Writing documentation is a challenging task. You have to convey detailed information, contain complex knowledge and explain how software works without boring or scanning the user. That’s why many developers choose ready made tools for documentation, which can be found in the market. However, choosing an application is not always so clear-cut. There are many of them to choose from and it is really difficult to find the best solution which would suit your idea. That’s why I’ve created this list. Non-profits don’t have the resources to spend on expensive documentation software.
Software documentation is essential. It’s one of the most important things to have when it comes to software engineering. If a software product can’t explain itself well enough, the developers start asking why the customer should be installing their product in the first place, and so on…
The software industry is worth billions of dollars, and as more and more companies are being formed, the need for documents surrounding them grows. Whether it’s an installation guide or help documentation, such documents are vital. It is even more important when the software is complex. And whether the vendor or developer of that complicated software uses tools like MS Word or Libre Office to create their official documentation, they might be losing some of the important details users will require.
Due to the nature of documents and their importance it is necessary to use some of the best tools for documentation. People can read your documentation, but they can also see how well you have made it and how much effort you have put into it. Of course, a lot of people will tell you that good software documentation is useless and that it doesn’t really matter. And while this may be true in some cases, you should remember that one day your application may become really big and popular. That’s when proper documentation could make or break its success. That is why I want to discuss some point of view on best tools for software documentation so read on…
What is software documentation?
“Documentation in software engineering is the umbrella term that encompasses all written documents and materials dealing with a software product’s development and use” – Prototype.io, Software Documentation Types and Best Practices
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.
“If it isn’t documented, it doesn’t exist” – Sitepoint, A Guide to Writing Your First Software Documentation
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.
iA Writer (Mac)
iA Writer is a simple, beautiful markdown editor with a library feature meaning you can easily reference back other documents in the sidebar. It’s missing internal links between documents like you’d expect there to be in software docs, but you can always do a pass on those when it’s in its final form (that is, if it’s going to end up on the internet in a site).
If you write your whole documentation in one, broken-up page, you can use page jump anchors to help users navigate.
iA Writer costs $9.99 from the Mac App Store.
ProProfs Knowledge Base
ProProfs Knowledge Base is a fantastic little tool for all stages of document creation; from writing and editing, to customizing, setting workflows, and publishing. You can add multimedia, import existing content from word docs, PDF, or PPTs, save multiple versions of the document, and restore them when required.
But the real beauty of this tool lies in its useability. Anyone and everyone can use it to write software documentation. Whether you’ve been documenting software for years or have only recently started, it’s an incredibly simple and easy to use tool.
ProProfs is free to use, or you can upgrade to the premium package which is $112 per month.
SimpleMDE is 100% free! Get the source on GitHub here.
Markdown is one of the two most commonly used languages for writing software documentation, but there’s another we’ve not looked at so far, and that’s reStructuredText. It’s very similar to markdown, but worth learning for software documentation purposes.
- A plugin for vim
- Emacs (in rst mode)
- A plugin for Eclipse
- A plugin for TextWrangler/BBEdit
- NoTex (for browsers)
The point of reStructuredText is that it’s easy to convert between different formats, especially from plain text to a static website. See more info here.
Tools to automatically generate documentation from source code
There’s nothing like the human touch when it comes to documentation (it’s clear in the docs of Slack and Giphy, to name a couple). However, as a starting point (especially for huge source libraries), it’s best to generate the skeletal documentation automatically. This work by analyzing the source’s functions and comments, and there are a few different options depending on language:
- Doxygen (C, C++, C♯, D, Fortran, IDL, Java, Objective-C, Perl, PHP, Python, Tcl, and VHDL)
- Javadoc (Java only)
- Docurium (Ruby)
Before you go ahead and rely solely on automatic generation, I’d suggest reading this StackExchange thread which weighs the pros and cons.
Top Software Documentation Tools for Developers
As we discussed in our previous article, software documentation includes many digital artifacts and assets that are mostly accessed by the development team.
- README files
- API documentation
- Software version release notes
Essentially, we’re talking internal documentation created by and for the dev team in reference to a specific tool or software.
Because of the specialized nature of their software, dev teams typically look for document collaboration tools that can be tailored to their specific needs.
GitHub Wiki and Pages
GitHub Wiki is one of the most commonly-used tools for software and technical documentation — among many other processes.
Each new repository comes equipped with a wiki, through which dev teams can create and share technical documentation for their software. The tool can also integrate with Jekyll via GitHub Pages, allowing teams to further customize the structure and appearance of their documentation.
Overall, GitHub Wiki makes for a user-friendly alternative to the plaintext, interface-free README files dev teams often work with.
