20+ Software Documentation Examples to Inspire You
Examples of good software documentation can help technical writers, programmers, software engineers, and relevant stakeholders develop documentation that helps internal teams and external users succeed.
Software documentation is a type of technical documentation that is an essential part of a software product.
Without good software documentation, users face difficulties in making the best use of software products, and developers and programmers who work on developing and updating software can face difficulties in understanding work that was previously done by others.
Comprehensive user documentation is one of the factors that play a major role in the procurement of software, especially enterprise software. Without proper documentation, a company may buy state-of-the-art software costing millions of dollars, but will not be able to use it effectively and will constantly run into problems.
Without good software documentation, companies that develop software can also run into serious problems. If software requirements and architecture are not documented, software test plans are not prepared, and user needs are not taken into account, then the probability of successful software development will be very much reduced. Furthermore, if the team or part of a team that developed a software leaves the company, other developers who will work on updating and releasing new software versions may find it difficult to proceed in the absence of proper documentation.
It is for these very reasons that companies invest heavily in the development of detailed software documentation.
Types of Software Documentation
The two main categories of software documentation are
- User Documentation.
- Developer Documentation.
User documentation, or end-user documentation, is developed for software users and provides information about installing, configuring, or using the software. User documentation covers manuals, guides, and several other types of documentation that help users make the best use of the software.
Each software is a product, and software documentation is part of the product. Comprehensive documentation is one of the key factors that influence businesses' buying decisions.
Developer documentation is developed for software developers, programmers, software engineers, project managers, and other stakeholders involved in the software engineering process. It documents software requirements, design, architecture, and source code.
Developer documentation is created by dedicated technical writers or software developers during the software development process. It serves as a reference for developers who may later work on updates to the software. Developer documentation is also known as system documentation or internal software documentation.
Software Documentation Examples
User Documentation Examples
A user manual, also known as a user guide or instruction manual, is an in-depth document that users can refer to if they face any issues or, for example, want to explore more advanced software features. It is intended to assist users with using the software.
Creating easy-to-follow manuals or guides for users is crucial for every software. A well-crafted user manual can impart a great customer experience as users can easily use their software by following the guide.
Good user manuals are searchable, have an easy-to-follow format, use simple language, include visuals, are logically organized, and provide links to relevant resources.
The following image shows the table of contents for the SAP Enterprise user manual.
In addition to details about the software, user manuals also often contain details and specifications about the minimum hardware requirements needed to run the software.
A how-to guide contains step-by-step instructions to help users perform specific tasks such as installing the software, upgrading the software, and activating the software.
How-to guides are especially relevant to software users with limited exposure to technology or users using software for the first time.
Not too long ago, how-to guides were only available in printed format with descriptions and images to help readers understand. However, now it's much more common to find such information in the form of short videos that are available on YouTube or other social media platforms. The short video format provides all the information users need in an easy-to-follow format.
If you want to blur personal information on a video, this video how-to guide from TechSmith shows how to do it with Snagit.
Quick Start Guide
A quick start guide or QSG helps customers set up and start using software as quickly as possible. Quick start guides differ from user manuals in that they are very short guides with only the most important information that is required to use the software.
Benefits of quick start guides include improved clarity and understanding, customer empowerment, increased understanding of software products, and contribution to a good customer experience.
The following example is from the Windows 10 manual and shows users how to quickly start using the new Windows 10 desktop.
Quick start guides are a great way to learn about software and start using it without going into details. For detailed information, you can always refer to the user manuals, configuration guides, and troubleshooting guides.
User documentation includes tutorials, which are learning aids designed to share knowledge and skills related to a particular topic. Examples include tutorials related to using a specific module of enterprise software or a tutorial on how to prevent software from unauthorized access.
Some tutorials include test questions to ensure comprehension of the material, while others may be simple walkthroughs of a software program. Tutorials are created for different levels of users, such as basic, intermediate, and advanced.
Tutorials are available in printed or multimedia format. Video tutorials are popular nowadays because they are easy to follow and provide information on specific topics in an audio-visual format.
Video tutorials allow users to learn on-demand and when they are motivated. Users can take a tutorial whenever and wherever they are located. Users can take breaks and repeat sections as needed.
The Cisco Packet Tracer tutorial is one of many that are available on YouTube. Packet Tracer is a visual simulation tool designed by Cisco Systems that allows users to create network topologies and imitate modern computer networks.
