Software documentation is an essential aspect of the software development lifecycle, serving as a comprehensive guide for developers, testers and end-users.
While some developers enjoy writing documentation, many others prefer to avoid it — and it's no secret why. You start noting everything down, and soon you're sorting through Word and PDF documents, trying to find what you need.
We're here to guide you on the top software documentation best practices to save time and streamline the process.
TL;DR: Software documentation best practices
- Software documentation is a crucial part of the development process, offering developers, testers and users guidance.
- It includes internal documentation for system requirements and design, external documentation for users and API integration, and source code documentation.
- Best practices involve integrating documentation into development, choosing the right tools, defining purpose and audience, maintaining consistency, and seeking feedback.
- Other best practices include adopting agile methods, creating a style guide, keeping it simple, using visuals, and automating the process.
- Benefits include increased user adoption, streamlined developer onboarding, and reduced support burden.
- The key is to create clear, concise, and up-to-date documentation for a successful software development process.
What is software documentation?
Software documentation is technical documentation that helps users or developers understand a software's features and functions.
It’s the umbrella term for the work you’ve seen before, like written tutorials, user guides, videos and training manuals. No matter the type, software documentation aims to help users understand software:
Types of software documentation
Software documentation is a reference for developers, testers and users, providing the necessary information to understand, use and maintain the software effectively.
Here are the most common types of documentation in the software development lifecycle.
- Requirements documentation captures the functional and non-functional requirements of the software system.
- Design documentation describes the architecture and structure of the software system.
- Technical documentation provides detailed information about the software's technical aspects.
- Testing documentation outlines the software system's test plans, test cases and test results.
- Maintenance documentation includes information on maintaining and supporting the software system after its initial development.
- Project documentation encompasses all the documentation related to the software development project as a whole.
- Process documentation captures the software development and maintenance process, including methodologies, tools, and workflows.
- Standards documentation defines coding standards, design principles, and best practices for software development.
- Source code documentation: Comments within the code that explain the purpose and functionality of different parts of the code.
- User documentation is aimed at end-users and provides instructions on installing, configuring, and using the software.
- API documentation includes technical information about the software's application programming interface (API), enabling developers to integrate the software with other applications.
- Release notes inform users about new features, bug fixes, and other changes implemented in a software release.
These software documentation examples can help your team enhance collaboration, improve software quality, and ensure successful project outcomes.
Best practices for writing effective software documentation
Let's explore 10 best practices for writing effective software documentation.
1. Prioritize documentation in the development process
Making documentation part of your ongoing process improves team communication and collaboration and reduces rework.
To integrate documentation into your development workflow:
- Assign document creation tasks alongside code development and integrate tools into the development workflow for seamless updates.
- Set aside time for documentation as part of the development process.
- Use tools that make it easy to write and maintain documentation.
- Treat documentation like code, using version control systems to track changes, maintain historical records, and facilitate collaboration.
2. Choose the right tools
There are a number of tools available to help you write and maintain your documentation. When choosing the right software:
- Research and compare different software documentation tools based on features, pricing, ease of use, integration capabilities, and compatibility with your software development process.
- Select tools that fit your team's technical skills and experience level, making it easy and efficient to create technical documentation.
- Look for real-time collaboration, version control, and role-based access control features for effective team documentation management.
3. Define the purpose and audience
Before diving into documenting your software, it's essential to define the purpose and target audience personas. Are you writing for developers, system administrators or end users?
- Identify different user personas: Create audience definitions, define their roles, level of technical expertise and specific needs to tailor content and provide targeted information.
- Tailor your documentation to your user’s goals, needs and levels of understanding.
- Emphasize your value proposition: For end-user documentation, highlight the benefits and value users will get from using the software.
4. Define the scope and goals of your documentation
Align documentation with your project goals:
- What do you want to achieve with your documentation?
- What information do you need to include?
- How will you measure the success of your documentation?
Define clear objectives for your documentation, such as reducing customer support tickets or technical support, increasing user adoption, or improving developer productivity. Then:
- Create a content strategy that outlines your documentation's scope, main goals and objectives.
