What is Software Documentation?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Software refers to routines and programs developed for a computer system that allow the use to perform tasks or otherwise interact with the computer. The software could be provided by the manufacturer as a system component, or created as separate applications by the manufacturer or third parties. Documentation is a description of a product and how to use it. Software documentation describes software applications and how to use them.

Computer games usually come with documentation.
Computer games usually come with documentation.

Printed software documentation, sometimes referred to as software manuals, are often set up like a book, with a title page, table of contents, body, and index, and they often have some typical components. The first component most users need is an installation guide, and separate guides are given for the various operating systems the software works on, as needed. The installation guide lists the specifications that are required to run the software, including computer operating system(s), RAM, hard drive space, an Internet connection, and any other requirements or add-ons, such as peripherals. This is followed with step-by-step instructions for installation, which might be from a CD-ROM, a DVD, or a download, for example. Any unusual features of the installer and explanation of custom installation choices, such as alternate locations or streamlined installs, are generally explained.

Software can be installed on a computer from a CD or DVD.
Software can be installed on a computer from a CD or DVD.

A “quick start” guide is often the next part of the printed software documentation used. Picking up where the installation guide leaves off, the Quick Start guide helps the user get started with the software and its basic operations. This section may be arranged in a variety of ways, as suits the particular software. One popular method for task-oriented applications is a project-based introduction in which the user learns the basic functionality of the software while completing some mini-lessons.

Other elements that one would expect to find in printed software documentation include a complete run-down of the features, with emphasis on features new to the latest version; a list of updates since the previous versions, possibly including bugs fixed; information about how to obtain technical support; explanations of error messages; and information for advanced, or “power” users. Games and other software applications may include cheat sheets or hints in their documentation.

Printed software documentation is not the only kind. First of all, the printed documentation may also be available online or as a pdf. Additional documentation may also be available in the form of tool tips and help screens within the application itself, FAQs — lists of frequently asked questions along with answers, searchable articles, web training, videos, and other formats.

Software documentation varies quite a bit in quality, and this is particularly true of software manuals. The good ones can be excellent, while the ones that are not well-executed can leave users with many questions. There are also users who will not bother to search the documentation before asking questions on the software manufacturer’s forums.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to EasyTechJunkie about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I am definitely compelled to call that old fashioned! Paper has no ctrl-f. I'm confident that I could find what I'm looking for in any digital form in about a tenth of the time than reading through an entire paper manual. Although I'll give you that there are advantages to actually reading an entire manual over just hunting and picking the individual pieces of info you're seeking.


Call me old fashioned, but I still like having a printed manual with a piece of sophisticated software. It's still a lot easier to consult an index and flip pages than it is to dig around in a PDF or a Web page for answers.

Of course, some software relies on user forums to help users answer questions. That's not a bad system, but a printed manual that covers a piece of software in depth is still preferable.

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