Code documentation is a mandatory task for programmers. True, it’s not the easiest thing in the world, but if you want to improve as a programmer, you’re going to have to do it. Perhaps you’ve heard this before and have started making some attempts at code documentation, but have you ever thought about what the best tools are out there?
Documentation is not about making you write a lot of text. It’s about helping others understand how to use the code or project effectively. Experts always say that documentation is the key to having a great project and also say that good documentation can even make your project better than you expected. By writing correct documentation, you’re not just checking off a feature. You’re providing more value to your users, who will enjoy your code more, and are also more likely to share and contribute to it.
Code documentation is a difficult thing to master, especially when you’re working alone. You can’t always count on someone else helping you implement your code fixes or documenting the process for you. It takes experience to successfully write comprehensive, useful code documentation. And as with most things, practice makes perfect. The more documentation you write, the better you’ll be at it.
Developers need the best code documentation tools. Nowadays there are plenty of them, but only a few of them actually work. Here we talk about some of the best tools that every developer should know and use in their day-to-day life to create good and efficient documentation.
What is Software Documentation?
Software documentation is any written document that explains how a piece of software is built, operates, or used. For more complex software, it typically includes a section on general use as well as sections about each of the software’s various functions and features. Documentation comes in many forms, including user tutorials that demonstrate how to perform tasks, printed manuals or books with step-by-step instructions, or knowledge bases and FAQ pages on a company’s website.
Software documentation varies depending on the complexity of the software and the technical knowledge of the audience. For example, it can walk end-users through the basics of a piece of consumer software, assist IT and system administrators with software installation, and help software developers build or update programs.
GitHub is a cloud-based website and service that stores code and helps developers control and track changes through a version control system called GIT to host and review code. In addition to their repository, they offer GitHub Pages, a website hosting service that takes files directly from a GitHub repository and runs the files through a process that creates a website. This feature gives developers an easy way to create software documentation in plain text or Markdown.
If you’re working in the software development world then it’s highly likely you’ll have used GitHub. It’s a popular platform with developers and a solid choice you can use for hosting your web-based documentation. You have a choice between using the main GitHub platform wiki section or you can use GitHub Pages, which allows you one free page, hosting, and a custom domain. You can combine GitHub Pages with Jekyll to create modern and appealing documentation sites. GitHub is free to use if your repositories are public.
- It can be appealing to use GitHub if you are already using the platform for software development.
- It’s a free platform for hosting your repositories if you choose the basic plan.
- Requires development skills to use and maintain. May not be accessible for all members of your team.
Apiary by Oracle is a dedicated host for Application Programming Interface (API) documentation that lets you design, prototype, document, and test APIs. One helpful feature is the ability to prototype an API without written code.
Read the Docs
Read the Docs is open-source documentation software that helps developers build and host documents. It can also build multiple versions of your documents by creating a separate branch or tag in your version control system, which is helpful for making sure your documents stay up to date.
Read the Docs comes with two versions – Read the Docs for open source and Read the Docs for Business. If you’re looking to invest in product documentation tools then we suggest you go with the latter. Read the Docs for Business simplifies the entire process of building and deploying developer documentation. With support for Sphinx and Mkdocs, you can integrate your code and user-facing documentation using the same tools. Create beautiful documentation easily with themes, and preview every commit with Pull Request previews. Read the Docs for Business starts at $50 USD per month.
- The ability to write your docs alongside your software using the same tools.
- Documentation can be public or private.
- Requires developer resources to use and maintain.
MarkdownPad is a full-featured Markdown editor for Windows. This tool allows you to create text-based web content, blog posts, websites, articles, READMEs, and software documentation.
MarkdownPad is a well-known Markdown editor for Windows. MarkdownPad offers instant HTML previews so you can view your documentation as you write it. It’s simple and as easy to use as Microsoft Word and comes with a WYSIWYG editor so you don’t even need to know Markdown to use the software. You can take advantage of extensive customization options such as layouts, fonts and sizes. You can also include your own custom CSS style sheets. It comes with a CSS editor built into the platform so you can style your text to your heart’s content. MarkdownPad is free for the basic plan or $14.95 USD for MarkdownPad Pro.
- Free on the basic plan.
- Allows your team to write stunning documentation in Markdown.
- MarkdownPad doesn’t have cloud features so you won’t be able to share your docs.
- MarkdownPad is only available on Windows.
Typora is a simple document reader and writer that provides support for Markdown — a plain text format that’s easy to read and write. This software appeals to developers who want to remove distractions by hiding unwanted elements, like preview windows. It also has a live preview feature to allow you to focus on your content.
Doxygen is a top-rated tool for generating documentation from annotated C++ sources, and it supports other programming languages. It can generate online documentation and offline reference manuals from specific source files by extracting information directly from the source, creating continuity between your documentation and source code.
Doxygen is a powerful software development documentation tool. It is the standard tool for generating documentation from annotated C++ sources, but it also supports other popular programming languages such as C, Objective-C, C#, PHP, Java, Python, and IDL. Doxygen is a good choice if you want to provide documentation for developers. It can generate an on-line documentation browser (in HTML) and/or an off-line reference manual (in LaTeX) from a set of documented source files. There is also support for generating output in RTF (MS-Word), PostScript, hyperlinked PDF, compressed HTML, and Unix man pages. The documentation is extracted directly from the sources, which makes it much easier to keep the documentation consistent with the source code. It also works for creating normal documentation unrelated to code source files. Doxygen is free.