- Map user journeys: Identify and map key user workflows to specific documentation sections, ensuring easy access to relevant information at each stage.
- Develop a content roadmap: Plan documentation content release in phases, prioritizing critical sections and user needs first and gradually adding more advanced topics.
5. Work closely with subject-matter experts
Lean on your subject matter experts! Developers have in-depth knowledge about a product. And writers might find it hard to approach them frequently to get more information for the document.
One way to avoid this is by synchronizing the documentation process with the software development process — that way all team members can regularly collaborate and acquire vital information to achieve the documentation goal.
Make sure your SMEs don’t lose time while helping with documentation. Take advantage of Scribe — an AI process documentation generator that builds process docs — fast. All your SME has to do is go through the process once.
Scribe automates the documentation process, following along to create a visually appealing step-by-step guide, complete with text, annotated screenshots, click targets, and more.
6. Use a consistent structure and navigation
Consistency is vital when it comes to the navigational structure of your documentation.
- Establish a clear structure and format, including headings, subheadings, bullet points, and code snippets.
- Implement a document hierarchy: Organize content into clear sections and subsections with intuitive, easy navigation paths and consistent terminology to maximize accessibility.
This consistency makes it easier to navigate and find the information quickly.
7. Provide search functionality
As your documentation grows, search functionality is essential. Users should be able to search for specific keywords or topics to find the information they need quickly.
- Consider using a documentation tool or platform that offers robust search capabilities.
- Implement a search bar with advanced filtering options to enable users to find specific information within the documentation quickly.
- Provide breadcrumbs and context to allow users to easily navigate different sections and understand their location within the overall documentation structure.
8. Include troubleshooting and FAQs
Taking a proactive approach to creating customer-facing help content can save users time and frustration by addressing their concerns upfront.
9. Keep software documentation up-to-date
Software evolves over time, and so should your documentation.
- Define clear ownership for different sections of documentation.
- Regularly review and update your documentation to reflect any changes or new features.
- Establish a process for reviewing and approving updates before publishing, ensuring quality and consistency.
- Use version control to track changes.
10. Ask for feedback and iterate
Actively seek feedback from users and developers to improve your documentation and ensure it remains valuable and user-friendly.
- Conduct surveys, user testing or provide a feedback mechanism to gather suggestions and identify areas for improvement.
- Encourage user feedback and contributions to ensure your documentation remains accurate and relevant.
- Use the feedback to improve your documentation.
Dive deeper: more software documentation tips & best practices
Now that we've covered the essentials for creating effective software documentation let's dive deeper into tips and best practices for creating clear, concise, and valuable documentation.
1. Adopt agile or DevOps methodology
It's common for technical writers to work in an agile methodology. Agile methodology means:
- Working software over extensive documentation.
- Responding to a change proactively over following a plan.
- Individuals and interactions over tools and processes.
- Customer collaboration instead of contract negotiation.
The “Docs Like Code” methodology is a subcategory of agile — using the same processes and tools for the docs as you do for the software.
Instead of having a separate documentation team, make it a collaborative effort.
2. Develop a style guide
Establish a comprehensive style guide to ensure consistency in your documentation.
- Define consistent formatting, terminology, syntax and voice.
- Develop software documentation templates for common elements like tutorials, API references, and troubleshooting guides.
Google's developer documentation style guide is an excellent example of a comprehensive style guide.
3. Keep it simple and concise
Keep the language simple and concise, ensuring that even non-technical users can understand the content.
- Use plain language and avoid technical jargon.
- Write in a clear and concise style.
- Use active voice.
- Proofread carefully for errors.
4. Use visuals
Visuals can help to break up text and make your developer docs more engaging.
- Use visuals and video to illustrate your points.
- Make sure that your visuals are clear and easy to understand.
5. Include examples and exercises
Examples and exercises can help users to learn how to use your software.
- Provide examples of how to use the software.
- Include exercises to help users understand the material.
