A lot of questions about best open source tools for software documentation are asked by people who want to better understand what tools out there exist and how they compare. A lot of research has already been done in this area, but we decided to still present our point of view on this topic.
If you create a software or a mobile app, then chances are that there is some documentation involved. Within the distinct world of documentation, there is also an abundance of different types of documents and files that are being used across the various development teams. So, if you’re looking to find the best open source tools for software documentation, then this article will show you a range of different tools, resources and platforms you can use right now.
Documentation is one of the most important parts of any project, especially when it comes to open source projects. It can be difficult to judge your own work when you’re forced to concentrate on one small niche of a larger picture or don’t have enough time to look at how it fits in the larger picture of an open source project. Looking at good documentation tools can often highlight these issues while also saving time.
Software developers need to create a piece of software in a short amount of time. This is why they face difficulties creating great documentation for the software products they develop. However, there is an option available for them if they want to create high quality pieces of software within a short period.
What is software documentation?
All pieces of software should have some form of documentation that explains, in detail, what the product is, how it works, and why it works that way.
As a developer, your main aim is to write the best code you possibly can. You want your code to be best in class, easy to read, easy to use, and you want great things to happen as a result of it. Right?
But without documenting what you’ve done and why you’ve done it:
- No one else can use your code but you
- You can’t update or improve it
Despite this, software documentation is a task that gets rushed, is often done badly, and sometimes gets deprioritized or even forgotten about.
Before we start talking about what tools you can use to write software documentation, we need to think of a way to make sure the task gets done in the first place.
This is where Process Street can help.
Process Street is a piece of business process management (BPM) software that can be used to create, manage, and follow processes.
More about what Process Street is later, for now, let me show you how you can use it as a tool to help you fit software documentation into every software development project you work on.
Below is an example of a pre-made Development Process template. This template was created to help software engineers and programmers build and deploy their software in the best way possible.
To get this template, either log in and add it to your dashboard, or sign up for a free trial.
This template is a perfect example of a process that you can follow every time you want to build and deploy a new or updated piece of code.
It has clear steps that will guide you through the whole process, from creating a branch to work in, to putting your changes live. These steps will make sure nothing gets missed and that the entire process goes smoothly, every single time.
We’ve designed this template to be used as a guide to help you create a development process that works for you. Every company is different, every software project is different, and every development process is different.
You can edit this process and add in the tasks that are relevant to you, your company, and your project.
Which brings me back to software documentation. You could add ‘software documentation’ as a task into this development process, or any other process you create. That way, anyone working through it will be reminded and encouraged to complete it, as part of the process.
I’ve got a few more premade process templates that might be of use to you, which I’ll include at the end of this post.
Before we get to that, let’s look at where you can store your software documentation.
Software documentation hosting options
It’s no good having just a bunch of text files living on your computer. They need to be accessible by developers and users, which you’re most likely going to do by hosting the docs on the internet since it isn’t the 1980s.
Use Process Street to document any recurring process
For training new developers and keeping your documentation living all in the same place, Process Street is a solid choice for software documentation.
First, you could create a process for writing your documentation, to make sure you capture all the right details and make it as useful as possible.
Then, using the following easy-to-use features, you can write up and store your documentation in one single place:
Creating and storing all your recurring software documentation within Process Street means it can be accessed by everyone in the company. You can share it with others, send it for approval, set reminders to review it, and update it easily.
It’s simple to set-up and even easier to use. Here’s a sneaky look at one of our checklists in action:
If something can be documented, it can be documented in Process Street.
Sign up for a free trial here and see for yourself.
Document360 is a software documentation tool that gives you complete 360 support for your project documentation. You can create rich documentation with ease using features such as the Markdown & WYSIWYG editor for efficient and structured writing. Other notable features include an uncompromised authoring experience, a rich theme, built-in analytics, enterprise-grade backup & restore, versioning capabilities, and so on.
With simple configuration features, you can manage various project documentation, configure numerous users, and examine analytics to help you maintain your knowledge base content fresh and relevant. It offers robust security like IP Restriction, Custom Domain Mapping, Enterprise SSO, Cookie Consent etc.
