Although developers are typically known for their technical skills, few expect them to be able to write user-friendly and easy-to-understand documentation. This article is dedicated to the top tools which allow developers to create software manuals or developer guides even without writing one line of text. Let’s take a look at the best open source tools for documentation.
Documentation is essential. Whether your work is internal or external, documentation is important because it serves as a guide for work that is being done. The main purpose of documentation is to protect users from errors and it also acts as a handbook. In this article, I will examine different tools for documentation and highlight their strengths and weaknesses
Making a good software product is not enough to satisfy your users, you need clear and detailed documentation. Many developers value quality documentation when selecting open source products they’d like to work with. By providing comprehensive and insightful documentation, your product will be more competitive on the market. In most cases, good technical documentation can help turn random visitors into active community members who not just use but also contribute to your product.
Software developers, designers and technical writers have been using open source tools for many years to create technical documentation for software development, website development and other production processes. Over the years, some excellent technical documentation software has evolved, built from the ground up by people who understood the need for better tools.
Choosing a technical documentation software Solution
In addition to reviewing a solution for its support for the different documentation types, pay attention to these selection criteria.
- Pricing plans: Technical documentation software solutions often come with per user per month billing plans that are capped at storage limits and page views. These quickly become a problem when you have a large support team and get a high volume of hits, these can add up fast.
- Good access control: Your technical documentation is usually a mix of private and public pieces. So your technical documentation software should come with at least some level of access control.
- Comfortable writing and editing experience: Of course, you need a good writing and editing experience that your technical writers and other team members enjoy.
Software documentation is a long and tedious procedure, but an important one to keep your software project on track. Let’s first go through the guidelines you need to follow for the documentation and learn how it will benefit you.
Guidelines to follow through
1. Reader’s View: Documentation should be curated from a reader’s point of view. This makes the reader understand the documentation and work on it better.
2. Unambiguous: Documentation should be unambiguous, clear, precise, and to the point.
3. Repetition: Documentation should not include any repetition. It should be concise. 4. Standardized: Documentation should be in the standard industry format.
5. Updated: Avoid having pending things be added to the document. Your documentation should be up to date with the recent changes.
6. Redundancy: Documents that are outdated should be removed after finalizing all added content parts. This will just keep the final document consisting of all required information.
Advantages of software documentation
1. Tracking: The main objective of documentation is to keep track of all parts of a software project.
2. Maintenance: While you have documentation, the maintenance of the project is easier.
3. Understanding: Documentation makes it easier for learners or programmers other than the developers to understand the codes and working of the software.
4. Quality: Documentation obviously improves the quality of the software.
5. Assistance: The documentation process assists users during user training.
6. Knowledge sharing: Since everything is documented, it ensures knowledge being shared and understood by everyone. Anyone can read the documentation and easily track all the work and usage of code snippets at different parts of the software. This will cut down costs and efforts made in training new people if someone leaves the organization.
10 best online software documentation tools in the market
As a developer, we make sure that we write the best optimized code. But how would others be able to use the same code for their use without knowing what it means and why they use it? To avoid that, it’s important to document every part of your work so you can create a track record of your work and the methods employed. This lets you remember every part of the work and now other developers can understand and use your work holistically.
Here’s a list of the most trusted software documentation tools available in the market:
The open source software documentation tool, Github is a community for the developers to manage their projects, put up codes, review them and also build software. Using Github pages and Wiki features, one can maintain software documentation in an effective manner. Github can also convert your repositories and documents into websites that you can further host. This will let you put up your projects, documents, or even portfolios.
Wiki is the place where all your project data is stored; from the design part to hosting and visualization. This way, even the critical information of the project is shared with other users.
My favorite of all the tools is Docz. It is an amazing documentation generator and allows users to write interactive documents using your React components. Additionally, you can have a coding playground for your components. That’s where you can modify, view and even share it with others. People can view your documentation live, see the changes and also copy the code snippets for their projects.
Docz lets you create live-reloading, SEO-friendly, and production-ready, customizable documentation sites. You can customize its look, behavior, or pattern according to your preferences.
Why is Docz my favorite documentation tool?
- Zero-configuration: The unnecessary steps are cut down, skipping the confusing building steps. Also, build your own customizable sites with a single, click command.
- Easy to learn: Docz is one user-friendly documentation tool. Even beginners can start incorporating their codes with Docz.
- Blazing fast: Increased performance speed, making it faster, reliable, and convenient to work with.
- Customization made easy: You can customize template, process workflow and create something productive out of your thoughts using the simple method component shadowing. This will definitely make your page stand out.
- MDX based: MDX is basically Markdown+JSX. MDX makes it easier to import components and use them. It incorporates some of the best industry standards used for code writing. This definitely speeds up the process of documentation workflow.
