What is Software Documentation?
Software documentation refers to all the technical and written documentation related to a software product that is:
- Developed to assist and document the software development process, and
- Created to help end-users make effective use of the software.
Types of Software Documentation
Software documentation is technical documentation that can be categorized into two main categories:
- Developer documentation: used to document software requirements, design, architecture, and source code. It is created by dedicated technical writers or software developers during the software development process. Developer documentation is used by software developers, programmers, project managers, and other stakeholders involved in the software engineering 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.
- User documentation: provides information about installing, configuring, or using software. Software is a product, and software documentation is part of the product. Comprehensive software documentation is one of the key factors that influence businesses' buying decisions.
Types of Developer Documentation
Several types of developer documentation are created during the software development process.
Software Requirements Specification (SRS)
The software requirement specification describes a software system to be developed. It lays out functional and non-functional requirements. The software requirement specification may include a set of use cases that describe user interactions that the software must provide.
The software requirement specification establishes the basis for an agreement between customers and contractors or suppliers on how the software product should function.
Software Design Description (SDD)
The software requirements specification (SRS) serves as the basis for the software design description or SDD. The SDD contains the software design and overall architecture.
The 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.
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.
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.
UX Design Documentation
UX is the acronym for “user experience.” When we say “user experience,” we refer 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.
The product roadmap contains a plan of action for how a software product will evolve over time. It serves as a guide for both business and technical teams.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Types of User Documentation
Software users require several types of end-user documentation to install, configure and use software products.
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 who are using software for the first time.
A tutorial is a learning aid designed to share knowledge and skills related to a certain topic. Examples include tutorials related to using a certain 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.
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.
Usually, 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.
A troubleshooting guide contains a list of common problems along with step-by-step solutions.
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.
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
Software Documentation Goals
Both types of software documentation help businesses achieve several goals.
Developer Documentation Goals
Ensure Software Success
In the world of project management, a successful project is defined as one that meets the cost, quality, and time constraints.
Each software development project has budget, quality, and time-related constraints. When the software requirements are not well-defined and risks are not identified, there will be a higher possibility of redesign later on. This will require more time for project completion and lead to cost overruns.
When the software requirements are well-defined, relevant risks are taken into account, and product costs and schedules are based on realistic estimates, then there is a much higher probability that the project will satisfy the respective budget, quality, and time-related constraints.
Unify Product-related Information
Information that is scattered is hard to find and easy to lose. A central repository of all product-related information helps developers and other stakeholders find the required information quickly.
Facilitate Knowledge Sharing
New developers can use developer documentation to come up to speed on existing projects quickly. Good documentation makes it easy to share knowledge easily among team members.
Improve Future Projects
Lessons learned during software development projects can help development teams improve their work on future projects. In this way, time and cost will be saved, and product quality will improve.
User Documentation Goals
Ease of use, intuitive interfaces, and useful features are all important for software success. However, software with non-existent or poor documentation will alienate customers. That is why good software documentation plays a key role in the user experience.
Explain Product Functionality
End-users belong to a wide range of educational and professional backgrounds. Good user documentation helps to explain product functionality to end-users, irrespective of their level of education or familiarity with technology.
Help Resolve Common Problems
Good software documentation includes solutions for common problems faced by end-users.
Reduce Support Costs
Good user documentation helps customers resolve problems on their own, leading to a reduced load on the customer support team. This leads to cost savings as fewer dedicated resources are required to provide customer support.
Documentation quality is a crucial factor, especially for complex enterprise software solutions. Such software can sometimes cost millions of dollars. These solutions require a lot of time and expertise to implement and maintain, which is not possible without quality documentation. That is why good documentation is a key factor in driving software sales.
Who Develops Software Documentation?
The development of software documentation is an ongoing process. It is also a complex process as different types of documents are required for personnel involved in software development and for end-users. There are parts of the documentation that can be developed by personnel who don't have in-depth technical knowledge. And there are parts of the documentation that subject matter experts can only develop.
Furthermore, documentation is continuously updated to incorporate changes. All versions of the documentation are maintained. For this reason, a version control system is usually implemented to manage the older and newer versions of the documentation. The documentation also requires review and approval before releasing to internal or external users.
Due to the complexities involved, documentation for a software product is usually managed and developed by a team of technical writers, engineers, developers, and programmers.
Many software documentation tools have been developed to reduce the complexity related to document creation and management.
