.

Focus on the User’s Goal, Not Just the Feature

The primary purpose of product documentation is to help users achieve their goals through effective use of your product. However, many companies fall into the trap of simply explaining features in isolation without clearly connecting them to user goals.

To avoid this:

  1. Structure your documentation around the key outcomes your users try to achieve.
  2. Start by listing common goals, jobs, or tasks for which people will use your software.
  3. Show how specific features enable users to accomplish these objectives.

For example, instead of writing a section called “Calendar view,” write a section called “Schedule meetings and appointments.” This section explains how the calendar view feature helps users schedule meetings with clarity and ease. Show how filtering options, color coding, and other related tools help users accomplish this primary goal.

By focusing on user goals over features, you clarify to readers how using your software will benefit them and help them do their work more effectively. Not only does this improve comprehension, but it also makes your software seem more valuable and easy to use from the get-go.

To identify the primary goals of your target users:

  1. Conduct user interviews.
  2. Ask people open-ended questions about the challenges they face in their roles and what outcomes they’re trying to achieve.
  3. Listen for jobs, tasks, and objectives - these will form the basis of your document structure.

You may also want to review your marketing and sales materials, as these often frame your product regarding the benefits and outcomes it provides users. Overall, approaching documentation with the user’s goal will make a difference in how effectively your product docs explain and sell your software.

Include Visual Aids Like Screenshots and Videos

Visual elements like screenshots, icons, illustrations, and videos are necessary for effective product documentation. Incorporating these aids helps users digest content more quickly and implement instructions with greater ease and confidence.

To showcase essential product information visually, incorporate screenshots that:

  • Demonstrate where to click or tap to perform the actions you describe. Simply telling users to “click the delete button” is meaningless without indicating which button you mean.
  • Highlight important interface elements, especially those that may be easy to miss. Call out options, icons, and menus with arrows pointing to them directly on the screenshot.
  • Illustrate step-by-step processes. For complex workflow, include a series of 3-5 screenshots walking users through the whole procedure.
  • Show before and after comparisons. Contrast what a screen, report, or page looks like before and after an action to make the outcome clear and tangible.

In addition to screenshots, short animated GIFs and videos can be incredibly helpful for visually demonstrating things like:

  • Multi-step processes that involve lots of clicking around.
  • Transitions between different app interfaces or pages.
  • The use of gestures on mobile devices.
  • How data changes or is organized as a result of an action.

Overall, visual aids remove ambiguity from your instructions, helping users follow directions with greater confidence that they’re taking the right steps. Check that screenshots are clear, well-labeled, and up-to-date, and record new explanatory videos as needed to ensure your visual content remains fresh and relevant.

In addition, consider incorporating other visual elements like:

  • Icons and illustrations to quickly convey key information or actions.
  • Charts, graphs, and diagrams to summarize complex data or concepts.
  • Heat maps and marker layers to show data on maps and images.

The right blend of visual and written elements will make your product documentation much more user-friendly, have lightning comprehension, and ensure people can implement your instructions correctly the first time.

Provide Real Use Cases and Examples

Vivid use cases and examples are another simple yet highly effective technique for making your product documentation clear, compelling, and convincing. Illustrating how real people employ your software to solve problems drives several benefits:

Clarifies complex concepts in an easy-to-grasp way.

Abstract explanations can be confusing, but concrete examples bring confusion into focus when readers can connect the dots between your descriptions and an implementable solution, comprehension skyrockets.

Shows readers the full value of features.

Readers often struggle to envision how a tool might help them - until they see it is helping another user. Examples reveal wider applications and ROI that simple explanations miss.

Inspires readers with new ideas.

Use cases expose readers to novel ways of solving issues they may not have considered previously. This sparks fresh ideas they can adapt to their own needs.

Builds credibility and trust.

Readers often question whether tools work as described - until they see real success stories. Fleshed-out examples establish that your product delivers on its promises.

To include powerful examples in your docs:

  • Start with a problem or need. Describe a common user challenge or occupational hindrance that your users face.
  • Explain the solution. Show precisely how someone employed your software to solve that problem, overcome that obstacle or automate that task. Walk through the key actions and decisions that led to a resolution.
  • Quantify the impact. Share specific metrics that indicate the example user achieved their desired outcomes whenever possible. This could mean time savings, money earned, errors avoided, followers gained, and more.
  • Apply to readers’ contexts. Prompt readers to consider adopting the same basic approach to achieve similar results within their organizations and industries.