GitHub Wiki and Pages Features
- GitHub Pages offers numerous customizable themes for Wiki pages
- Integration with Jekyll enables further customization
- One free customized domain name allowed
GitHub Wiki and Pages Pricing
- GitHub Wiki and Pages are available through GitHub Team at $4/user per month
- GitHub’s Enterprise tier starts at $21/user per month
Read the Docs
Read the Docs is an open-source software documentation tool that promises to simplify the process for dev teams by automating building, versioning, and hosting their technical documents for them.
Developers can import projects via GitHub, then use Sphinx to further customize their proprietary documentation tool. This includes tweaking document and library structure, along with the tool’s overall user interface.
Read the Docs Features
- Docs viewable as web pages, PDFs, HTML, and eReader files
- Branching and versioning ensures no overlap when updating docs
- Free hosting with a custom domain
Read the Docs Pricing
- Free, open-source tool and hosting for one build
- Premium Options:
- $50/month for 2 builds, 48-hour support response time
- $150/month for 4 builds, analytics features, and advanced customization options
- $250/month for 6 builds, advanced analytics, and 24-hour support response time
Haroopad, by HarooPress, is a highly-visual document processor for technical and development teams.
The charm of Haroopad is in its simplicity. As stated on the team’s website, “Markdown is simple, but has…portability and extensibility. The goal of the Haroopad is also simple: To be a web friendly document editing tool.”
Still, Haroopad manages to deliver the functionality and customizability we’ve come to expect from these open-source solutions.
- Themes, skins, and customizable UI components
- Import files from YouTube, Twitter, Vimeo, Slideshare, Flickr, Instagram, and more
- Export documents to Workpress, convert to PDF/HTML
- Haroopad is completely open-source.
Top Overall Software Documentation Tools
Software documentation also encompasses any documents created with the user in mind.
Incidentally, “the user” may refer to the various members of your team, or it may refer to your customers.
A few examples here include:
- Onboarding tutorials
- Advanced how-to guides
- Troubleshooting documentation
While the dev team may also have a hand in creating user documentation, the process may also involve marketing, sales, customer services — and any other customer-facing department within your organization.
That said, you might want to consider looking for a software documentation tool that’s more user-friendly to your less technically-minded team members.
With Helpjuice, teams can create, publish, and deliver helpful software documentation to internal users, and to the customer. On the user’s end, Helpjuice presents this documentation through an intuitive, user-friendly interface — allowing for maximum browsability and digestibility of information.
Overall, Helpjuice allows you to develop software documentation with the end-user in mind.
In some cases, this may mean diving deep into technical explanations and information. In others, it may mean delivering technical information in a more simplified, comprehensible manner.
Either way, using Helpjuice to create a knowledge base will ensure you can create and share great documentation with the relevant stakeholders.
- Limitless authoring, formatting, and editing of text and multimedia content
- Templates for streamlined knowledge creation and organization
- Advanced search functionality makes finding the right document a cinch
- Permissions ensure individuals only have access to the necessary areas of your knowledge base
- Integrations allow content to flow freely from your knowledge base to other tools and platforms
Regardless of pricing tier, all Helpjuice users get access to all of the tool’s features.
- For 4 users: $120/mo
- For 16 users: $200/mo
- For 60 users: $289/mo
- For unlimited users: $369/mo
Confluence’s developer, Atlassian, refers to the tool as a “team workspace where knowledge and collaboration meet.”
Confluence is another all-encompassing knowledge management solution, with software documentation being one of the tool’s main focuses. The focus on collaboration means all stakeholders will have a hand in creating accurate, comprehensive, and user-friendly software documentation.
Templates also ensure team “spaces” and “pages” (i.e., knowledge base sections and individual documents) stay organized and uniform. Though customizable, Confluence’s templates are designed with specific use cases in mind — once again, including software documentation.
- Real-time collaborative features and task management processes keep all team members on the same page
- Personalized feeds keep stakeholders focused on important documentation tasks and processes
- Integration with all Atlassian tools (and thousands of others) allows seamless delivery of documentation
- Free: Up to 10 users, 2GB of storage, and basic documentation features
- Standard: $5/month per user, up to 20,000 users, 250GB of storage
- Premium: $10/month per user, up to 20,000 users, unlimited storage
- Enterprise option available
Process Street is a business process management tool that allows teams to develop workflows, checklists, and other process documentation for recurring procedures within their organization.
Focusing on software documentation, Process Street serves two purposes:
For one, it allows teams to create procedural guides to help users navigate a piece of software, or a specific feature within a given tool. Secondly, dev teams can use Process Street to outline their own development processes — and to track their progress over time.