For complex enterprise software, a team of IT professionals working under an administrator manages day-to-day operational issues such as adding new users, providing access rights, and taking data backups.
An administration guide contains all the relevant instructions administrators and their teams require for configuring and maintaining the software.
Software companies develop administration guides for complex business software that will be used by hundreds of thousands of employees. Such software usually has a server-client architecture: the "server software" runs on a server or a group of servers, and employees access the servers through "client software" installed on their official desktops, laptops, and mobile devices.
The server software is complex and requires installation, configuration, and maintenance by experts. The administration guide helps the IT administrator and their team with the server software.
Experts from the IT team also set up the client software: they install and configure it and resolve any issues that come up later.
Administration guides also contain instructions for software configuration. The difference between administration guides and configuration guides is that administration guides are aimed at IT experts and network administrators who are expert-level users, and configuration guides are aimed at other users who are general users with less software expertise.
The following example is taken from the Polycom UC Software administration guide. It shows the steps required to change the administration password on an IP phone.
Troubleshooting guides - or troubleshooting manuals - contain a list of common problems along with step-by-step solutions.
In addition to solutions for specific problems, troubleshooting guides also often contain a systematic process for dealing with problems. This is because any guide or documentation cannot include each and every problem that a user may ever face. A systematic process enables users to deal with most problems in an organized manner.
The following documentation example is from Oracle's Content Server Troubleshooting Guide. The "symptom" is what the customer experiences during software use, and the "problem" is the actual cause of the symptom. The "recommendation" is what the software developer recommends to solve the problem. Depending on the problem, the recommendation could be simple or a detailed series of steps.
Most enterprise-level software is complex, with hundreds or thousands of settings that require configuration. The setting for each parameter varies depending on the customer's requirements. A configuration guide contains all the necessary details that allow system administrators to configure the software successfully.
The following example is taken from the Configuration Guide for Cisco IOS Release 15.1S. It shows summary steps and detailed steps for configuring the IP Routing R4 feature on Cisco devices.
External Knowledge Base
A knowledge base is a library of information about your software. Its purpose is to make it easy for people to find solutions to their problems without having to ask for help. Knowledge bases use a combination of text, image, and video-based content.
An external knowledge base - also known as a customer-facing knowledge base - is where customers can go to learn anything they’d ever need to know about a company’s software-related products and services. It is usually public to everyone and can be easily found online. If you browse through any software's Help and Documentation section, that’s their external knowledge base.
The following image shows the knowledge base for Asana, which is a popular tool for project managers. Asana is a fairly complex tool, and its knowledge base is a great way of learning the ins and outs of the platform.
Asana provides comprehensive documentation on its knowledge base. The navigation is intuitive, with articles that flow naturally from one to the next. This knowledge base is so effective that new users usually require only a few hours to become experts in Asana.
FAQs are answers to questions that have been either asked on a regular basis or that you expect your users to ask at some point. FAQs explain topics that don’t require too much depth or technical support. They cover topics that can be explained in one or two paragraphs.
FAQ pages offer many benefits, including improved customer experience, quick information to help customers make a purchasing decision, reduce the time your customer support teams spend on answering simple questions, increase visibility on Google and other search engines, and drive sales since people will have basic information to make a decision.
The following example shows the WhatsApp FAQ page. The FAQs are grouped into relevant categories that users can refer to.
Developer Documentation Examples
UX Design Documentation Examples
UX is the acronym for “user experience.” It refers to how people interact with a product. In the digital design world, UX refers to everything that affects a user’s interaction with a digital product. User experience is about what users both think and feel, and it also depends on the context in which the product is used.
UX design is the process of creating products that are practical and usable. UX requires a deep understanding of the user: their needs, wants, behaviors, and the context in which they will use a product. The ultimate goal of UX design is to make usable and useful products for users and businesses.
UX design is part of the product design, and that is why it begins at the requirements stage and proceeds through all the stages of software development, including the testing and post-release stages. UX documentation covers user personas, user scenarios, user story maps, and a UX style guide.
Personas are fictional representations of users. Even though personas are fictional, they should be based on fact. Personas represent the goals, characteristics, motivations, and behaviors of real users.
By helping to put a human face to users, personas help the UX design and project teams get a consensus on who the actual ‘users’ are, and help communicate important information about users.