The more vivid, quantified, and contextualized your examples, the more readers will relate to them and draw valuable insights to improve their workflows. Over time, build up a “Case studies” or “Success stories” section of your docs to inspire and motivate users with real-world proof that your product delivers.

Implement an Ongoing Review Process

Even the most meticulously written product documentation will deteriorate over time if not actively maintained and improved. Establish an ongoing review process incorporating feedback from multiple stakeholders to keep your docs up-to-date and relevant.

The first step is setting a schedule for routine reviews. Consider performing full document overhauls:

Every 6-12 months.

Within this window, perform at least one major pass where you evaluate all content for clarity, completeness, accuracy, and overall impact.

After major product updates

Revise your docs anytime significant new features are released to ensure information remains accurate and actionable.

Conduct lighter touch reviews on a 2-4 week cycle between scheduled full revamps. This may simply mean:

  • Checking for broken links and outdated screenshots.
  • Scanning content for outdated language due to product or terminology changes.
  • Incorporating feedback received from user testing and support tickets.
  • Noting sections that are frequently viewed as opportunities for improvement.

However, you structure your review cadence and gather input from multiple sources to ensure you’re catching major issues and opportunities for optimization. Review processes should integrate feedback from:

  • Your product and customer success teams interact with users daily. They have valuable insight into persistent confusion, points of frustration, and common queries.
  • Your support team sees firsthand where users struggle to understand or implement instructions as issues arise. They usually have a long list of doc improvements that could reduce support load.
  • Your user testing participants, whose difficulties following instructions or locating information reveal weaknesses in your material. Direct feedback highlights areas for strengthening.
  • Your customers themselves. Run periodic surveys asking users to rate your product docs’ clarity, completeness, and overall usefulness. Scorecards reveal broad issues to address.
  • Analytics, tracking which pages receive the most views and have the highest bounce rates. These often pinpoint sections in need of optimization.

By gathering input from multifaceted channels and reviewing checkpoints, you’ll ensure your product documentation keeps pace with users’ evolving needs and implementation challenges. Ultimately, an ongoing review process will be key to maintaining docs that maximize customer success and satisfaction over the long term.

Integrate Docs into Your Product

While important, maintaining standalone documentation is only half the battle. To maximize impact, integrate your product docs into your software interface wherever possible. Bringing instructions to the point of need helps users resolve issues and uncover value at the moment it matters most: while actively using your product.

Some techniques for integrating your docs into your product include:

In-app links.

Make it easy for users to access documentation directly from within your application. Add links to relevant pages within buttons, modals, and dropdown menus.


Add brief explanatory tooltips to interface elements like buttons and icons. These can link to full documentation for that feature when clicked.

Contextual help menus.

Provide “Help” and “?” dropdown menus within various interface views that link to targeted documentation.

Keyboard shortcuts.

Assign shortcuts for directly launching contextual help or related product documentation. This lowers the friction for busy users.

In-line tooltips.

For web apps, show short summaries directly within interface elements upon mouse hover. Links allow users to access comprehensive documentation when needed.

In-app videos.

Embed explanatory videos within your product to visually demonstrate key actions and workflows.

F1 / context-sensitive help.

Allow users to press F1 to launch a help window with relevant documentation for the current screen or active interface element.

Guided tutorials.

Build product tours or walkthroughs that users can launch from within your software to learn key features and workflows step-by-step.

Users appreciate accessing the information on demand, precisely when motivation and need are highest. To implement these in-product documentation techniques effectively:

Prioritize high-impact, high-friction points.

Focus on sections of your interface that cause the most headaches, pose the steepest learning curves, or involve the most complex processes.

A/B test and optimize.

Determine which implementations drive the greatest reduction in support load and increase in activation/adoption metrics.

Integrate search.

Allow users to search your documentation database directly from the app for even more targeted results.

Flag as “beta.”

Label any in-product help solutions as early-stage to manage expectations and gather feedback that you can use to refine the experience over time.

The ultimate goal is to anticipate and resolve your users’ issues before they ever need to contact support or search elsewhere for answers. Integrating contextual guidance into your product seamlessly and intelligently empower self-sufficiency and maximize the value your customers realize.

