What is software documentation?

Software documentation is written text or visual illustration intended to describe the functionality, design, and use of a software product. It can come in the form of API documentation, manuals, release notes, technical specifications, developer docs, or other content that is customer- or user-facing.

Typically, software documentation is built for one of a few audiences:

  • End users
  • Developers
  • Technical and non-technical stakeholders (e.g. project and product managers, DevOps)
  • System, network, and application administrators
  • Customer support teams
  • Other IT professionals

Documentation is a critical part of shipping new software; it should provide its readers with accurate, current information that helps them understand how to use the software most effectively and take advantage of new, existing, and deprecated features.

Well-written software documentation can have incredibly positive effects on the overall quality of your software, user experience, customer retention, and developer happiness. Here are some software documentation best practices to get you on the right track.

Software documentation best practices

If you’re just getting started writing technical documentation or looking to improve your team’s existing processes, there are numerous software documentation best practices to keep in mind.

It’s important to remember that ultimately, a human—not a computer—will be reading the documentation and deciphering it. So, maintaining traditional best practices for good communication is a great place to start.

  • Be clear and concise
  • Keep information up to date
  • Standardize templates and processes
  • Set your dev team up for success with helpful resources
  • Design your docs to be searchable
  • Make it available in multiple formats (HTML, PDF, Markdown, etc)

We’ve written extensively about the impacts and methods of software documentation on the Swimm blog.

Prioritize documentation in software development

Developers often fail to understand the importance of documentation because they have so many other coding tasks on their plate that have a more direct impact on the software they’re developing. Prioritizing documentation in your team’s software development processes can have significant benefits.

As is typical in the Agile and DevOps methodologies, standardizing the process of creating documentation in parallel with developing the software helps ensure the information is accurate and current.

Implement policies like:

  • Requiring new features to have accompanying documentation before they’re allowed to ship
  • Hire technical writers as resources for your development team, and
  • Invest in tools that can automate or streamline steps, such as technical documentation software like Swimm.

Prioritizing documentation during the software development process increases efficiency, improves communication, makes it easier to maintain documentation, enables a better group understanding of documentation requirements, speeds up onboarding, and enhances code quality.

Read our guide to software technical documentation example.

Create a style guide

Creating a style guide for your project’s software development documentation helps ensure consistent quality in both your docs and codebase by specifying things like naming conventions, indentation, commenting, and other coding practices. This will make your documentation more manageable and understandable.

A style guide for your documentation:

  • Promotes best practices for coding and design
  • Helps reduce errors and bugs
  • Makes the codebase more robust and reliable
  • Facilitates collaboration on coding conventions
  • Improves communication and reduces conflicts

Onboarding new developers to the team is easier with a style guide as people can quickly understand naming conventions and best practices, and it also streamlines future maintenance of the documentation and codebase.

Creating a style guide for your software documentation also helps establish a clear and consistent tone and voice for the project and team. Consider including the following elements when creating your software documentation style guide:

  • Visuals (images or video)
  • Direction on page formatting (use of headers, etc.)
  • Standardizing terminology, especially how to refer to your software and company
  • Direction on voice and tone

Use graphics and visual aids

Including graphics and visual aids in your software development documentation helps improve clarity and user understanding. Visual examples simplify complex information. A flowchart can quickly explain a process, while a diagram can show relationships between different components of a system.

coding diagram, for example, is a code-generated visual guide interpreting technical information. Unlike diagrams as graphics, diagrams as code do not require visual inspection and can be managed as part of the software development lifecycle. Code diagrams can be tracked, commented on, tested, versioned, and automated.

Graphics within software documentation help hold the reader’s attention and make the content more engaging and memorable, making it easier to retain the information. Visual aids also empower end users to be resourceful and find solutions without enlisting other developers or your support team.

The visual examples you include in documentation should show the software development process, the context in which the software is used, and the architecture of a system, including the system’s components and how they interact.

Include examples

Including examples in software development documentation gives users hands-on experience with the software and helps them understand how to use it most effectively.

Examples give users the opportunity to practice using the software and apply concepts described in the documentation and understand how the software works and how to use it in their daily workflow. By illustrating things in a concrete way, examples make documentation more accessible and understandable, thus increasing its value.

Including examples as a software development best practice also improves troubleshooting, empowering users to identify and troubleshoot common problems.

Use a consistent structure and format

Implementing consistent structure and formatting in software documentation makes the documentation more organized, readable, and easy to navigate. Keeping this consistent also makes your documentation look more professional, building trust and credibility with your user base.

By organizing your technical documentation in a logical and intuitive way, you will make it easier for users to find the information they need exactly when they need it.  This strategy involves using headings, subheadings, a table of contents, and keeping the layout assistant across all your docs.

A consistent and logical organization makes your software development documentation more readable and increases scannability by making the information visually appealing and reducing eye strain. Consider using bullet points and numbered lists to break up long blocks of text when it makes sense.

Including hyperlinks and cross-references in a consistent layout makes it convenient for users to move back and forth between related sections of your software documentation.

Finally, keeping your documentation structure and formatting consistent makes it more accessible to users with visual impairments. You should consider providing alternate formats of your documentation in audio, braille, and large print.

Software documentation best practices using Swimm

Implementing tools to help with your software development documentation processes will save time and increase developer happiness.

Swimm enables code-coupled documentation, a sophisticated knowledge management tool for code that ensures docs are accurate and up to date. This increases both internal and external trust in the technical documentation and stands as a single source of truth as the code changes.

Swimm is set up to provide all of the information directly in your IDE, eliminating the need for developers to search through documentation to find what they need.

The overhead associated with onboarding a developer to a new organization, team, or codebase has traditionally been intense and overwhelming, especially if you don’t have well-organized and quality documentation. Swimm can provide a completely tailored and guided onboarding experience for your team, giving developers the ability to create documentation Playlists.

Improve your team’s software documentation process today and sign up for a free demo to get started with Swimm today.