What is software documentation? Types, tools, and best practices
What is software documentation?
Software documentation is written text or illustration that provides information about an application or other software product. Documentation is important for explaining how the software works, how to use it, and any other information that may be helpful for users or developers.
Software documentation can take various forms, including user manuals, technical manuals, online help files, and API documentation. It is typically created by technical writers and developers, and is designed to be clear, concise, and accurate.
The purpose of documentation is to provide users with the information they need to effectively use and understand the software. It can also be used by developers as a reference when modifying or updating the software.
Software documentation is a crucial part of the software development process, as it helps ensure that the developers and users can easily understand the software, and that the product meets the users’ needs. It also helps to improve the software’s overall quality by providing a clear and comprehensive reference for developers and users.
Why is software documentation important?
Software documentation is essential for several reasons. Here are some of the key benefits of documenting software:
- Improved usability: Software documentation provides users with the information they need to effectively use and understand the software. This helps increase the overall usability of the software and makes it easier for users to accomplish their goals.
- Enhanced maintenance and support: Software documentation can be used by developers and support staff to troubleshoot and fix problems with the software. It can also be used to understand how the software was designed and how it works, which can be helpful when modifying or updating the software.
- Increased collaboration: Software documentation can be leveraged by developers to share knowledge and collaborate on projects. This also enables engineering managers to assign various engineering tasks from different parts of the code. It can also be used to document best practices and standards, which can help improve the quality of the software.
- Compliance with regulations: In some cases, software documentation may be required by regulatory bodies or industry standards. For example, in the healthcare industry, software may need to be compliant with HIPAA regulations, which may require certain documentation to be in place, and up to date.
Types and examples of software documentation
Software documentation can take different forms depending on its target audience. Listed below are some common examples:
End-user documentation is documentation that is intended for the end users of a software product. It is typically designed to be easy to understand and use, and may include user manuals, how-to documents, common issues and workarounds, and other types of documentation that explain how users can make the most of the software.
End-user documentation is usually provided to users before they start using the software, and is designed to help guide them when using it. It can include information about the software's features and functions, as well as step-by-step instructions for using the software.
End-user documentation is an important aspect of the software development process, as it helps ensure that users have the information they need to effectively use and understand the software. It is often created by technical writers and developers, and is designed to be clear, concise, and accurate.
This kind of documentation exists for virtually every product, regardless of its audience, and is regarded as a necessary part of shipping a product to the market.
API documentation is documentation that provides information about how to use a software library or API (Application Programming Interface) effectively. It typically includes descriptions of the various classes, methods, method arguments, and properties that are available in the library, along with examples of how to use them.
API documentation is usually provided in a format that is easy for developers to read and understand, such as HTML or PDF. It may also include an interactive playground to try out the API.
It is an important resource for developers who are working with a particular API, as it helps them understand how the API works and how to use it effectively in their own code.
Just-in-time (JIT) documentation is documentation that is provided to users only when they need it. It is often in the form of context-sensitive help or tooltips that appear when a user performs a specific action or accesses a particular feature in the software.
JIT documentation is designed to provide users with information and assistance when they need it, rather than providing a comprehensive manual or guide upfront. It can be helpful for users who are familiar with the software and only need assistance with specific tasks or features.
JIT documentation is typically provided within the software itself, and may be in the form of pop-up windows, tooltips, or other types of context-sensitive help. It is often used together with other types of documentation, such as user manuals or online help files, to provide users with the information they need to effectively use the software.
Administrative documentation is documentation that relates to the administration and management of a software product. It can include documentation on topics such as installation, configuration, maintenance, and support.
Administrative documentation is typically intended for technical staff, such as system administrators and support personnel, who are responsible for installing, configuring, and maintaining the software. It may include instructions for setting up the software, configuring it to meet the organizational needs, and troubleshooting common issues.
Administrative documentation helps ensure that the software is installed and configured correctly and that it can be maintained and supported effectively. It can also be useful for users who need to understand the technical requirements for using the software.