Write for a Global Audience

As more SaaS companies expand into international markets, writing product documentation that resonates with a global user base is increasingly important. To communicate effectively across cultures and language barriers, follow these best practices:

Avoid Jargon and Idioms

Different countries have their own industrial and professional jargon. Avoid niche terminology and unusual abbreviations that may not translate well. Also, idioms do not always carry over between languages, so avoid colloquial phrases that only make sense within one culture.

Use Simple, Concise Language

Short, straightforward sentences tend to communicate more clearly across cultures. Complex grammar and ornate wording can create ambiguity for non-native speakers. Focus on clarity over style by prioritizing simple, direct language.

Define All Acronyms

Acronyms popular in one country may not be known in others. Always define acronyms the first time you use them. Consider spelling out the full form periodically to reinforce meaning.

Avoid Cultural References

Metaphors, analogies, and references to cultural concepts or traditions mainly resonate within the culture they originate from. Replace these with universal examples when possible.

Use Specific, Tangible Examples

Concrete examples often illustrate abstract concepts more clearly for international readers. Look for opportunities to replace hypothetical scenarios with examples based on tangible products, processes, or situations.

Provide Images of Interface Elements

Graphical representations of interface components like buttons and input fields help non-native speakers identify these elements more easily within instructions.

Limit Colloquial Language

Words like “gotta,” “wanna,” “gonna,” and other contractions only work in some accents and languages. Replace with formal equivalents for broader comprehension.

Have Content Reviewed by Non-Native Speakers

Ask colleagues, partners, and customers whose first language is not English to review your documentation. They’ll often spot ambiguities, jargon, and unclear explanations that native speakers miss. Incorporate their feedback and suggestions.

Consider Developing Multilingual Documentation

Developing product documentation in the local language significantly increases comprehension, adoption, and trust for companies targeting specific regions or countries. Outsource translation to professional translation services.

Following these best practices and priorities ensures your product docs are written to communicate clearly and effectively with a global audience. Multilingual and culturally inclusive documentation is key to helping customers worldwide realize the full value of your software.

Promote Documentation from Within Your Product

While actively maintaining comprehensive product documentation is essential, it only helps users who know these docs exist and how to access them. Therefore, effective internal promotion within your product is key to ensuring documentation benefits the people needing it most.

Some tactics to recommend your documentation from within your software include:

Prominently placed links

Place “Help” and “Support” links in the nav bar, footer, and other prominent UI locations to introduce users to documentation.

Onboarding experiences

Within signup flows, wizards, and guided tours, including calls to action recommending useful related pages in your product docs.

In-app prompts

Pop-up modals at natural pause points within workflows prompt users to consult relevant documentation before proceeding.

Success prompts

After users complete impactful actions, recommend documentation for follow-up steps or optimization tactics.

In-line recommendations

Beside specific fields, options, and settings, including labels like “Learn more” linking to explanations and best practices.

Email prompts

After certain events within your product, send emails recommending documentation for the next steps and maximizing value.

Release notes

Share related documentation changes with each update to familiarize users with new information.

Video recommendations

Include end cards and callouts within instructional videos directing viewers toward related documentation for the next steps.

Community recommendations

Encourage members of communities and forums you host to recommend useful documentation to their peers when responding to queries.

Support recommendations

When resolving tickets, have your customer support team recommend useful documentation to help prevent similar issues in the future.

In-product search

Index your documentation within the internal search to allow users to discover helpful material intuitively while using your software.

The better you integrate recommendations for your product docs into your user’s natural workflows and encounter points, the more familiar - and essential - those docs will become for driving value. As recommendations gain social proof over time, they’ll also begin spreading organically.

By strategically promoting your documentation from within your product itself, you’ll transform what was once a passive repository of information into an active driver of the impact that continuously recommends the most useful material to the people who need it most at the moments they’re most receptive. Over time, product documentation can go from an afterthought to a central part of your user’s success.

Write Documentation For Self-Service

One of the most effective ways to structure your product documentation is intending to enable true self-service for your users. By writing docs that empower people to implement instructions and solve issues independently, you’ll reduce support loads and maximize the value customers realize from your software.

To facilitate self-service, focus your documentation on the following:

Clarifying processes, not just features.

Explain exactly what steps users should take to achieve goals and complete tasks within your product - don’t just define features and settings.

Illustrating how, not just what.

Show customers how to implement functions and navigate interfaces by including screenshots, examples, videos, and other visual aids.

Anticipating questions.

Don’t just answer FAQs - make an effort to consider questions your users might have before they even know to ask.

Providing alternatives.

