Documentation? Borrrrinnnng….

Website documentation seems so boring, right? Like reading the manual for that new device you just bought. I won’t kid you, it is boring. If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to read the manual, you just want to start using it.

When it comes to a new smart phone, streaming box for your TV, even a new computer, we can all pretty much get away with skipping the manual. But if you’re dropping anywhere from $5-20,000 on a new website, mobile app, or piece of software, the documentation is going to be your best friend. Not only does it tell you how to use the thing you bought, it tells you what you bought.

I recently worked with two different clients who received absolutely no documentation from their website developer. These organizations had hired teams to build them a site from scratch, and they had worked well together. Over the course of the initial site development the relationships with each development firm soured. The projects was completed to specifications, but when it came time for the organization to make changes to their site they came to me, a completely new developer, rather than return to the firms that had built the site.

This was exponentially more costly for these non-profit organizations. They ended up having to pay me not just to fix their sites, but to learn their sites.

The Basics

Documentation should be a contractual obligation of every web development project. At a bare minimum you, as the client, should always receive the following information about your site:

  1. Domain Host – where is the domain ( hosted?
  2. Hosting Provider – where is the site itself hosted? This is often the same as the domain host, but not always. I recommend Bluehost to all my clients, I find them very easy to work with.
  3. Content Management System (CMS) or your Site Platform and Specifications – Is your site built on WordPress? Drupal? Shopify? What version is it built on?
  4. What plugins or extensions are installed on the site, and what do they do? Are they free, or did you pay for them? Was this an outright purchase, or a subscription requiring renewal? If a subscription, when is the renewal date?
  5. Usernames and Passwords
    1. Domain Host
    2. Hosting Provider
    3. CMS
    4. Third party accounts used throughout the site

Beyond these four basics, you should get some instruction on how to manage your site. How to log in, upload a picture, change the slider content. You may plan to hire your developer to make all of the site changes, but if that relationship goes south, you want to have the information for future developers.

When a developer fails to share above information it could be simple oversight’s often simple oversight. Review your developers contract for documentation, don’t assume that you’ll receive this information if it’s not in the contract. That’s why basic documentation is a non-negotiable in all of my contracts.

By requiring your developer to include basic documentation from the outset you will save yourself and your organization a great deal of money and time. In addition to the basics outlined above, I always recommend to my clients that if they think they will want step by step “How to..” documentation we do that at the completion of the project. I can write this up far faster having just finished the site than if I have to re-familiarize myself with the ins and outs of a site after a few months and intervening project.