You can also integrate with a variety of third-party helpdesk, chatbot, and CRO technologies, such as Zendesk, Intercom, Hotjar and Zapier. As a result, it is appropriate development software for all business sizes
Read The Docs
It’s remarkable that Read The Docs is free when you see all that it can do. Similar to GitHub, you can create as much open-source material as you like that gets openly indexed on the site, but it’s going to cost you if you want to make the docs private and internal to your company. For our purposes, it’s likely you’re going to be alright with having the docs readily available for users on the web.
The reason Read The Docs is so good is that you can effortlessly import documentation from any version control system including Git, Mercurial, Subversion, and Bazaar. It also supports webhooks so the docs get built automatically whenever you commit code.
Check their Getting Started guide to get a feel for how it works and how your docs would behave when hosted there.
GitHub (& GitHub Pages)
If you’re using GitHub to manage version control for your software, you have, at the bare minimum, a README.MD file in the repository. To use GitHub for documenting your software, like millions of others have done in the past, just fill that README in with markdown.
A great example is sferik’s t repository, screenshotted here:
If you want more than just one sheet of formatted text, you can take advantage of GitHub’s Pages tool (you get one free webpage + hosting with each GitHub account, and you can even route a custom domain to it). Pages even has great looking default themes that make your documentation look professional.
Above is atom.io documentation for Electron hosted on GitHub. It’s a smart choice because it automatically works with GitHub’s version control, just like the rest of your software. See the site’s repository here.
Dropbox Paper (for internal use)
For internal software documentation use, Dropbox Paper is an excellent choice. Like its predecessor Hackpad, you can use it to create a private wiki for employees. You can link documents together, insert code blocks, images and page jumps, just as you’d demand from any documentation tool.
As you can see from the comments on the right, you can also use it to go through approval processes and collaborate over the creation of documentation. Overall, it’s a great tool for internally developing and creating documentation, perhaps with the view to publicize it later, or just keep it for internal use.
Atlassian REST API Browser (for API use)
Atlassian’s REST API Browser (RAB) is included in JIRA Server, Confluence Server and Stash instances by default. It’s built for discovering APIs available for use in JIRA/Confluence environments, and also a place to host your documentation. If, of course, your API fits the bill.
Document your API using this tool to give your JIRA/Confluence compatible API more exposure. Check here for Atlassian’s documentation on doing that.
Tettra (for internal use)
Tettra is a kind of knowledge base software where you can document your development, or anything at all.
We use Tettra internally at Process Street for a bunch of use cases. Day to day, I use Tettra to have a single place where all my processes are documented so that I never forget how one relates to another or how the various automations we’ve built have been set up.
Tettra is great if you’re looking to create a library of sorts. This means it’s brilliant for software documentation or even just as an internal wiki for your company.
Given that Tettra is specifically designed for knowledge management, it comes with a host of other supporting features too. For example, it can make suggestions as to what extra content or sections you might want to add to give a more complete picture of your org and how things fit together.
You can see a little video here for how a dev team might look to use Tettra: How Product & Engineering Teams Use Tettra.
Or, you can go here to read about how we use Tettra alongside Process Street: Automating Workflows and Checklists: Process Street Case Study.
Check it out!
Apiary (for API use)
Anyone can test the API without having to go into the app or actually program a call, which makes it a super accessible way to share your API, document it in-depth, and boast about what it can do.
We’ve discussed where to store your software documentation, now it’s time to look at how to write it.
Writing tools for software documentation
Software documentation is often written in markdown to allow for hyperlinks and formatting while keeping it plain text so it can live alongside the code files in version control. That means that a lot of my choices for writing tools are simple markdown editors that make the writing experience enjoyable. Additionally, there are also a couple of very effective non-mparkdown solutions thrown in there.
With a free and premium version — both with a ton of great features — MarkdownPad is the most popular markdown editor for Windows. It’s optimized for blog posts, websites, articles, READMEs, and, of course, software documentation.
Software documentation is an essential part of every software project. Not only it helps users to get familiar with the tool but it aids domain experts in understanding the inner working of the application. Be it a web based or desktop application, good documentation gives your project a professional touch and makes someone understand it better.
Each tool mentioned above is unique yet similar in various ways. For example, all of them offer a good authoring system, but if you ask about security and granular permissions, not every tool has a feature for that.