Documentation in agile: why it matters and 6 tips for success
What is agile documentation?
Agile documentation is a way of creating and maintaining documentation for a project that is based on the principles of agile software development. In agile development, the focus is on delivering working software quickly and iteratively, with an emphasis on flexibility and collaboration. Agile documentation reflects this approach by being lightweight, focused on the needs of the team and stakeholders, and flexible enough to adapt to changing requirements and priorities.
Agile documentation typically consists of just enough documentation to support the needs of the project and its stakeholders, and is kept up-to-date as the project progresses. This may include user stories, acceptance criteria, and other artifacts that help the team understand the requirements and goals of the project, as well as technical documentation such as design documents and code documentation.
One key aspect of agile documentation is that it is created and maintained by the development team, rather than being handed off to a separate documentation team. This helps to ensure that the documentation accurately reflects the current state of the project and can be updated quickly as needed.
This is part of a series of articles about code documentation.
What is agile development?
Agile development is a set of principles for software development that emphasize flexibility, collaboration, and the ability to respond to change. It is based on the Agile Manifesto, a set of guiding values and principles for software development.
The main focus of agile development is on delivering working software quickly and iteratively, rather than trying to plan and design everything up front. Agile teams work in short cycles, called sprints, and use a variety of techniques to break down large projects into smaller, more manageable pieces. This allows them to deliver value to stakeholders early and often, and to respond quickly to changes in requirements or priorities.
Agile development also emphasizes close collaboration between team members, with a focus on face-to-face communication and a willingness to adapt to change. This is achieved through regular meetings, such as daily stand-ups, where team members can share progress, identify any issues, and plan for the next iteration.
Benefits of agile documentation for software development
There are several benefits to using agile documentation in software development:
- It helps teams to stay focused on delivering value: Agile documentation is lightweight and focused on what is needed, rather than being comprehensive and detailed. This helps teams to stay focused on delivering value, rather than getting bogged down in documentation.
- It is flexible and easy to maintain: Agile documentation is created as needed, rather than upfront, which means it can be easily updated and changed as the project evolves. This helps to ensure that the documentation is always up-to-date and relevant.
- It supports collaboration and communication: Agile documentation is typically organized around user stories, which are short descriptions of the functionality that the software should provide. This helps to facilitate collaboration and communication within the team, as well as with stakeholders.
- It helps to prioritize work: Agile documentation helps teams to prioritize the most important work, and to identify and eliminate unnecessary or low-value tasks.
- It promotes transparency: Agile documentation helps to ensure that all team members and stakeholders have a clear understanding of the project, and can see how it is progressing.
6 agile documentation best practices
Critical elements to include in agile documentation
In general, agile documentation should be concise and focused, and should include the following elements:
- User stories: These are short descriptions of the functionality that the software should provide, written from the perspective of the end user.
- Acceptance criteria: These are the specific conditions that must be met for a user story to be considered complete.
- Wireframes: These are simple sketches or mockups of the user interface, which show the layout and functionality of the software.
- Technical design: This is a high-level overview of the technical architecture and components of the software, and how they will fit together.
- Release notes: These are brief summaries of the new features and improvements that have been added in each release of the software.
- FAQs: These are answers to common questions about the software, such as how to install it or how to use specific features.
Plan your agile documentation
Here are some best practices for planning your agile documentation:
- Identify the most important user stories and features: Start by identifying the user stories and features that are most important to the project, and determine what documentation will be needed to support their development.
- Determine the purpose and audience of each document: For each document, consider who the intended audience is and what the purpose of the document is. This will help you to focus the content and ensure that the document is relevant and useful.
- Use templates and standards: Consider using templates or standards for your documentation to ensure that it is consistent and easy to read. This can help to make the documentation more user-friendly and easier to maintain.
- Estimate the time and effort needed to create the documentation: Create rough estimates of the time and effort required to create each piece of documentation. This will help you to plan your documentation work and ensure that you have enough resources to complete it.
- Create documentation as needed: Rather than creating all of the documentation upfront, create it as needed throughout the project. This will help to ensure that the documentation is always up-to-date and relevant.
