Documentation is one of the most important task for any organization. It ensures clear communication, and guides the developers towards understanding. In large organizations, there are multiple groups that develop and maintain code and hence it becomes difficult to understand how different elements work as one. These tools ease the documentation process, so that it becomes easier to develop services, or modifications to the existing ones.
What are the best tools for documentation? As program documentation is an essential part of most projects and made many developers lives easier, a lot of programs appeared and help you out. This blog post is about best tools for code documentation. We looked at some popular solutions and created a review, so that you can choose what tool will fit your needs and help you with your software documentation.
One of the advantages of working with enterprise level software is the availability of very sophisticated, integrated and rich set of tools that allow developers to focus and deliver more sophisticated solutions. For most software development teams these seem like a gold mine and they are — until you start facing the challenges of managing your growing documentation.
Finding the best software documentation tools sometimes becomes challenging given the numerous number of tools available in the market. Choosing the right tool can save you a lot of time and effort in documenting your applications. But when you are looking for software tools, there are various factors that can affect your decision on what to choose.
Software documentation types
People in many roles, from a cloud services salesperson to an internal software developer, need to host written material for users, probably using some software documentation tools for the job. To understand the options, let’s begin with a question for software developers specifically: How should a company document APIs and SDKs?
APIs and SDKs are two kinds of software products that developers write for other developers. APIs act as front ends for software and users to interact with your software. An SDK provides a set of tools with a unique purpose. For example, to create a screen on an Android device, you use the Android SDK to tell the program the screen orientation, the mobile device type, colors, etc. We’ll use APIs and SDKs to run through the software documentation types available, and how to use them.
References. References give the technical parameters for how to use objects, methods and functions. They don’t provide tutorials, just the specific information needed to make them work. References are tersely worded, which can make them difficult to understand.
The standard for documenting APIs is called the OpenAPI Specification (OAS) (formerly known as the Swagger specification). OAS automatically generates reference documentation, and it can include code examples in different languages. But a programmer must spend countless hours filling out OAS definitions. To justify the amount of time spent on OAS definitions, some organizations have adopted the descriptions as an architecture tool to generate boilerplate code to start off development projects.
Another standard, specific to Java, is called Javadoc. Javadoc requires slightly less effort than OAS, but the reference documentation it creates is so complicated that programmers tend to prefer guides instead.
Guides. Developers write guides to explain how to use the SDK or API. Unlike references, a guide is a free-form narrative. It does not follow a fixed format, but is typically written in paragraphs with illustrations, tables, lists and charts. Guides provide background material and code examples, define concepts, and explain parameters and returned values.
A guide goes into greater detail about the parameters needed to use the software than a reference does, and it provides links between sections to help the user find related information.
10 features of good software documentation tools
It’s easier to create various types of software documentation — for various types of software — when you have the right tool. Good documentation can even make a product better over time. Look for tools with these features:
1. Markdown and HTML support. Software documentation tools that support both markdown and HTML are preferable. Markdown is a common standard for software documentation; it’s essentially a plain-text, abbreviated form of HTML, which can be too wordy and awkward to use to write manuals. Markdown generally works for writers who want HTML-like text modifiers to make lists, tables and more. Also, Markdown imposes limitations; you cannot change fonts or put borders around objects, for example. So, the ability to mix HTML and markdown is helpful.
2. Feedback. Feedback makes software better, and documentation tools have various options to collect and review feedback. Everyday product users will discover features you never thought of — I’ve had users contribute entire code examples. These users will help uncover errors in your site and ask clarifying questions. Some tools connect software users and developers over email, or with a question button for comments. ReadMe, a popular documentation tool, lets users check out pages and make changes to them. Those changes are then put into a queue for developers to approve, reject or merge with other changes.
3. Custom, cloud-hosted domains. There’s no need to host your own product documentation. For example, with ReadMe, start with a domain like your-product.readme.io. Then, when you are ready to publish the domain, change the path to documentation.yourcompany.com and add a DNS record to point it to ReadMe.
4. Access control. You won’t have a single writer contributing all documentation on most software builds. Writers from different roles and levels add information, so look for a tool that provides access management.
5. Click-button APIs. Make it easy for your users. Your choice of tool should enable users to click a button to run APIs directly from the documentation.
6. Client-side backups. Software documentation tools should let you create your own backups. Don’t depend on someone else to back up your system.