- Powered by Gatsby: Allows you to leverage GatsbyJS’s enormous ecosystem of plugins and tools. Docz is completely built using GatsbyJS.
- Pluggable: Adding additional functionalities to your application is made easy using plugins without making any change in your code. GatsbyJS and Docz plugins together makes your documentation attractive and shareable.
- Typescript support: Docz offers Native TypeScript support for TSX components and generates documentation from your prop types and comments. Typescript builds all the exported Docz components.
Docz’s optimized, fast development experience and speedy build times make it stand apart. The document settings let the developer enrich their document with metadata used for the generation of the documentation site. Also, there are built-in properties for Docz extensible for the creation of new templates or themes, by editing different properties. These customized properties can be set on Docz’s document settings and they will be automatically parsed to the newer documents.
Creating plugins is another area where Docz stands out. Plugins let you modify processes, default configurations, and create hooks for build and render. So this turns out to be the perfect place for integrating all the other tools with Docz. Just a simple createPlugin method lets you create a new plugin in Docz.
3. Read the Docs
It’s a free software documentation tool and mostly works like Github. You can create as much open source material as you wish. However, you’ll have to pay to keep your documentation private. Read the Docs doesn’t work well if you are building something for your company or organization since you would want to keep your internal project private. You can import documentation from any version control, be it, Git, Subversion, or Bazaar. Also, whenever you commit your code, webhooks will build the document automatically.
A new age documentation platform, Bit.ai lets users collaborate, track and manage the work effectively. Bit documents are more interactive, making it easier for developers to add and manage codes. The collaboration feature makes it easier for multiple users to join in and work together simultaneously. The markdown feature lets the user create and format texts easily. Users can also edit and manage the permissions according to their needs. Bit.ai supports documentation in various formats like Word, PDF, Markdown and offers attractive, user-friendly templates.
Now, Tettra is one of the knowledge base software for documentation. All the processes can be documented here and it tracks every automation made so no step is missed. You can even have an internal Wiki for your company on Tettra. Besides that, it offers some customers durable hosting features. Also, it suggests extra content and sections that can be added to picture the company effectively.
6. Dropbox Paper
Dropbox Paper can be a wise choice if you are looking for an internal software documentation tool. You can use HackPad to create Wiki for employees. They can link documents together, add code blocks or even add images. However, Dropbox is advisable for internal use, it can get harder when you want to publicize it. You can set a due date and assign tasks for the completion of the project.
One of the famous markdown editors, MarkdownPad is available both in free and premium versions. It’s mainly used for optimizing blogs, websites, ReadMe files, and software documentations. MarkdownPad is mainly designed for Windows and uses .Net4 and Windows Presentation Foundation 4 frameworks. By upgrading to a premium pack, one can add additional features and tools to work on.
Apiary is mainly used for hosting API documentation. The advantage is anyone can test the API without even calling the program or going to the application. This makes it accessible to anyone by only sharing API and documentation can be done in depth. This way you can boast about your project while presenting it. Oracle and Apiary together manage the complexities faced in the connectivity of APIs making them secure, analyzable, and monetizable. They also provide front-end solutions for designing, creating, and governing APIs.
9. ProProfs Knowledge Base
This documentation creation tool manages editing, customizing, setting workflows, and publishing. You can even import existing content from the word, pdf, etc. Moreover, you can save all these formats in different versions of documents and restore them whenever required. ProProfs also offers free and premium versions for users and is in demand for its usability. Anyone, even the laymen can start working with iProProfs and go forward with the documentation.
Doxygen lets you generate your document from C++ code. Alternatively, you can also use other programming languages like C, Java, and python. In Doxygen, the documentation is directly extracted from the source which in turn will help to keep the source code and documentation consistent. Later, you can even export the documentation in Word, PDF, or any other format. Moreover, users can even generate graphs using the feature-rich tool. The software is free for use and also available on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
So which technical documentation software solution is the best?
In addition to the technical documentation software options listed above, you can also use Google Sites to create and publish your technical documentation.
Creating a Google website is free but having Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) access for your employees gives you easier access control (especially for your internal documentation that could use restricted access). Do keep in mind, though, that using Google Sites as a technical documentation solution needs you to invest in customization.
As we saw above, there are different formats and different software documentation tools that support those formats. The two most common markup languages used are Markdown and Latex. The latter being mainly used in academia and scientific publications.
From the Markdown editors, we can choose among desktop application text editors and in-browser online editors. Almost all of them provide the minimally required features expected from software documentation tools. In the end, the choice boils down to whether we are willing to pay some money for extra features or we are fine with using a free editor. Apart from this, any editor will get the job done if you are used to working with it.
Automatic software documentation tools can also be used depending on the programming language that the developer is using. Javadoc for example only supports Java as a programming language. These tools are very efficient and greatly reduce documentation writing time, however, they come at the cost of being incomplete and not as detailed as one might require them to be.