Purpose oriented documents
Purpose-oriented documents are a type of documentation created with a specific purpose or goal in mind. They are an important part of agile documentation best practices because they help to ensure that the documentation produced is focused and relevant, and serves the needs of the team and stakeholders.
Examples of purpose-oriented documents in an agile project might include:
- Design documents: These documents describe the technical design of a system or feature, including how it will be implemented and how it will integrate with other systems. Design documents are important for understanding the overall architecture of the project and for communicating this to the team.
- Code documentation: This type of documentation is embedded in the code itself, and describes how the code works and what it does. Code documentation is important for helping developers understand and maintain the code, and can also be useful for stakeholders who want to understand how the system works.
Update activities during daily stand-ups
Daily stand-ups are a common practice in agile development, and are short meetings that are held every day (usually in the morning) to discuss progress, identify any issues, and plan for the next iteration. Stand ups can be important for team members working on documentation, because they can help them get up to speed with the current state of the project.
Here are a few ways stand ups can contribute to documentation:
- Progress on user stories: Team members can provide updates on the user stories they are working on, and the team can decide who will update documentation for each story.
- Code changes: Team members can provide updates on any code changes they have made, including any new features or functionality that have been implemented, and the impact on current documentation.
- Risk management: Team members can discuss any risks or issues that have been identified and how they are being addressed. If risks are expected to be long-term, or are relevant for stakeholders outside the team, they can be added to documentation.
Ensure good communication
Ensuring good communication in agile documentation means taking steps to ensure that the right information is being shared with the right people at the right time. This is important in an agile project because the team is working in short iterations and needs to be able to respond quickly to changes in requirements or priorities.
There are a few key ways to ensure good communication in agile documentation:
- Use collaboration tools: Collaboration tools, such as online project management platforms or chat tools, can help to facilitate communication within the team. By using these tools, team members can easily share information, ask questions, and get feedback from each other. Consider adding automatic prompts for team members when relevant documents change and may require their attention.
- Use face-to-face communication: In addition to using collaboration tools, it is also important to have face-to-face communication in an agile project. This can be in the form of regular meetings, such as daily stand-ups, or through more informal channels, such as ad hoc conversations.
- Document decisions: It is important to document key decisions that are made in an agile project, as this helps to ensure that everyone is aware of the reasoning behind those decisions and can refer back to them as needed.
Continuous Documentation is a style of documentation in which documentation is created and updated throughout the development process, rather than waiting until the end. This approach allows the documentation to be more accurate and up-to-date, and it also allows developers to receive feedback on the documentation early in the process, which can help them to improve it.
In contrast to traditional documentation approaches, which often involve creating a large, comprehensive document at the end of the development process, continuous documentation is focused on creating and maintaining lightweight, easy-to-use documentation that is relevant and useful to developers and users.
Continuous documentation can be achieved through the use of tools such as a shared documentation repository or a documentation management system. These tools allow team members to access, update, and collaborate on documentation in real-time, ensuring that everyone has access to the most current information.
Related content: Read our guide to code documentation best practices
Practice documentation in Agile with Swimm
Swimm is a documentation platform built to deal with the main challenges of documentation for software engineering teams that want to create and manage internal documentation about their project. Swimm is particularly useful for teams that practice agile development.
Swimm’s core features include:
- DaC (Documentation as code)—Swimm documents are written in Markdown form and saved within the codebase (as .md files).
- “Live” code—To make documents easier to write and richer, Swimm enables adding code snippets, diagrams, and tokens taken directly from the codebase.
- Automatic sync—Using a dedicated application, Swimm integrates into CI to locate and automatically correct documents that become stale as relevant code changes. Developers are prompted if code changes are significant and demand their attention.
- Enhanced discoverability—Swimm enables various ways to find documentation when needed. Its web application is used to structure documents using tags and Swimm Playlists and to search documents across repositories. Swimm also integrates with IDEs to highlight relevant docs next to code they relate to, enabling you to read them from the IDE without switching contexts.