Present multiple ways for readers to accomplish the same outcome to accommodate various roles, skill levels, and preferences.

Explaining “what’s next.”

After instructions for achieving one goal, recommend what users should do once they’re done. Think downstream.

Quantifying potential impact.

Indicate exact time savings, efficiencies gained, errors avoided, etc., to prove the ROI of the following documentation.

Flagging common pitfalls.

Warn readers about potential missteps, blind spots, or misconfigurations to avoid.

Offering best practices.

In addition to the “basic” instructions, share pro tips and optimization strategies for powering through bottlenecks.

Linking to related content.

Connect documentation on similar processes, workarounds for common issues, and other material that helps users move forward independently.

Keeping a “troubleshooting” section.

Collect resolutions for persistent issues and note any required next steps in one easy-to-find central location.

By structuring your product documentation strategically around empowering users to self-sufficiency, you’ll see several benefits:

  • Customers become less dependent on your team. Your resources can focus on more strategic efforts that grow the business.
  • Customers gain confidence in your product. Self-sufficiency is a sign of usability and value - users feel capable and in control.
  • Adoption and activation speed up. Customers can hit the ground running with less handholding.
  • Satisfaction increases. Self-sufficient users experience less frustration and achieve more positive outcomes independently.
  • Retention improves. Customers who can resolve issues and achieve goals on their own are more likely to remain active long-term.

Overall, investing in the documentation that empowers users to find their answers and chart their paths forward may be one of the most impactful - and essential - steps you can take to maximize the lifetime value of your customers.

Make Documentation Actionable

Product documentation’s ultimate goal is to inform users and enable them to actually implement what they learn within your software. To facilitate this knowledge transfer, structure your docs in a way that helps readers transform information into action.

Follow these best practices to make your documentation actionable:

Start with a call to action.

Pose a question at the beginning of sections that frames the rest of the content around a specific outcome or goal the user hopes to achieve. This spurs readers to consider how they can implement the information they’re about to learn.

Provide step-by-step instructions

Break processes into discrete, sequentially ordered steps that lead users through completing tasks and performing actions within the product. The more detailed and granular, the better.

List all prerequisites

Before getting started, indicate any settings users need to enable, the software they must have installed, or other pre-work required to follow instructions successfully. Remove roadblocks proactively.

Include examples

Supplement directions with concrete examples that demonstrate applying the instructions to address real-world scenarios wherever possible. Examples transform abstract explanations into implementable solutions.

Integrate screenshots

Photos of interface elements, settings, and workflows bring instructions to life, allowing readers to see precisely what they should be clicking, typing, and interacting with. Screenshots mitigate ambiguity.

Incorporate videos

Video demonstrations allow readers to observe an entire process being carried out within the product interface. Pause and rewind as needed to implement instructions in chunks that make sense.

Provide templates and form examples.

For documenting processes that involve creating new text-based content, offer fully worked-out models that readers can directly emulate or adapt within the software.

Prompt next steps

After walking users through a task, indicate the immediate next steps they should take to maintain momentum. Don’t just stop - help readers transition instructions into real action.

Test instructions

Have readers implement a subset of the steps you document to ensure they’re clear, unambiguous, and will result in the expected outcome when carried out correctly. Refine as needed.

Deploy in context

Whenever possible, provide instructions for readers within the product itself at the moment of need. Context is the ultimate catalyst for taking action.

Overall, transforming documentation from an informational resource into an action plan that readers implement directly within the product interface will drive engagement, activation, satisfaction, and other metrics that indicate your docs successfully enable customers to realize greater value. The clearer the path from page to implementation, the more impactful your product documentation will become.

Prioritize Usability Testing

While following best practices can improve your product documentation, nothing ensures usefulness like actual user testing. Observing real people attempting to implement your instructions within the interface reveals flaws, frustrations, and opportunities for optimization that no amount of written guidelines can uncover.

To integrate usability testing into your documentation workflow:

Conduct the initial round(s) after the first draft.

Test early versions of docs with 3-5 target users to identify major issues needing to be addressed before public release.

Recruit testers of varying roles, skills, and backgrounds.

The more diverse your sample, the more broadly relevant optimizations will be.

Ask participants to “think aloud.”

Have them narrate their thoughts, questions, and decision-making processes as they follow instructions. This exposes confusion.

Observe users closely.

Watch for pauses, confusion, instances of backtracking, and “aha!” moments as they interact with your docs. Not all sources of friction.

