One of the biggest challenges for software developers is finding and implementing the best methods of communication between each other. And one of the most important tools for this purpose is often referred to as a documentation system. But what does a documentation system look like? Does it have particular features that separate it from other software systems?
Documentation is essential to software development, although too often it’s overlooked. If you’re a developer, you know how much time is wasted trying to figure out how some library or piece of code works. It can be mind-boggling if you’ve never heard of the software before, especially when the documentation isn’t good.
System documentation is a vital and important part of successful software development and software engineering. Generally speaking, it is comprised of detailed language, illustrations and photos that help different people understand the software, and it is essential reference material. Many developers face challenges in creating software documentation that is both comprehensively helpful and easy to read.
There are numerous options available if you’re in search of the best documentation system for developers. So, to help you with your decision about which one is the best for your project, we’ve decided to test several of them so we could provide you with an answer and some helpful tips on how to choose the best from a vast array of options.
Different Types of Documentation
Computer software documentation is broadly defined. It can be a user manual that consumers read to understand the requirements and operations of a software system so they can then download it, install it and use it. It can also be more technical, describing the capabilities and characteristics of the system for a technical user, such as someone in IT or a systems administrator. Technical documentation can include coding for the software and a record of how it was designed, such as the architecture of the creation and the goals of designing the software and each of its aspects.
Generally, documentation is designed to inform the reader about the software and describe how it was created, what it is intended to do and how it works. It should also be easy to find or access, and it should have the ability to be updated as changes are made to the software over the course of time. While details have to be included for documentation to be properly comprehensive and effective, the goal is for all computer software documentation to be written in language that’s fairly easily understood. This can be a challenge when using technical language.
Categories of Documentation
Overall, documentation can be divided into a couple of different categories: process documentation and product documentation. Process documentation is designed for those working in the internet technology field, and it uses industry-specific jargon about the process of engineering and developing the software. Product documentation describes the product and how it is to be used.
However, these categories are further divided. Product documentation includes both system documentation, which is technical, and user documentation, which should not be too technical. This is because it’s designed for the everyday average computer user, not someone in the software engineering or IT field.
System Documentation and User Documentation
There is a difference between system documentation and user documentation. In the information systems world, system documentation is much more technical. It is geared toward an advanced or specialized reader, such as a systems administrator or IT professional. System documentation includes things like source code, testing documentation and API documentation (programmers’ documentation or instructions). It describes the requirements and capabilities of the software and informs the reader about what the software can and can’t do – in other words, its functionality.
This is important for IT people to understand when they are, for example, evaluating whether or not a software program is good for their entire company to purchase and put on everyone’s computers for broad usage. They need to understand the space and computing requirements and the product’s intended use so they can gauge whether or not it is something the department can install and something that everyone will ultimately be able to use. On the other hand, user documentation is designed for the average user, also called an “end user.”
What Is User Documentation?
User documentation is descriptive language designed to speak to the average user of the software or system as opposed to an IT professional or other technical professional. It is designed to explain to the average person how to properly install and use the software or service.
User documentation may also include best practices for optimal results, describe features and the benefits of those features and can include a description of different tips and tricks for maximizing software performance as well as how to customize the software so it works best for each user and the intended task.
Software documentation can include an explanation of the purpose of different settings and how to manipulate them, menus and other customization options within the software once it has been installed. User documentation has to be written in language the average person can understand, whereas system documentation is written from a much more technical standpoint. This can be a challenge for a technical professional. Understanding the difference between writing for an end user and writing for another IT professional can be difficult.
Components of User Documentation
User documentation can include everything from how to download and install software to how to use each aspect of the software or system. This includes user manuals and frequently asked questions sections, which are designed for everyday consumers to read, use and understand.
It can include instructions such as video tutorials, flash cards, web pages to visit for help or on-screen help text along with step-by-step illustrations or screenshots on how to perform all the different functions of the software.
Finally, it should also include instructions for troubleshooting problems that crop up when using the software, such as how to deal with different errors and how to obtain help if there is an undocumented problem or an issue they are unable to solve.
Types of Documentation
Types of system documentation include a requirements document, source code document, quality assurance documentation, software architecture documentation, solution instructions and a help guide for advanced users.
Types of user documentation include training manuals, user manuals, release notes and installation guides. User documentation can also include system requirements so that the users understand whether or not their system will be able to handle the software.