- Include a variety of example scenarios and helpful resources to cater to different learning styles.
6. Provide clear installation and setup instructions
One of the most critical aspects of software documentation is providing clear installation guides and setup instructions.
- Include step-by-step guides, prerequisites and troubleshooting tips to help users get the software running smoothly.
- Incorporate screenshots, images, diagrams, and videos to simplify the process.
7. Document APIs and interfaces
If your software exposes APIs or interfaces for integration with other systems, document them thoroughly.
Explain each endpoint, input/output parameters, and example requests and responses.
This will help developers understand how to interact with your software programmatically.
8. Include code examples and tutorials
Code examples and tutorials are invaluable resources for developers. Include source code snippets demonstrating using different features or solving common problems.
Tutorials can guide users through specific use cases, providing a hands-on learning experience.
9. Create a customer feedback loop
Closing the customer feedback loop is part of the agile process. Agile development is an ongoing effort between the customer and the development team at every process stage.
Here are a few ways to collect feedback for changes that matter.
- Social media questionnaires.
- Knowledge base contact form.
- Customer support tickets.
- Users ratings.
- Knowledge base data analytics.
Closing the customer feedback loop involves connecting what you learn with the right team members.
10. Automate your documentation
Scribe is a ground-breaking tool for process documentation. Simply install the Scribe Chrome extension, activate it and watch as it records your actions, keystrokes and clicks. Scribe auto-generates a complete step-by-step guide with text and annotated screenshots in seconds.
Use Scribe's generative AI to add headlines and additional context — or ask it to build user guides, FAQs, onboarding docs, SOPs and more for you.
Combine multiple Scribes, images, screenshots, videos and GIFs to create detailed, comprehensive documentation.
Share, publish, or embed these guides in your knowledge base with one click. Scribe integrates with thousands of tools like SharePoint, Notion, Confluence, and more.
Scribe also offers universal updates — when an edit is made to the original documentation, it's automatically updated in all shared docs, eliminating manual work.
Benefits of software documentation
Software documentation makes life easier for developers and users. Here are a few of the benefits:
1. Increases user adoption
Explaining how to use your product well can increase your software adoption and customer retention rate effectively.
2. Helps train new developers
Multiple developers can work on developing a single product — but as time progresses, they might not remember every single line of code they ever wrote.
Documenting processes can help the rest of the team understand the process and look back at it whenever needed. Processes and procedures also streamline developer onboarding as your organization grows.
3. Reduces burden on software support teams
According to NICE's 2022 report, 81 percent of customers want more self-service options.
Customer-facing product documentation reduces the number of support tickets. When you provide customers with a dedicated knowledge base, they can solve their queries without contacting the customer support team.
What are the 4 methods of documentation?
These four methods are considered best practices in software documentation:
- Learning-oriented tutorials: Designed to help users learn how to use a software product or feature.
- Goal-oriented how-to guides: focus on specific tasks or goals that users want to achieve with the software.
- Understanding-oriented discussions: Provide deeper insights and explanations about the software.
- Information-oriented reference material: Comprehensive information about the software that is a go-to resource for detailed information about the software's features, functions, and usage.
What is the standard for software documentation?
Software documentation standards define the formats and styles for documenting software:
- Coding standards outline guidelines for writing clean, readable, and maintainable code.
- Design standards provide guidelines for creating software architectures and system designs.
- Testing standards define processes and methodologies for testing software to ensure its quality and reliability.
- Documentation standards, such as user manuals, technical specifications, and API documentation, specify the structure, content, and presentation.
Wrapping up: software documentation best practices
We know this is a lot to take in! You can always refer to this guide when creating your software documentation.
Like the code, software documentation best practices are crucial to your team. So make sure to:
- Create your documentation strategies alongside development.
- Use the right tools.
- Use agile methodologies to improvise the entire process.
Scribe helps you create documentation in a better and quicker way — give it a try for free. It’s made our users' lives easier and made documentation something that’s (dare we say it?!) actually fun. Sign up for Scribe and get started!