Best Software Documentation Practices

Software documentation is important. Without it, the software development process can be slow and inefficient. It took us several months to complete the development of our new product and without good documentation, we could have been stuck for months. This article will help you find out about software documentation types as well as best software documentation practices.

Reading documents that cover software testing tools and practices can be tedious. It takes time, energy, and sometimes the right frame of mind, to get through a document and understand it. That is why following best software documentation practices is important

The purpose of this article is to discuss software documentation types and best software documentation practices which apply to all organizations. This article specifically discusses a formal document that communicates the implementation of agreed upon tasks and satisfies requirements for your code (software).

This article is meant to provide a solid introduction on software testing documentation best practices. So what is this topic going to be about exactly? Well, in short, it’s a set of technical and practical rules which software testing practitioners should follow in order to create the most valuable and reliable software testing documentation for their projects.

Best Practices in Creating Software Documentation

Knowledge is power in the software industry. But whether you can transfer it to others depends on your software documentation. So check out these tips in creating project documentation.

To make things easier, most software development products come with software documentation. Although they vary in function, all these documents were created during the entire software development lifecycle.

There are many types of software documentation, including:

The documentation details how end users can make the product work. And it also explains how developers can operate it.

Create Software Documentation with These Best Practices

What makes software successful? Well, it’s not only about the technicalities. It’s also about the detailed and comprehensible presentation of information that accompanies it. So if you want to create good software documentation, take note of these best practices. 

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1. Make documentation a priority

It’s easy to disregard software documentation and place it in the backseat. But, this can backfire in the long run. 

Creating the documentation along with the development lifecycle saves you time and effort. It keeps track of tools and processes in real-time. And you can also document any changes along the way. Instead of trying to remember every detail at the end of the project, doing it simultaneously makes the documentation less prone to errors. 

2. Know your target audience

There is no one-size-fits-all style in creating the documentation. That is why it is important that you determine your target audience accordingly.

Try to establish various audience personas from available user information. Identify each of their goals, level of information access, and preferences. This way, you can determine the right delivery format and style.

3. Think of a content strategy ahead

Before creating your documentation, look at the bigger picture. See how each piece of information fits in with the whole puzzle. And think of a content strategy to deliver them in a way that’s easy for the readers to understand. 

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Hence, what should you do? It’s time to create a style guide that you can follow. It will help you standardize your voice, formatting, terminologies and word usage, and visuals. 

For instance, you can use popular software style guides, such as the Microsoft Manual of Style or Rackspace Style Guide. If you’re looking for a grammatical and syntax guide, you can choose between the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. More importantly, if you want something readily available, there are also templates available online.

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4. Remember the Agile documentation practices

There are many benefits to using the Agile approach in software development. And we’re not only talking about the development process. More technical writers are using Docs Like Code or Just In Time methodology. Both are subsets of Agile, which encourages collaboration among all stakeholders. They also offer flexibility in version and source control. 

Moreover, you can also use the Minimum Viable Documentation method. It comes in handy especially when you have limited technical writing resources. 

Software Documentation Practices Every Developer Should Know

5. Collaborate with professionals and experts

Coming up with technical documentation is a collaboration between developers and other stakeholders. 

First, it entails that the expertise of developers is turned into usable, written information. Second, technical writers can take care of the nitty-gritty of document creation. Third, no software documentation should come out without going through the QA and testing process.

6. Consider user experience of the project documentation

Will the target audience find this software documentation relevant? For non-technical end users, can they understand it easily? Take note that writing the documentation is just the beginning. If you want it to work, make sure that every target audience has a seamless and educational experience while going through it.

Thus, make sure that the information architecture of your knowledge base is organized. From labeling to navigation systems within systems, everything in the information environment must be in its proper place.

You must also consider how to cater to the needs of different people in terms of accessibility. For instance, can end users with visual impairments use screen readers and have easy access to them? Can people from other countries gain access to it without using a VPN? These things may seem minute in importance, but they are vital for the user experience of your documentation.

7. Decide on appropriate software and tools

For starters, you can use GitHub to deliver your project documentation to your audience. You can also use a Static Site Generator as an alternative.

Moreover, you may also want to consider using a lightweight markup language. This makes it easier to visually present your documentation or migrate it to another system with all formatting intact.

8. Get the best technical writers for the job

Of course, developers can create your software documentation. However, their time and skills are better allocated to taking care of the software than on documentation content. So hire professional technical writers to help with the project. Either hire a full-time in-house writer or outsource the task. Although, hiring a good one is imperative for your success.

