Early computer users were sometimes simply given the engineers' or programmers' notes. As software development became more complicated and formalized, technical writers and editors took over the documentation process.
And now, software documentation is a way for engineers and programmers to describe their products and the process they used in creating them in formal writing.
Anyone can access any kind of information using the internet, including documents, view hypertext, and multimedia (audio and video) via a web server database. Therefore, whether it’s source codes, API documentation, release notes, or customer-facing FAQs, skipping software documentation isn't an option, especially when you have to sell your new products and communicate their importance to your customers.
Software documentation is essential for DevOps teams because it helps users understand how to use your software, provides developers and other technical stakeholders with information about your software's technical aspects, and ensures that the software development process is consistent and reliable and repeatable.
Plus, look on the bright side. If you have well-written software documentation, the chances of improving the overall quality and user experience of your software are higher.
In this article, we'll explore what software documentation is, its benefits, best practices, challenges and how to overcome them. Consider this your comprehensive guide to software documentation challenges.
What is software documentation?
Software documentation is any documentation created to help users or developers understand a piece of software’s features and functions. It shows what software developers did while creating the software and what users must do when deploying and using it. The process of documenting each project is called the software development life cycle (SDLC). It consists of the following steps:
Examples of software documentation
Software documentation examples include:
- Application programming interface (API) documentation — This refers to the reference documentation for calling APIs. It establishes standards for API communication and ensures that different APIs work smoothly together.
- System documentation — It includes architectural diagrams that explain the structure of the software and its technical design.
- Release notes — Release notes examine the new features and bug fixes included in each release of a software program.
- README files — This is a high-level representation of software that usually comes with the source code.
- Tutorials — Tutorials explain to users how to use the software or about a specific feature.
- How-to guides — These documents take end users through the steps needed to deploy or use the software.
- Explanations — They clarify a particular element of the software for the user.
- Reference documents — It provides IT and end-users with technical documentation of the software.
Software documentation best practices
There are certain software documentation best practices you should follow to ensure that you’ve documented everything in a way that’s easily understandable and accessible, meets the needs of its intended target audience and aligns with your project goals.
Keep the following best practices in mind when writing your next software documentation:
Identify your target audience
Different audiences will have different needs and expectations when it comes to software documentation, and it is important to understand those needs and expectations in order to create effective documentation.
For example, if your audience for the documents you're looking to write are end users of the software, the documentation should be written in a clear and concise style, and it should provide step-by-step instructions for common tasks. It should also provide information about the features and capabilities of the software, and it should include examples and exercises to help users learn how to use the software.
On the other hand, if you're creating software documentation for developers or other technical stakeholders, the documentation must have detailed technical information about the software, such as its API, data structures, and algorithms. It should also describe the processes and procedures that are used to develop, test, and maintain the software.
Define the scope & goals
Once you have identified your audience, begin to define the scope and goals of the documentation. This will help you focus on essential information and ensure that the documentation is relevant and useful. For example, you may want to focus on specific features or use cases, or you may want to provide information that is needed to complete specific tasks.
Create a style guide
Having a style guide is a no-brainer. Creating a style guide for your software documentation is beneficial for the following reasons:
It establishes a clear and coherent tone for the software documentation you create. Additionally, having a style guide builds consistency in style and tone; plus, writers can make the documentation more engaging and easier to read. If style guides can be life-saving for marketing teams (ask our content editor, Lauren, for more deets), imagine how beneficial it would be for your DevOps team.
It ensures consistency in the software documentation process. By following a set of standardized rules and guidelines, writers can avoid using conflicting or inconsistent styles, which can make the documentation more difficult to read and understand.
It improves the overall quality of any software documentation you create by eliminating common errors and mistakes — hence, creating documentation that is more accurate and useful.
Write simply, clearly and concisely
Your software documentation should be written in plain language and avoid industry jargon unless they are necessary. Don't forget to use headings, subheadings, and other formatting techniques to organize the documentation, and provide examples and images to help illustrate key concepts.
Visual elements, such as charts, screenshots, images, diagrams, and videos, can effectively illustrate concepts and ideas, as well as make your software documentation more engaging and easier to understand. This is particularly helpful for new users who are learning how to use your software for the first time.
Software documentation challenges
Software documentation can be daunting. After all, it's no walk in the park. This section examines some of the challenges you might face while creating your documentation.
Process documentation issues
Imagine spending hours manually copying and pasting software documentation when it could be automated. Not only is this a time waster, but it also drastically reduces consistency across your team, increases the inability to redact sensitive information; and most importantly, allows your team to make costly mistakes that could have been avoided.
Not yet convinced? Let's examine how NASA’s lack of processes caused a mistake resulting in the $193 million Mars Climate Orbiter satellite disintegrating. NASA launched a program called the “Mars Surveyor program” in 1993 to conduct a series of experiments to explore Mars. Unfortunately, the mission failed because of one mistake! And that was NASA’s lack of processes.