7. Technical support. Some tool vendors provide meager support. Find a vendor that will respond when you get corruption in a page or that can help you to recover something that is lost. ReadMe gets a low grade in this respect, at least with developer accounts; ReadMe Enterprise might offer better support.
8. Customizable landing pages. Ideally, a software documentation tool will let you use both HTML and style sheets on landing pages.
9. Table of contents. Documentation tools should enable you to set a clear table of contents for easy navigation.
10. Publishing control. You should be able to publish and unpublish pages as needed.
Software documentation tools
Now that you know what to look for, let’s explore software documentation tools. I have worked with many software documentation platforms, many of which are focused on OAS/Swagger. OAS limits users to reference docs, though tools expand on capabilities.
Here are some software documentation tools that are guide-focused:
The Best 5 Documentation Tools You Can Try
1. SliQ Invoicing – Documentation Tools for Invoice
Since every business needs invoicing solutions, this list would be incomplete if we didn’t at least have one invoicing software. SliQ invoicing is a particularly easy one to use and comes with features that makes it very easy for you to completely customize your invoices. With this program, you have total control of all your invoice which you can personalize to reflect your company.
- It offers complete control when it comes to customization
- It is very easy to navigate thanks to a simple user interface
- Linking this solution to your email can be a little difficult
2. Plan Write for Business – Documentation Tools for Plans
Need to plan the next course for your business? Every business does and as such a business planning tool would be a great addition to your software suite. Plan Write for Business is one of the premier business plan writing software in the business because it involves some of the most important business plan writing tools you need, cutting the time it takes to create a business plan in half. The navigation is easy and you can easily locate the sections of your business plan that require to be filled out.
- It offers hundreds of valuable examples and automatic 3D color charts
- It lacks real time collaboration, making it less ideal for business plans that require input from more than one person
3. Cobblestone Systems Contract Insight – Documentation Tools for Contract
Cobblestone Systems provides you with a highly customizable way for you to manage your business contracts. It offers a wide range of tools that are designed to make the contracting process that much easier and faster. It is available as an on premise solution or deployed from the cloud. Although it can be a little bit hard to set up initially, its numerous features offset this problem tremendously.
- It offers high level customization solutions to make your contracts unique to your business
- It comes with a full-featured trial so you can test drive the service without having to buy
- Can be burdensome to set up and manage
4. Minutes.io – Documentation Tools for Meetings
If you need to easily keep track of your business meeting minutes Minutes.io is a great choice as it provides users with elegant templates to choose from. Each template allows you to easily capture the meeting’s attendees, the agenda, action items and contributors. There is no need to download any software to use this service, all you need to do is sign up for an account to get started.
- Templates are fully customizable and can include as much information as you need
- Keyboard shortcuts make filling in the templates very easy
- There are no additional security measures aside from your sign-up password
5. RMail – Documentation Tools for Email Management
Need to manage all the emails you send and receive? RMail offers you the unique ability to do that regardless of the number of emails you get. It is useful for tracking email open-rates, proving that the emails you sent have been received, email encryption as well as large file transfer services and even electronic signature creation and use. It works with your existing email accounts including Gmail and Outlook.
- Provides security by allowing you to encrypt your emails
- The many features and capabilities can be a little bit overwhelming
What is Software Documentation?
Once you are done with software development, you already know how each element works and have already memorized or made notes of key functions and capabilities, thus finding the process of documentation unnecessary. However, without documentation, your software is like a black box.
A black box, in terms of software, can be defined as an object or a system whose inner workings, designs or implementations are hidden from the outside world. The system works like its intended to, however, it can’t be customized to your wants and needs.
This means that if some new hire or new developer joins your team, he won’t be able to peak into the system and understand how it works easily. If the person who worked on a particular piece of software leaves, he takes that information with them.
Documentation is what turns your black box into a white box, aka a system whose internal workings and implementations can be viewed by its users and developers, making it easier to understand and customize.
As we know that the software industry is constantly evolving, with new technologies and tools emerging daily. So if you want to remain competitive and maintain high performance, then you need to look for proper tools to enhance your productivity. Proper tools will help you automate your workflow and also helps you in completing your work faster. Identifying a right tool which can fulfill your requirement can be difficult at times because there are so many options available online.
One of the most important parts of any application is the documentation – without it, nobody knows how to use that application. To create workable and understandable software, you have to have clear documentation. Documentation is a piece of software development, which is thought about too late and given less attention, so it takes long to be done. Any documentation specialist or someone who works on a documentation team will agree that the documentation process is often frustrating, painful, or simply boring.