User personas can also help to understand issues such as perceived obstacles or problems in your software or product.
User Flow Diagrams
User flows (user journeys) are diagrams that display the path a user takes when using a product. These diagrams are highly comprehensive and include the path from the moment the idea forms in the user’s head until their goal is achieved.
The benefits of user flow diagrams are:
- They provide the fastest way to visualize the process. There is no need to jump to other applications.
- While prototypes imitate the final solution, user flow diagrams show all possibilities in a single image.
- You can visualize all tasks before you start making mockups and prototypes.
A wireframe shows the user interface (UI) elements such as text, images, buttons, and links that make up a screen, page, or user interface component.
Wireframes are blueprints for the UI and show which elements make up the UI and how they should behave. However, wireframes do not necessarily show what the user interface will look like.
Wireframes offer many benefits, including the ability to visualize the structure clearly, clarify the features of the interface, push usability to the forefront, help to refine navigation, save time and effort, and make content development more effective.
A sitemap is a website blueprint and shows the pages/screens that make up a website or application.
Sitemaps often indicate groupings, such as site sections and links between the various pages and screens.
The following image shows the sitemap for a bank's website.
Software Requirements Specification (SRS)
A software requirement specification describes a software system to be developed. It lays out functional and non-functional requirements. A software requirement specification may include a set of use cases that describe user interactions that the software must provide.
A software requirement specification establishes the basis for an agreement between customers and contractors or suppliers on how the software product should function. It also contains the technical or business assumptions.
According to International Standard ISO/IEC/IEEE 29148:2018 (Systems and software engineering — Life cycle processes — Requirements engineering), the benefits of documenting software requirements specifications include:
- It provides a realistic basis for estimating product costs, risks, and schedules.
- It provides an informed basis for deploying a product to new users or new operational environments.
- It provides a basis for product enhancement.
- It forces a rigorous assessment of requirements before design can begin and minimizes later redesign.
- It establishes the basis for agreement between the acquirers or suppliers on what the product is to do (in market-driven projects, the user input may be provided by marketing).
- Organizations can use the specifications to develop validation and verification plans.
The following image shows the table of contents for an SRS of a software tool.
Software Design Description (SDD)
A software requirements specification (SRS) serves as the basis for the software design description or SDD. An SDD contains the software design and overall architecture.
An SDD helps to ensure that the whole project team, including the software developers, are on the same page. The SDD also helps to ensure that all stakeholders vet the entire design and that all risks and assumptions are considered.
An SDD usually contains the following:
- Data design: Describes structures that reside within the software. Attributes and relationships between data objects dictate the choice of data structures.
- Architecture design: Uses information flow characteristics, and maps them into the program structure. The data flow diagrams allocate control input, processing, and output along three separate modules.
- Interface design: Describes the internal and external program interfaces, and the design of the human interface.
- Procedural design: Describes structured programming concepts using graphical, tabular, and textual notations.
The following image shows the table of contents for an SDD of a web portal.
Source Code Documentation
Source code refers to the computer programs that programmers create. It is comprised of long sequences of programming language statements that make up a computer program.
Source code documentation contains all the computer programs related to a software product. It serves as a reference for developers who may work on later versions of the software, and for developers who may use components of the software for their own projects.
The main purpose of source code documentation is to increase the product’s maintainability, regardless of who might be working with the code.
Some developers argue against code documentation because they reason that well-written programs are self-explanatory. In reality, however, this is not always the case:
- Not all source code is equally obvious, and there may be complex algorithms or custom workarounds that are not clear enough for other developers.
- If there are any issues with the product after release, having proper source code documentation can speed up the problem resolution time.
- Source code documentation describes dependencies between system modules and third-party tools and therefore may be needed for integration purposes.
In addition to the programming language statements, the documentation for source code contains explanatory notes known as comments, and it is logically organized for readability and comprehension.
The following image shows an example of documented source code. The comments are the green-colored text.
Software Test Documentation
Software development is an iterative process: software is developed and then tested, errors - known as bugs - are identified and removed, and then the software is tested again. Once a working software version is ready, work starts on the next software version.
Software test documentation contains detailed test plans and procedures for software testing.
Components of the software test documentation include:
- Master Test Plan (MTP): contains the overall test plan.
- Level Test Plan (LTP): contains the approach, resources, and schedule of the testing activities for each LTP.