The Mars Climate Orbiter was intended to maneuver to orbit Mars at a height of 226 km, but it was built to be able to withstand a minimum altitude of 80 km just to be safe. Generally, this would have been a healthy margin for any kind of error, but it disintegrated as soon as it was set on a trajectory that would bring it within 57 km of the surface.
How did this error occur? Unit conversion! One engineering team used metric units while another used the English unit for key spacecraft operations. This could have been avoided if they had a well-maintained and properly documented process.
User and system documentation is often created and maintained using clunky binary files. Most times, collaboration systems for documentation include passing updated versions through long email chains or network file shares. Moreover, proprietary formats (*.docx and PDF generation) tend to suffer from inconsistencies across operating systems, which can yield data corruption across teams with disparate work environments.
This is another challenge that organizations face with paper-based document management systems. It can be difficult to track all the document versions until it gets finalized, the authors of different changes, and rollbacks.
This means there's no automatic maintenance of all the versions of documents in the sequence of changes made and details like author, date, and time. Consequently, you and your DevOps team won't have better control for managing document changes.
Document security is another critical software documentation challenge when managing business-critical documents via a paper-based document management system — particularly with customers’ sensitive data.
When this happens, your team is highly susceptible to data-security threats and your documents aren't safe from accidental damages like hard-drive crashes, virus attacks, etc.
Inability to integrate with other business apps
One of the challenges Software teams face especially with paper-based documentation systems is the inability to seamlessly integrate with other business applications. Additionally, using an ineffective process documentation tool holds you back from getting control of data being shared, analyzed, and distributed across the organization.
What you should look for is powerful cloud-based documentation software that allows you to seamlessly integrate your software documentation with your existing business applications. Not only will it give you better control over the data, but also improve your decision-making ability.
How to fix these software documentation challenges
When buying software documentation tools, look for those designed to help your DevOps team and other stakeholders create, organize, and manage software documentation. Below are features you should consider:
Accessibility — A good software documentation tool should make it easier for your DevOps team to access and use the documentation. It should provide features like search/keyword tools, online documentation portals and other features that can help your team find the information they need quickly and easily.
Collaboration — The study, The Right Technologies Unlock the Potential of the Digital Workplace revealed that 70 percent of employees attested to digital technology improving their collaboration. Management consulting giant, McKinsey, also reported that online collaboration tools and digital workplaces facilitate increased productivity by up to 30 percent.
Therefore, look out for process documentation software that provides tools and features to aid easy collaboration. Features to watch out for include version control, review and approval processes, and other features that can help teams work together effectively.
Automation — In 90 percent of accidents, human error is a contributing factor. Additionally, 70 percent of business leaders report that they spend 45 minutes to 3 hours on repetitive tasks, from an 8-hour workday.
This is why it isn't surprising to hear that automation may boost global productivity growth by 0.8-1.4 percent annually and business leaders agree that automation software reduces labor costs by 31 percent. Therefore, use software documentation tools that can automate some of the repetitive and time-consuming tasks that are involved in creating software documentation.
For example, instead of manually copying and pasting your processes, Scribe instantly turns any process into a step-by-step guide. Simply turn on the Scribe recorder and walk through your process. Voila, your process document is created in seconds!
Organization — Nothing would be more frustrating for your Software team than having to "jump" from one platform to another when creating or accessing documentation. Therefore, consider a software documentation tool that organizes all your information in one single, central platform In fact, 94 percent of corporate executives prefer to use a unified platform to integrate their apps and implement process automation than rely on several platforms.
P.S. Looking for more info? Here's how to use Scribe for software documentation.
Here's why Scribe is the best process documentation tool for you
Apart from offering the above functions, Scribe provides search and retrieval features to find the information you need quickly and easily.
It also offers analytical features that help track user behavior, such as the number of users who access the documentation, the types of information that users are looking for, and the success rate of finding what they're looking for. This would help you understand how the documentation is being used, and enable the improvement of the documentation to enhance its usefulness.
Scribe allows you to easily organize your software documentation in a collaborative wiki and privately share them within your team. It focuses on essential features and offers a clean, intuitive interface, making it a great solution for both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
Other solutions offered include:
- Related docs (Scribes) can be linked together and organized hierarchically under Pages. Pages can be likened to Google Drive folders for organizing your documentation.
- Every page in your software documentation can be collaboratively edited in real-time without experiencing edit-save-conflict cycles.
- Document security and safety are 💯 guaranteed for every documentation, including proprietary information.
- Your documents can be easily integrated with other tools to keep all content in sync.
Looking to create your next software documentation for free? Sign up here and start Scribing!