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9. Check on customer temp for feedback and development

A customer feedback loop should be set up. This way, you can stay on top of things when things go wrong on the end user’s side. Why? Because aside from your internal team, it is important that your customers know the how-tos of your product. 

Don’t worry, there are many ways to collect customer feedback. You can check out social media interactions, customer support tickets, and knowledge base contact forms. Or, you can even get in touch with some of them for their concerns and suggestions.

Create good software documentation using these best practices

Good documentation is just as important as creating flawless code. Therefore, take note of all the best practices mentioned above. This way, your team won’t have to deal with uncoordinated formatting or errors on the end user manual. Now that you have learned about these tips, it’s time to create your software documentation.

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Software Documentation Best Practices

  1. Perform documentation as required (e.g. %10 of total production time). No documentation is never a good solution as much as excessive documentation. It may include code documentation, requirement specifications, design documents, test documents, user manuals etc. Those documents are needed to be managed and shared also, by using version controlling tools and/or web based platforms.
  2. Code documentation is important. Best way of doing this is producing self-documenting code. Variable, method, class, package etc. names must be meaningful and codeflow must be pure. For very complex code sections, short comment lines may be included. Javadoc-like standard entries are not required but may be added for auto document generation from code.
  3. For the future developers, short and useful design documents may be prepared including key design features and UML diagrams. Practical user help documents may be useful also. These documents must not include unnecessary bulk info.
  4. Requirements/issues/backlog item/function points tracking is important. For that operation, a tracking tool is more effective (it will have quick search, edit capabilities and a few more features) than writing them into a plain text file.
  5. Test tracking is also important. Test scenarios and results may be tracked using tools (or with text files, which is not preferred) and associated with related requirements. By doing this, functional status of software may be monitored easily.
  6. Documentation is a live process. If you produce some documents, it is a good practice to update or produce new version of those documents until the end of development process. If a document is not up-to-date, it is practically worthless.
  7. For text file documents, versioning is important. For each new version of a document, a new version number (which is given with a stable versioning strategy) must be given. Also a version tracking table having change info may be included for better tracking.
  8. Having a consistent document template is important for companies. Header, footer, headings, font sizes must be consistent in document and among other documents for better readability. It is also a good practice that having a cover page, table of content, table of pictures and a glossary for documents.
  9. Document formatting, language usage and typing are other physical issues about documents and attention must be paid. Typing errors, unconsistent table sizes, indentations etc. will distract the reader.
  10. Saving “lessons-learned” info on a shared place is another good practice. Those items are some useful experiences (information or code/configuration sections etc.) about development process which may not be included in standard process documents. Lessons-learned info may give acceleration to the current developers or future developers about some challenging and repeating operations.
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What are the various types of software documentation?

An example of software product documentation

This question isn’t a straight-forward one. The kind of project, i.e., services or product development influences the type of documentation needed. The project phase has a bearing on the type of documentation, for e.g., the execution phase requires a different kind of documentation than a ‘Request for Proposal’ (RFP) phase.

Broadly, the following are the broad categories of software documentation:

  • A proposal: A provider sends it to a prospective customer.
  • Before an organization approves a project, it undertakes due diligence. A feasibility study is a document that’s produced at this point.
  • Requirements analysis documents: Business analysts study customers’ business requirements and translate it into technical requirements.
  • Software design documents: IT architects or analysts study the technical requirements and develop the design document. This will be an input to the development process.
  • Coding documents: This is a broad category. It includes the code, comments, and constraints if any.
  • Testing documents: Yet another broad category, this includes test plans, test cases, requirements traceability matrix with reference to test cases, test results, testing review logs, etc.
  • Review records: Either peer reviewers or independent quality assurance professionals may produce these. They review project artifacts and note their comments.
  • Guides and checklists: These can be of various kinds, e.g., coding guidelines, review checklist, etc.
  • Project intellectual capital documents: Typically produced at the end of the project, these aim to enrich organizational process assets. In some cases, the organization might even want to file patent applications using these documents.
  • Project management documents: This is another broad category. Anything that comes under the ‘Project Management System Summary’ (PMSS) can be considered in this category.
  • Licenses: If a project procures software for the execution, the team needs to maintain licenses.

Conclusion

There are a variety of software testing documentation types and formats that can be used for use cases, test cases and test results. Useful software testing documentation helps to maintain consistency in your test environment, to communicate with testers and product developers and managers, to perform reviews, and learn from tests. My experience in this area indicates that the widely used documentation is a single Microsoft Word (or similar) document with no formatting at all.

The document, which explains the project’s progress to date, risks and assumptions that have been identified along with the main solution approach and detailing how all decisions have been arrived at.

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