- Use Doxygen to write developer documentation extracting content directly from the source code.
- Simple to set up and easy to use.
- Works on all operating systems – MacOS, Windows and Linux.
- Might be too complex for simple documentation software projects.
- Requires development resources to use and maintain.
LaTex is the defacto standard for documenting scientific projects. However, it can also be utilized for other types of projects, including code and project documentation. One such user, dcelisgarza from Monterrery, Mexico shows the usefulness of LaTex in mathematical code documentation. Check it out here!
LaTex is well known as a high-quality typesetting system with a focus on producing scientific and technical documentation.
Markdown, a creation by John Gruber, is a simple language that helps you write high-quality code and project documentation. Technically, Markdown is a text-to-HTML tool for web writers, but it is can equally be used for documentation purposes. As a developer, you can write the documentation in Markdown and later use Pandoc to convert it into any format you want!
With GhostDoc, a Visual Studio extension, you can easily generate your XML document comments. The tool generates comments based on multiple factors, including name, parameters, contextual information, type, etc.
Natural Docs is yet another open-source document generator that works with many programming languages. It helps you to automate code documentation generation and convert it into HTML format. Currently, natural docs support 19 languages including Python, C++, PL/SQL, Actionscript, etc.
If you are a PHP developer and want to generate code documentation from the source code, look no further than phpDocumentor. phpDocumentor is a unique way of handling your code documentation and acts as a reference to proper documentation. Key features of phpDocumentor are PHP framework support, pluggable architecture, etc. Inside job is managed by a powerful and flexible template system. The tool can also help you to generate reports and graphs and enhance overall code quality.
ProProfs knowledge base software is one of the best online documentation tools that enables you to create software documentation right out of the box. ProProfs allows you to create both public and private knowledge bases, from end user facing documentation to internal employee software docs. You can drag and drop content and categories. You can control the article status to let your team know what’s going on with your content. You can easily customize your knowledge base from within the settings, including changing the theme, adding a favicon, updating the logo, and so on. One of the big advantages of ProProfs knowledge base is you can integrate it with their live chat and help desk software for a more unified support experience.
ProProfs also integrates with Google Analytics, Zendesk, Freshdesk, and Desk so you can link your existing support software stack with your knowledge base. ProProfs’s essential plan costs $60 per month.
- Easy writing and publishing process means it’s a breeze to get started.
- Allows you to set different roles for the content publishing – writer, editor and administrator.
- Integrations could be more powerful.
- The navigation is a little confusing.
ClickHelp is a help authoring tool that enables you to publish your software documentation to a variety of outputs. It offers easy imports from Madcap Flare, RoboHelp, MS Word and Confluence. ClickHelp is cloud-based and hosts your content and authoring environment. It is a structured authoring tool that allows you to reuse content as snippets, variables and conditional content. You can publish multiple projects and project versions from a single portal. Output formats include online documentation, PDF, Web Help and more. You have the ability to publish either public or password-protected documentation, all from the same portal. It includes a patented full-text search engine customized for documentation search so users can easily find content they’re looking for. You have the ability to create taxonomies and search customization features. ClickHelp also offers in-depth analytics and reporting with author contribution and reader behavior reports, 30+ content metrics that include readability, time to read, word count, etc, and topic ratings based on user votes. ClickHelp’s Essentials plan costs $55 per author per month.
- Feature-rich help authoring tool for a very reasonable price-tag.
- Allows you to single-source your documentation, saving time and money.
- Might be an overly complex tool for simpler documentation requirements.
Types of Software Documentation
There are many types of software documentation, from internal documents only accessible to software developers to user manuals for those who use a piece of software regularly. Two main types of software documentation are developer documentation and software documentation targeted toward the end-user.
Developer Software Documentation
Developers use a specific type of documentation created as part of, or in conjunction with, the software development process. These documents can include release notes that describe features and updates, README files in text documents that offer a brief explanation of the software, system documentation that describes requirements for installation, and API documentation explaining how to integrate and work with an API.
End-User Software Documentation
End-user software documentation provides information about how to install, use, or configure a piece of software. This type of documentation helps people understand how to operate a product. End-user documentation can include user guides, tutorials, troubleshooting manuals, and knowledge bases.
There are areas where the lines blur between different types of software documentation, especially when it comes to technical documentation. An example of this is the minimum system requirements for installing a piece of software. Even though it’s considered a technical document, it falls under end-user documentation because it’s written for software users.
Many developers who are just starting off their careers can’t present themselves as a qualified candidate for the job because they lack knowledge about coding and programming. But there’s a simple solution that can help you gain skills and build up your credentials just by documenting your code in the best way possible.
Code can be a pain to work with if not documented properly. Luckily, there are a number of free and premium tools out there that are perfect for documenting your code so that other developers don’t have to spend too much time reading through the hundreds of lines.