Being a Product Manager for a digital project requires versatility, as the PM is basically the glue that keeps a product project together.
They need to manage multi-skilled teams throughout the full lifecycle of a product including ideation, planning, design, development, refinement, release, and growth. They are the point person for product-related decisions and need to bridge the gap between stakeholders, developers, and users.
They need to be a font of information, a master communicator, and a guiding hand.
Here is the list of skills required to be a decent product manager.
On top of that, they need to keep on top of the most important documentation of the project, which can feel like a full-time job all on its own!
Quality documentation is essential for recording key decisions and retaining and transferring knowledge. So a good Product Manager completes documentation in a way that is thorough, timely, accessible, and eats up as little of their time as possible.
But how exactly do you do that? Read on for our top tips on documenting like a pro!
Why is Documentation Important
First and foremost, why is good documentation imperative on a digital product development project?
The two key reasons are:
1- It acts as a record of all key decisions
When you work on a complex, long-term project, essential decisions are made daily about priorities, features, strategic objectives, and so forth.
As time passes and the product development project moves on, it can be easy to forget when key decisions were made and why. It is essential to have a clear record of this so that you can have this information at your fingertips to deal with queries and reiterate why certain decisions were made.
This is essential for ensuring that you create what you set out to create, specifically that you fulfilled the requirements laid out at the start of the project. It is also essential for tracking accountability.
2- It helps retain product knowledge
You often have multiple teams working on a project, that may have relatively minimal contact with each other.
It is also not uncommon to have staff churn, and while a good handover is essential, things are always overlooked. So, documentation is a physical memory of all the knowledge accumulated over the course of the project, so that nothing is lost, and as a way of transferring that knowledge.
And this doesn’t even get into transferring knowledge to support teams and end-users when the product is finally released, another essential function of good documentation.
What Constitutes Documentation
Exactly what documentation needs to be produced depends on the project, the team, and context. But according to a recent survey of product managers, the 10 most important documents owned and maintained by product managers are:
- Exploratory Research Documents – record the research into users and their needs that was conducted at the start of the project to justify the product. It contains essential information about users, their challenges, and competitor products.
- Product Strategy and Vision Documents – explain why you are going to create the product, what gap it fills in the market, and how it fits into the wider vision and strategy of the parent organization.
- Specs and Products Requirements Documents – lay out exactly what needs to built in order to make the product work. It may include elements such as minimum viable products (MVP) features lists. It generally details decisions related to the inclusion, exclusion, and prioritization of features.
- OKRs, KPIs, and Success Measures – state what it is that you want to achieve, and how you will know when you have achieved it. What does success look like and how do you measure it.
- Road Map Documents – detail the product lifecycle throughout development and release, connecting the work of disparate teams into a complete puzzle.
- Design and Prototype Documents – details every iteration of each new design or prototype.
- User Journey and Stories Documents – show both the entire user journey from learning about the product and downloading to using, and potentially abandoning. User stories dig into scenarios in which users might use all the different features of a product.
- Release Notes and Scope – keep track of the features of a product and what purpose they serve. Release notes then detail features as they are made available.
- Internal Guides and FAQs – basically record how things work and are essential for passing knowledge between team members, and for retaining knowledge within the organization in the face of staff churn.
- Customer Facing Guide – are the manual for the users, telling them what the product can do and how they can use it.
- Don’t you think traditional user manuals are obsolete in 2020? Here is why you need an interactive product tour instead of user manuals.
How to Document Like a PRO
Basically, if the Project Manager was to be hit by a car, and therefore out of action while making a complete and full recovery, the documentation is what someone would use to step into their shoes and see a project through to completion.
Therefore, the documentation needs to know everything that the PM knows, or knew in the past and has since forgotten.
In addition to this “thoroughness”, the other key points you should watch out to have great documentation are:
Keep it up-to-date
According to one Product Manager:
“The key with documentation is committing to it and pointing people to it to find their answers. If it’s not accurate or up-to-date it is worthless.”
Basically, if the documentation does not record the most recent developments on the project and the most recent decisions, it is valueless.
Not only will it not contain the information that people need, but if they do consult the documentation and assume that it is up-to-date, valuable time can be lost and discussions and work are repeated.
Keep it “animated”
When a project is underway, it is alive, and its documentation needs to reflect that, with changes and developments being fed into the documentation in “live” time.
This often means that different documents need to evolve in synchronization. For example, new decisions and course corrections in the specs and requirements documentation needs to be reflected in the risk log in the strategy and road map documentation.
Good documentation is also never “frozen”, for example ahead of key meetings with stakeholders. According to one Product Manager:
“When plans, requirements or specs must change, frozen documents can steer the project toward the wrong goal, or render the document useless. The document will then be abandoned, adding unnecessary risks to the project.”
There are systems out there to help automatically connect documents and ensure that updates in one area are reflected throughout the complete documentation.
Keep it consistent
Since all the documentation of a project needs to speak to one another, it needs to be consistent.
Anyone on the team making updates to any documentation should be using the same systems and processes to mark changes and control versions.
Keep it lightweight
While documentation needs to be detailed, it also needs to be accessible, both in terms of editing and consulting.
There is no point in producing tomes of documentation if no one can find what they are looking for.
According to another Product Manager:
“A nimble, quick document revision process will enable you to record the changes quickly and efficiently.”
It should also be relatively easy to skim, with those consulting it are able to navigate to what they are looking for with relative ease, and then dip into the detail as necessary.
As the project manager, it can be tempting to act as a gatekeeper for all information regarding the problem, but this is not a good use of your time and can cause frustrations as no one is available 24/7.
Good documentation should actually free up your time as team members and stakeholders can consult the documentation to find information on what has happened on the project to date, and only take up your time with the more complex and interesting questions.
There are few people who would disagree that producing documentation for a product project is a bit of a pain, and can feel like it eats up a lot of time.
But, while you might not be able to see the point of having an up to the minute changelog and user story on most days, it is often easy to see the disastrous consequences after the fact when these things are not in place.
We have gone through a list of the key things that you need in order to produce good documentation.
At the end of the day, the Project Manager is responsible for most of the documentation, so the main thing that they need to do is make it a priority, and commit to maintaining it regularly and doing it right.
Product and Project Managers have similar job descriptions, but are not the same. Here is the difference between a product and a project manager.
Frequently Asked Questions
📜 What are the key characteristics of good documentation?
Good documentation is always up-to-date, thorough, and simple.
✏️ Which tools should I use for documentation?
Tools such as Google Docs, Coda, Confluence, and Dropbox Paper are the most commonly used tools for documentation.
❓Why is documentation important?
Because documentation acts as the record of all decisions and it helps retain product knowledge.