Process Street’s unique drag-and-drop interface allows teams to develop various software document templates, and to adjust them to specific use cases with ease. This versatility makes it a key choice for teams looking to streamline their software documentation processes.
Process Street Features
- Widgets make adding new content elements to documentation simple and easy
- Customizable templates provide structure to documents while allows teams to tweak them as necessary
- Process management and performance analytics allow for continuous improvement of software documentation workflows
Process Street Pricing
- Free for up to 5 full team members and 5 workflows
- Pro: $25/month per user, unlimited full users, and intensive customer support
- Enterprise option available
Bit.ai is a powerful tool for workplace and document collaboration.
In fact, its heavy focus on interactivity and real-time collaboration is what makes Bit.ai such a prime choice for software documentation purposes.
On the developer’s side, dev teams can add code blocks and other elements to documents as needed — all while working with other team members to improve the documentation in question. Less technical teams can also easily collaborate in-doc, adding multimedia and other content to software documentation as appropriate.
For end-users, the end result is an interactive document that delivers the exact information they need in the most convenient and digestible way possible.
- Minimalist, Markdown-supported interface allows teams to create and edit documentation to their liking without distraction
- Portals, rooms, and passwords can all be used to allow or disallow access to certain documents
- Integrates with over 100 other tools
- Free for up to 5 members, 50 documents, and 1GB storage
- Pro Plan: $8/month per user, unlimited users and documents, and 500GB storage
- Business Plan: $15/month per user for advanced tracking, access to customer success and support teams
- Enterprise Plan available
Tettra is an internal, corporate wiki tool that focuses on delivering need to know answers to common questions as quickly as possible.
At the most basic level, Tettra acts as a sort of Q&A forum on which team members can ask and answer technical and operational questions for all to see. Basically, you can think of it as an organization-specific Quora.
For software documentation purposes, Tettra allows teams to collect frequently asked questions regarding product specs, technical processes, and troubleshooting info all in one place. Internal users can then use the Q&A database to find the information they need without having to reach out to the dev team or other SMEs.
- Content verification ensures answers are accurate and comprehensive — and provides SMEs the opportunity to expand on documentation as needed
- Slack and MS Teams integrations allows users to find answers directly within these tools
- Usage analytics allows teams and SMEs to make improvements to documentation over time
- Free for up to 10 users, basic Q&A features
- Scaling: $8.33/month per user, up to 250 users, for all features
- Enterprise available
WhatFix is a digital adoption platform, aiming to enhance team productivity and overall business outcomes by making it easier for teams to adopt new technology.
It does so by allowing teams to provide interactive, omnichannel documentation and support throughout software onboarding processes.
With WhatFix, teams can deliver dynamic, in-app support to new users — and point them toward further learning as necessary. Users can also access pertinent software documentation directly in-app — making for a streamlined first experience with the tool.
- In-app messaging, notifications, and interactive prompts ensure users get the most out of their learning experiences
- Automated personalization delivers information to individual users in multiple ways based on context and preference
- Conditional workflows add to the interactive nature of software documentation — and ensure all users are able to do what they set out to do
Types of Software Documentation
There are many types of software documentation, from internal documents only accessible to software developers to user manuals for those who use a piece of software regularly. Two main types of software documentation are developer documentation and software documentation targeted toward the end-user.
Developer Software Documentation
Developers use a specific type of documentation created as part of, or in conjunction with, the software development process. These documents can include release notes that describe features and updates, README files in text documents that offer a brief explanation of the software, system documentation that describes requirements for installation, and API documentation explaining how to integrate and work with an API.
End-User Software Documentation
End-user software documentation provides information about how to install, use, or configure a piece of software. This type of documentation helps people understand how to operate a product. End-user documentation can include user guides, tutorials, troubleshooting manuals, and knowledge bases.
There are areas where the lines blur between different types of software documentation, especially when it comes to technical documentation. An example of this is the minimum system requirements for installing a piece of software. Even though it’s considered a technical document, it falls under end-user documentation because it’s written for software users.
Project documentation is the lifeblood of a project. Without it, developers are often left confused and frustrated. Big projects that easily spiral out of control without adequate documentation can become a fact of life for development teams of all shapes and sizes. With so many different types of project documentation software available, determining the best software for your organization can be overwhelming. But this information is the key to proper software selection.
Documentation software is used by a lot of people who deal with data on daily basis. Whether you are a student, a professional or do some programming assignments, documentation software saves your time, helps you organize notes, can be used across several devices and comes at affordable prices. In the past documentation was made up of lots of papers and books because at that time there were no such things as laptops, computers or smart gadgets. But today’s software makes it easier to get everything organized and more efficient.