The map of needs

How to organise my documentation? In the absence of a clear, generalised documentation architecture, documentation creators will usually try to structure their work around characteristics or features of the product its intended to serve.

This is rarely successful, even in a single instance. In a portfolio of documentation instances, the results are wild inconsistency. Much better is the adoption of a scheme that tries to provide an answer to the question: how to arrange documentation in general?

In fact any orderly attempt to organise documentation into clear content categories will help improve it (for authors as well as users), by providing lists of content types.

Even so, authors often find themselves needing to write particular documentation content that fails to fit well within the categories put forward by a scheme, or struggling to rewrite existing material. Often, there is a sense of arbitrariness about the structure that they find themselves working with - why this particular list of content types rather than another? And if another competing list is proposed, which to adopt?

The Diátaxis map

The most immediately striking feature of Diátaxis is its map:

It’s a memorable and approachable idea.

One reason it is effective as a guide to organising documentation is that it describes a two-dimensional structure, rather than a list. It specifies its types of documentation in such a way that the structure naturally helps guide and shape the material it contains.

As a map, it places the different forms of documentation into relationship with each other. Each one occupies a space in the mental territory it outlines, and the boundaries between them highlight their distinctions.

The result is documentation that is not only better, but takes less effort to create and maintain - but that is only possible because the Diátaxis map is a map of needs.


A map is only useful if it adequately describes a reality. Diátaxis is underpinned by a systematic description and analysis of generalised user needs.

The user whose needs Diátaxis serves is the practitioner in a domain of skill. A domain of skill is defined by a craft - the use of a tool or product is a craft. So is an entire discipline or profession. Using a programming language is a craft, as is flying a particular aircraft, or even being a pilot in general.

The successful engagement in any such craft or skill involves both theoretical grasp (knowledge and understanding), and an ability to apply that in practice, to work with the tools and materials of the craft. Documentation serving the practitioner must therefore meet the needs both of theory and its practical application.

And at any moment in their craft, a practitioner is either acquiring their skill, or applying it to actual work. That is, a practitioner is either in the mode of study (learning, acquiring, building up their skill) or the mode of work (applying, using, exercising it). And this gives documentation two more needs to meet.

Axes of knowledge

Diátaxis uses this analysis to divide documentation across two axes of knowledge: theory/practice, and acquisition/application.

Documentation therefore either contains theoretical (i.e. propositional) knowledge or describes practical actions, and is concerned either with serving our acquisition or our application of knowledge. Hence the map, across which the four forms of documentation are laid out.

Characteristics of documentation

A clear advantage of organising material this way is that it provides both clear expectations (to the reader) and guidance (to the author). It’s clear what the purpose of any particular piece of content is, it specifies how it should be written and it shows where it should be placed.


How-to guides



what they do

introduce, educate, lead

guide, demonstrate

state, describe, inform

explain, clarify, discuss

answers the question

“Can you teach me to…?”

“How do I…?”

“What is…?”


oriented to






to allow the newcomer to get started

to show how to solve a specific problem

to describe the machinery

to explain


a lesson

a series of steps

dry description

discursive explanation


teaching a child how to cook

a recipe in a cookery book

a reference encyclopaedia article

an article on culinary social history

Each piece of content is of a kind that not only has one particular job to do, that job is also clearly distinguished from and contrasted with the other functions of documentation.

Collapse of the structure

Most documentation systems and authors recognise at least some of these distinctions and try to observe them in practice. However, there is a kind of natural affinity between each of the different forms of documentation and its neighbours on the map, and a natural tendency to blur the distinctions (that can be seen repeatedly in examples of documentation).

  • tutorials and how-to guides both describe practical steps

  • how-to guides and technical reference are both concerned with the application of knowledge

  • reference and explanation both contain theoretical knowledge

  • tutorials and explanation are both concerned with the acquisition of knowledge

The structure of documemntation can collapse.

Allowing these distinctions to blur is what brings about structural problems. The most common is a complete or partial collapse of tutorials and how-to guides into each other, while explanation spills over into both tutorials and reference material.

The cycle of interaction

Diátaxis is intended to help documentation better serve users in their cycle of interaction with a product.

This phrase should not be understood too literally. It is not the case that a user must encounter the different kinds of documentation in the order tutorials > how-to guides > technical reference > explanation. In practice, an actual user may enter the documentation anywhere in search of guidance on some particular subject, and what they want to read will change from moment to moment as they use your documentation.

However, the idea of a cycle of documentation needs, that proceeds through different phases, is sound and corresponds to the way that people actually do become expert in a craft. There is a sense and meaning to this ordering.

  • learning-oriented phase: We begin by learning, and learning a skill means diving straight in to do it - under the guidance of a teacher, if we’re lucky.

  • task-oriented phase: Next we want to put the skill to work.

  • information-oriented phase: As soon as our work calls upon knowledge that we don’t already have in our head, it requires us to consult technical reference.

  • explanation-oriented phase: Finally, away from the work, we reflect on our practice and knowledge to understand the whole.

And then it’s back to the beginning, perhaps for a new thing to grasp, or to penetrate deeper.