- Level Test Design (LTD): contains details for the test cases and test pass criteria.
- Level Test Procedure (LTP): contains the detailed test procedure, including details for necessary pre-requisites.
- Level Test Report (LTR): contains a summary of the test for a specified test level.
- Master test report: contains a summary of the overall test report.
The following image shows the test plan for a software test scenario.
API is the acronym for Application Programming Interface. An API is a software intermediary that allows two applications to interface with each other.
API documentation contains instructions about effectively using and integrating with an API.
The following example shows API documentation from Twilio. It follows the three-column logic with the code directly to the right of the guide. Even simple actions are explained in detail. Numerous links for additional information and screenshots are also included. Feedback is also encouraged.
SDK is the acronym for Software Development Kit. An SDK is a set of software-building tools for a specific platform, including the building blocks, debuggers, and a group of code libraries such as a set of routines specific to an operating system (OS).
SDK documentation contains instructions about how to use an SDK effectively.
The Google Cloud SDK documentation provides quickstart guides for Linux, Debian, Ubuntu, and other operating systems. The guides explain how to install, set up, and manage the SDK commands. An API reference for the commands is also included.
UML stands for Unified Modeling Language. It is intended to provide a standard way to visualize the design of a software system.
Creating a UML diagram before any code is written is an efficient way for programmers to keep track of all the components involved and how they relate to each other.
The benefits of UML diagrams include effective communication of software architecture, flexibility, ease of understanding, and help to plan a program prior to programming.
The current UML standard specifies 13 different types of diagrams: class, activity, object, use case, sequence, package, state, component, communication, composite structure, interaction overview, timing, and deployment. These 13 types of diagrams are organized into two groups: structural diagrams and behavioral or interaction diagrams.
The following image shows a UML component diagram for a library management system.
Internal Knowledge Base
An internal knowledge base is typically utilized as a way to allow employees to collaborate and share all company knowledge and information internally. When creating an internal knowledge base, you can include anything that is meant for internal use.
An internal knowledge base is a great way of protecting organizational knowledge and increasing productivity. As teams work on projects they contribute to the knowledge base, which allows other team members to learn new ideas and speed up innovation. If any team member has a query, rather than spending precious time searching for information, they can go directly to the knowledge base and get the information at the press of a button.
An internal knowledge base also helps to reduce employee onboarding time and employee training time.
The following image is the landing page for the internal knowledge base of a managed service provider.
This knowledge base contains separate sections for all the major topic areas that internal users might need help with. It also shows the most popular articles based on usage. A link for contacting customer support is also available if users cannot find what they are looking for.
The product roadmap is a type of internal product documentation. It contains a plan of action for how a software product will evolve. It serves as a guide for both business and technical teams.
The following example shows a release roadmap for a software product. This roadmap helps to visualize what needs to happen in order to deliver timely upcoming releases. With the visual timeline, you can view the scope of work and zoom into specific features. You can also include milestones for important dates such as deadlines or approvals. The gray arrows indicate dependencies, making it easy to identify blockers or constraints that require resolution for on-time delivery.
There are several other types of roadmaps.
Portfolio roadmaps show planned releases for a portfolio of software products in a single view. They are useful for providing a strategic overview of the release plan to company leadership and a broad view of how multiple product teams work together.
A features roadmap shows the timeline for the planned delivery of new features. They are ideal for communicating the details of upcoming features with customers and other teams.
Strategy roadmaps display planned high-level efforts that will help you to achieve your product goals. They are a great way of presenting progress on initiatives to leadership and keeping multi-disciplinary teams aligned on the overall business strategy.
Detailed documentation is an essential component of the package that makes up a software solution.
The two main types of documentation that pertain to the software itself are user documentation and developer documentation.
User documentation helps users learn about software, its features, how to configure it, use it, and troubleshoot any issues that arise.
Developer documentation helps software developers, programmers, and other stakeholders involved in the software development process by ensuring that software development proceeds smoothly and that the software satisfies all requirements.
Technical writers, programmers, and other stakeholders participate in the development and maintenance of comprehensive software documentation.
Producing software documentation is a task that doesn't have to be done manually. Many software documentation tools are available. With software documentation templates and other features, these tools help to streamline the process of creating and managing documents. The tools make document creation and distribution more straightforward and faster. The best software documentation tools also allow you to publish your documents and distribute them to internal teams or external users.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.