Software Documentation Tools
Software documentation tools support many features that help to streamline the process of creating and managing documents. Many documentation tools support the ability to publish documents and distribute documents to internal teams and external users. The software documentation tool you choose will depend on the type of documents you need to create.
Benefits of Software Documentation Tools
Many software documentation tools include support for integrated version control. Version control is a method of managing multiple versions of the same document, particularly when it is important to keep a record of how the document was created and changed over time.
Each time the document is revised a revision number is applied, which enables you to identify the latest version of the document and differentiate between drafts and final approved versions of the document.
Version control is helpful in collaborative environments, where several different contributors may be working on the development of a document and it is important to track changes, capture key decisions, and document the reviewing process.
Software Documentation Templates
Many software documentation tools include ready-made templates. This makes document creation easier and faster.
Documentation from Source Code
Some software documentation tools support the generation of documentation from annotated source code. Such tools can generate online documentation and offline reference manuals from specific source files by extracting information directly from the source, creating continuity between documentation and source code.
With a digital documentation tool, sharing and collaborating on documents and processes is much easier compared to paper-based solutions. Audit trails that track the creation and editing of documents allow you to identify personnel in the event of errors and modifications.
Software documentation tools support integrations with third-party tools such as Google Workspace, Microsoft Teams, and GitHub.
When documents are saved in a digital documentation system, the content is archived and indexed with metadata. This allows you to use advanced search capabilities to find needed documents within seconds. This allows your teams to save time and energy and ultimately leads to cost savings and improved productivity.
This is the age of software! Software powers everything from smartphones to autonomous cars, satellites, and digital watches.
Software and related documentation are extremely valuable digital assets that require adequate protection.
Features supported by software documentation tools such as document tracking, password protection, and access restrictions help to protect sensitive information. Software documents are only accessible to those who have been granted access.
Software documentation tools allow you to backup critical company documents and data to either a disaster recovery (DR) site or to the cloud. Disaster recovery offers you peace of mind as you know that critical documents are protected from natural or man-made disasters. Disaster recovery will also protect your documents and data in case the primary repository is compromised by a security breach.
Software Documentation Best Practices
Documentation is both an art and a science. Following are some of the best practices that can help you create good quality software documentation.
Prioritize Documentation in the Development Process
Documentation is part of the software product. However, it often happens that the focus is on the software, and documentation falls under the radar.
A concerted effort is required to give documentation its due priority throughout the software development life cycle. An effective method of ensuring documentation priority is to implement systems that ensure that software is considered incomplete unless it is accompanied by documentation.
Develop Sufficient Documentation
Just as too little documentation does not help anyone, too much documentation also is counter-productive. Documentation with repeated information or information that does not solve a problem or serve a purpose is redundant.
The project team should analyze project complexity and plan for the documentation before development. The documentation created should only contain necessary and relevant information.
One way of avoiding too much documentation is the following: instead of creating a comprehensive document for every feature, you develop documentation as and when a requirement arises. This could for example happen when a customer raises a support ticket.
Write for the Audience
As the documentation is developed for an audience, it should consider the audience's needs. In general, each document should be logically arranged, searchable, and easy to navigate. It is best to avoid long blocks of text and use visual elements that aid comprehension.
Documentation for end-users should be written in language that is free of technical terms, acronyms, and jargon that would be hard to comprehend.
Documentation for technical personnel such as programmers and developers should contain all relevant details that allow them to perform their tasks.
Documentation aimed at project stakeholders should be written in language that aids comprehension.
Maintain and Update the Documentation
Documentation that is out of date or contains obsolete information can actually harm users. That is why maintaining and updating documentation are essential.
A good practice is to implement a schedule for updating documentation. The schedule can be related to the calendar in which case the documentation maintenance and updating are performed on a monthly or quarterly basis. The schedule can also be related to the software release schedule, in which case the documentation update is performed with every release of the software.
A version control system can help to track multiple versions of the documentation.
It is best to include glossaries for every term, especially for documentation that is aimed at external users. As meanings can vary from context to context, the glossaries should include the meaning that is specific to the project.
Software documentation helps developers develop better software. It also helps end-users make effective use of software.
Creating software documentation is a complex process: it is developed for different audiences, requires input from multiple stakeholders, and requires maintenance and version control.
Software documentation tools help to reduce the complexity related to the development of software documentation. They also support many other features that make collaboration easier and documentation creation simpler and faster.
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.