Documentation and Software Development
Reliable, understandable documentation is an important part of software engineering. Even on small projects, documentation should not be overlooked, as it helps with maintenance and upgrades over time. Small projects can become big before you know it, and documentation helps ensure everyone is on the same page. Documentation improves quality and records requirements and key decisions that went into the creation of the product.
This documentation is used to inform, describe and record knowledge about the software that can be communicated to others, whether they are in a technical job such as a systems administrator or are simply consumers wanting to install software on their computer or mobile device. As an engineer or developer, you may be working on multiple applications at once, so documenting everything for each specific application becomes even more important.
Comprehensive and instructive documentation is almost as important as creating the software itself. Yes, it can be tedious or complicated. Software requirements explanations can become several pages long and extremely technical and text heavy, making them cumbersome to read through and difficult to use rather than being helpful and explanatory.
Balancing Documentation Types
Finding the balance between conveying the necessary information for both system documentation and user documentation without it being longer and more technical than necessary for the reader to understand can be a challenge for any software engineer. Indeed, it is part of the skill of designing and engineering software to be able to create proper, helpful process and product documentation.
Users must be able to understand how the product was designed, what the environment was like where it was created, what it is intended to do, what it can and cannot be reasonably expected to perform, how to troubleshoot and fix errors that may arise through normal use and how to get help if nothing else is working.
Often filled with jargon, acronyms, and directions that require a Ph.D to understand, software user manuals are sometimes written from the point of view of a developer rather than a user. As a result, the guide may make assumptions about the reader’s skill level that are often incorrect. The first step in writing a good user manual is to get the actual writing process as far away from the engineers as possible.
The software developer knows more than anybody what makes the software work, but that doesn’t mean the developer should write the guide. On the contrary, it is a distinct disadvantage. More important than a deep understanding of the inner workings of the software is an understanding of who the end user will be, what his educational level is, and how that end user will be using the software. In most cases, end users don’t need to know the finer points of programming and the back-end workings of the software — they just need to know how to use it to make their jobs easier.
The user manual should be largely task-oriented, rather than heavily descriptive. Because the manual is written to help users understand how to execute specific tasks, the writer needs to have an understanding of those tasks as well, and as a result, going through each discrete step of each feature is absolutely essential. It’s not necessary for the writer to necessarily know how the program was created from a design or development viewpoint, but it is essential to have a strong working knowledge of all its features. While executing each task, take time to write down each and every step, including clicks, drop-down menus, and other actions.
The Interview Process
Although the developer should not be the one to write the manual, she will still be a valuable resource to the writer, and before writing begins, plan a kickoff meeting between the writer, developer and engineers, and potential end-users to help inform the writer’s work from the beginning. Interviews with subject matter experts and engineers should be recorded, with transcripts made for later reference.
A user manual should not be too text-heavy. Rather, incorporate liberal use of graphics and screen clips. Description of an action is much clearer with text-based directions accompanied by a screen clip that clearly illustrates that direction. Include both before and after views, to show what the screen looks like before taking each action, and what happens after the action has been taken. A simple screen capture utility such as the Snipping Tool included in Microsoft Windows works well for capturing these images. Be sure to number each image, and include a caption that briefly describes it. Center it immediately below the paragraph that first introduces the concept depicted in the image.
Communicating clearly in a technical document requires planning and careful adherence to standards throughout the guide. Standards in both presentation, language, and nomenclature help avoid confusion. Templates are available and can be a good starting point for uniformity, although these can certainly be adapted to fit each situation. Using a one-inch margin with a single column best suits the need to add graphics; a two-column setting might appear too crowded, and can make placement of images confusing.
What Are Software Documentation Tools?
Software documentation tools streamline the process of creating and managing documents by making writing or distributing documentation faster and easier.
Many documentation tools give you the ability to publish your documents once complete and distribute documents to internal teams or external users. Some documentation tools offer version control systems so your teams can track changes made over time.
You could be a developer and you might not even realise it. Yes, it’s just that easy. Why? Because many of the applications we use each day are made by developers. The software they create is what allows us to write these blogs, keep in touch with colleagues and access online data storage systems. So where does the term ‘developer’ come into it? Well all programmers, whether they work in an office or at home are developers – but some are more specialised than others.
More than any other type of document, a software user guide is likely to go through multiple iterations before it is complete, and it is likely to go through a review process by multiple stakeholders. Using the Track Changes feature on Microsoft Word is an easy way to keep track of each individual’s comments and changes. Creating multiple versions after each review cycle, each with a different file name, also helps the process along and makes sure all stakeholders are satisfied with the final result.