Developer documentation is documentation that is intended for software developers and other stakeholders wanting to understand the technical side of the product. It is typically used to document the design, implementation, and maintenance of a software product.
Developer documentation can take various forms, including design documents, code comments, and technical reports. It is typically used by developers to understand how the software was designed and how it works, and to facilitate communication and collaboration among team members.
Developer documentation helps ensure that the software is well-designed, maintainable, and easy to understand. It can also be used to document best practices, standards, and other important information about the software.
Developer documentation may include technical information about the product's architecture, design patterns, code libraries, and other details. It is typically more technical in nature than user documentation, which is intended for end-users of the software.
Standards documentation is documentation that outlines the standards, guidelines, and best practices that should be followed when developing a software product. It can include information on topics such as coding standards, design standards, testing standards, and documentation standards.
Standards documentation is usually intended for the software development team and other stakeholders, and is used to ensure that the software is developed consistently and to a high quality. It can help to improve the quality and maintainability of the software by establishing clear guidelines for development.
Requirements documentation specifies the requirements or needs of the software system. It is used to define the scope, functionality, and constraints of the software, and it serves as a foundation for the design and development of the software.
Requirements documentation is normally created at the beginning of the software development process, used to guide the development team as they work to build the software. Often, this kind of documentation is created by product managers. It may include user stories, acceptance criteria, non-functional and functional requirements, and other information describing the software’s capabilities and how it should behave.
Requirements documentation helps to ensure that the software meets the needs of the users and stakeholders. It can also help to reduce the risk of misunderstandings or scope creep during the development process, as it provides a clear and detailed description of what the software is intended to do.
Scheduling documentation outlines the schedule and timeline for a software project. It typically includes a list of tasks that need to be completed, the dependencies between those tasks, and the resources (e.g. people, equipment) required to complete them.
Scheduling documentation is an important part of the software development process, as it helps to ensure that the project stays on track and that all tasks are completed on time. It may be created by the project manager or another member of the development team, and it may be updated regularly as the project progresses.
Scheduling documentation may also include information about the budget for the project, the risks and issues that need to be managed, and any other factors that may impact the project timeline. It is typically used in conjunction with other types of software documentation, such as requirements documentation and design documents, to help guide the development process.
Software design documents (SDD)
A software design document (SDD) is a document describing the design of the software system. It is a detailed, technical document that outlines the architecture, components, and interfaces of the software, as well as the design patterns and principles that were used in its development.
The purpose of an SDD is to provide a clear, comprehensive description of the product’s design, so that it can be understood and implemented by the development team. It is typically created after the requirements for the software have been defined, and it serves as a blueprint for implementing the software.
An SDD may include information about the overall structure and organization of the software, the modules and components that make up the system, the interfaces between these components, and the design patterns and principles used to guide the development process. It may also include diagrams and other visual representations of the software design.
Learn more in our detailed guide to software documentation design (coming soon)
Walkthrough / source code documentation
Walkthrough documentation, also known as source code documentation, provides a detailed description of a software system’s source code. It can be written in the form of comments within the source code, or documents that describe a flow, a process or interactions between parts of the code. It is intended to assist developers when using the code or when learning how it works, for instance in order to extend or modify it.
Source code documentation may include information about the purpose of each code module, the inputs and outputs of functions, and any assumptions or constraints that the code relies on. It may also include descriptions of any algorithms or design patterns that are present in the code.
Walkthrough documentation may extend outside the isolated scope of a function or a module, and explain the logical interaction between various modules, services, or repositories.
Walkthrough documentation may also refer to the process of reviewing and discussing the source code with other members of the development team. This can be a useful way to identify any issues or potential improvements in the code, and to ensure that it is of high quality and meets the requirements of the project.
Learn more in our detailed guides to:
- Software documentation examples (coming soon)
- Software documentation types (coming soon)
Challenges of software documentation
There are several challenges that can arise when creating and maintaining software documentation:
- Time constraints: Developing and maintaining software documentation can be time-consuming, and it is often difficult to find the time to do it while also working on other tasks.