Provide incomplete instructions.

Leave out details to see what assumptions users make and what questions they have when information is lacking.

Simulate real-world contexts.

Test docs in the environments and with the time constraints your users will encounter.

Equip testers with example data.

For tasks involving one’s data, give testers realistic sample data sets so they don’t have to improvise.

Calculate task success rates.

What percentage of testers could fully achieve the outcome described in the instructions? Use as a success metric.

Survey participants afterward.

Ask structured questions to rate clarity, identify useful additions, and gauge the instructions’ overall actionability.

Implement optimizations.

Update documentation to resolve issues, clarify confusing points, and fill gaps identified during user testing.

Repeat testing.

Put future iterations through testing cycles to ensure optimizations solve the original problems and don’t create new ones.

Integrate into the release process.

Make user testing a mandatory step before launching any new or revised documentation.

Usability testing will likely uncover a long tail of nuanced changes that can collectively transform your product documentation from passively informational to actively conducive to driving impact for users. The key is iterative testing: prioritize frequent small test cycles that get your docs 80% of the way there, then taper off to less frequent larger-scale testing to polish the final 20%. Over time, your documentation will evolve into an increasingly intuitive part of the user experience.

Conduct User Research

While usability testing provides valuable feedback on existing product documentation, supplementing it with deeper user research can yield insights to inform the direction and focus of your docs from the very beginning. By understanding your customers’ core goals, motivations, objectives, and pain points, you’ll craft documentation that targets real user needs - rather than what you think users need.

To integrate user research into your documentation process:

Conduct contextual interviews. 

Speak directly with your target users about the challenges they face and the goals they’re trying to achieve relevant to using your product.

Ask open-ended questions.

Probe with “Tell me about…” and “How do you currently…” rather than “yes/no” questions that elicit superficial responses.

Listen carefully.

Identify recurring themes in how users describe their workflows, struggles, and desired outcomes. These reveal opportunities to add value.

Observe users at work.

Sit in while target customers perform job tasks or workflows related to areas your product could impact. Note pain points and inefficiencies.

Conduct diary studies.

Have participants log frustrations, resource needs, or challenges over a week or two. Reviews reveal persistent issues.

Analyze support transcripts.

Search your support platform for common queries, confusion, and sources of frustration. Patterns signal knowledge gaps your docs could fill.

Audit task completion rates.

Determine which goals/tasks your users struggle to successfully achieve within your product. Prioritize explaining these processes in depth.

Administer targeted surveys.

Poll users on what information/guidance would help them the most, what tasks are most difficult/time-consuming, and what processes they wish were easier within your product.

Audit analytics.

Determine which functions have the lowest usage rates, highest undo/refund metrics, or receive the fewest positive review mentions. Explain overlooked value in docs.

Host focus groups.

Bring groups of 6-10 target customers to brainstorm possibilities for your documentation, rate examples, and provide feedback on early drafts.

Consider job stories.

Imagine a day-in-the-life narrative for your target user personas, noting times information/guidance would have helped them work more efficiently.

The deeper your understanding of your customers’ existing challenges, situations, and desired outcomes, the better positioned your product documentation will be to enable users to overcome obstacles, streamline workflows and realize greater value. Commit to ongoing user research cycles that hone your docs on genuinely solving real problems and fulfilling true needs.


We hope you’ll apply our list of tips and best practices at your work. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Focus on the user’s goals, not just explaining features. Structure docs around tasks and workflows, not interface elements.
  • Use visual aids like screenshots, videos, and illustrations to clarify instructions. Remove ambiguity so users can implement it correctly.
  • Provide concrete examples and use cases to show readers the full value of functions and how to apply them in real contexts.
  • Anticipate common questions and include troubleshooting guidance. Help readers avoid issues and move forward independently.
  • Implement an ongoing review and optimization process. Gather feedback from users, support, product teams, and analytics.
  • Integrate docs into your product wherever possible. Bring instructions to the point of need to maximize impact.
  • Prioritize usability testing. Observe real users attempting to follow your docs to identify sources of confusion and frustration.
  • Conduct user research to understand your target customers’ goals, pain points, and desired outcomes. Base docs on solving real problems.
  • Make documentation actionable. Structure information to help readers implement what they learn within your product.

Writing effective product documentation begins with truly understanding your users and ends with empowering them to achieve their goals through your software. The most useful docs drive self-sufficiency and efficiency and maximize the value customers realize.

Cover Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

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