- Lack of resources: Software documentation often requires specialized skills and tools, such as technical writing or diagramming software. These resources may not always be available, which can make it difficult to create high-quality documentation.
- Inaccurate or incomplete documentation: If the documentation is not complete or accurate, it can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in using the software.
- Stale documentation: As software development projects evolve, the requirements and functionality of the software may change. This can make it difficult to keep the documentation up-to-date and accurate. If the documentation is not maintained and updated as the software is modified, it can become stale and no longer reflect the current state of the software.
- Difficulty to find the documentation when needed: Even up-to-date and relevant documentation doesn’t help unless it is read when relevant. In many cases, knowledge is scattered across different systems and platforms, making it hard for users to find the relevant information when needed.
To address these challenges, it is important to allocate sufficient time and resources for documentation, to involve the development team in the documentation process, and to regularly review and update the various types of documentation to ensure that they are accurate and up to date. It is also recommended to practice methodologies and use tools that help to keep documentation up-to-date and easily accessible and automate important parts of the processes.
What is a software documentation tool?
Software documentation tools are used to create, manage, and publish software documentation. There are multiple different types of software documentation tools available, and they can be used to generate and edit a wide range of documentation, including user manuals, developer guides, and technical specifications.
Some documentation tools are designed for specific types of documentation, such as user manuals or technical specifications, while others are more general-purpose and can be used to create a variety of different types of documentation.
Software documentation solutions typically provide features like version control, collaboration tools, and formatting and layout options to help make the documentation process easier and more efficient. They may also include features such as search, navigation, and linking to help users find and access the documentation they need.
There are several types of software documentation tools that are commonly used to create and maintain documentation for software projects:
- Help authoring tools (HATs): These are tools used by professional technical writers to create documentation, but they are less accessible to other team members like developers and product managers.
- Collaboration and project management tools: Tools like Confluence and Notion can be used to create online documentation and to collaborate with team members on documentation projects. These tools are not directed at software documentation specifically.
- Integrated development environments (IDEs): Many IDEs, such as Visual Studio and Eclipse, have built-in tools for generating and maintaining documentation.
- Standalone documentation generators: These tools, such as Doxygen and Javadoc, are designed specifically for generating documentation from source code.
- Text editors and word processors: Simple tools like Microsoft Word and Google Docs can be used to create and edit documentation files, although they may lack some of the more advanced features of other documentation tools.
- Knowledge management for code: These are knowledge management platforms specifically designed for documenting software projects and products. They provide ways to integrate code into the documentation, prompt users to keep documentation up-to-date as the code changes, and help developers find the documentation easily as part of their workflow.
Best practices in creating effective software documentation
Determine your target audience
Determining the target audience for your software documentation is an important step in the documentation process, as it helps you to focus your efforts on creating content that will be most useful and relevant to the people who will be using your software. There are several factors to consider when determining the target audience for your documentation:
Level of technical expertise
Different users may have different levels of technical expertise, and your documentation should be tailored to their needs. For example, user manuals for non-technical users may need to be more concise and use simpler language, while developer guides for IT professionals may be more technical and detailed.
Role and responsibilities
Different users may have different roles and responsibilities, and your documentation should be tailored to their needs. For example, user manuals for end users may focus on how to perform common tasks, while developer guides for system administrators may focus on how to maintain and troubleshoot the software.
Context of use
When creating external documentation, consider the context in which the software will be used, as this can influence the type of information that is most relevant to the users. For example, if the software is used in a highly regulated industry, the documentation may need to include information about compliance requirements.
Choose a template
A software documentation template is a pre-designed structure or outline that can be used as a starting point for creating software documentation. It typically includes a set of predefined sections and formatting options that can be customized to meet the needs of a specific software project.
A software documentation template should include the following elements:
- Introduction: This section provides a general overview of the software and its main purpose.
- Features and functionality: This section should describe the features and functionality of the software, including any key capabilities or functionality.
- System requirements: This section should list the hardware and software requirements for running the software.
- Installation instructions: This section should provide step-by-step instructions for installing the software.
- Reference material: This section should provide additional technical information about the software, such as API reference material or design documents.
By including these elements in your software documentation template, you can create comprehensive and useful documentation that meets the needs of your users and stakeholders.
In addition, you may have various templates that address a specific type of documentation - for example, one template for a software design document, and another for a source code document.
Agile or DevOps methodology for documentation
Agile and DevOps are software development methodologies that focus on collaboration, flexibility, and rapid iteration. They are designed to enable organizations to respond quickly to changing requirements and deliver high-quality software faster.
In the context of documentation, Agile and DevOps methodologies can be applied to help ensure that documentation is created and maintained in a way that is consistent with the overall software development process. This may include:
Creating documentation as part of the development process
In Agile and DevOps methodologies, documentation is typically created in parallel with the development of the software, rather than as a separate, post-development activity. This can help to ensure that the documentation is accurate and up to date, and that it reflects the current state of the software.
Using automated tools and processes
Agile and DevOps methodologies often rely on automated tools and processes to streamline the software development process. The same tools and processes can be used to generate and maintain documentation, which can help to reduce the time and effort required to create and update the documentation.
Collaborating with the development team
In Agile and DevOps methodologies, the development team is typically involved in all aspects of the software development process, including documentation. By involving the development team in the documentation process, it is possible to ensure that the documentation reflects the needs and perspectives of the people who are actually building the software.
By applying Agile and DevOps methodologies to software documentation, it is possible to ensure that all documentation created is accurate, up to date, and closely aligned with the software development process.
Focus on the user experience
By user, we mean the reader of the documentation. Focusing on the user experience (UX) is an important best practice in creating and writing software documentation, as it helps to ensure that the documentation is easy to understand, useful, and enjoyable to read.
Here are some reasons to focus on the UX when creating software documentation:
- Improved usability: Good UX design can make it easier for users to find and use the information they need, which can improve their overall experience with the software.
- Increased adoption: If the documentation is difficult to understand or use, users may be less likely to use the software. By focusing on the UX, it is possible to increase adoption and ensure that users are able to get the most value from the software.
- Enhanced credibility: Good UX design can help to build credibility and trust with users, as it shows that the software and its documentation are well-designed and professional.
- Reduced support burden: If the documentation is clear and easy to understand, users may be less likely to encounter problems or need assistance. This can help to reduce the support burden for the development team and ensure that users are able to get the most value from the software.
Constantly improve and update documents in the knowledge base
It is important to constantly improve and update documents in the knowledge base and make it an iterative process because it helps to ensure that the documentation is accurate, up to date, and useful for users.
As software is modified and updated over time, the documentation may become out of date or inaccurate. By constantly reviewing and updating the documentation as an iterative process, it is possible to ensure that it accurately reflects the current state of the software. Additionally, users' needs and expectations change over time, and the documentation may need to be updated to reflect these changes.
Make documentation easy to find
Making documentation easy to find is important because it helps users access the information they need quickly and efficiently.
When documentation is well-organized and easy to locate, users are able to find answers to their questions and learn how to use the software without becoming frustrated or giving up. This can improve the user experience and make the software more effective.
Additionally, when considering external documentation, having clear and easily accessible documentation can also help reduce the workload on customer support teams, as users will be able to find answers to their own questions without needing to contact support.
Learn more in our detailed guides to:
- Software documentation best practices (coming soon)
- Software documentation writing (coming soon)
Software documentation with Swimm
Swimm’s knowledge management tool for code solves the challenges of documentation for dev teams that cannot manage internal documentation. By treating software documentation like code, documentation and code are created and maintained together.
- Teams streamline documentation, sharing knowledge across teams and repositories.
- All documentation is saved as code so that your docs are easily read as Markdown files within the codebase and are reviewed on Git.
- Swimm’s IDE plugins with VS Code and JetBrains make documentation incredibly easy to find – right next to the code that the docs actually relate to.
- Swimm’s powerful code-coupled editor helps engineers create and edit docs quickly with slash editor commands and all the capabilities of rich text, Markdown, and live code snippets.
- Docs always stay up to date with Swimm’s patented Auto-sync feature.