Software documentation tools can help you to write readable, understandable, and easy-to-follow instructions. Poor documentation is one of the major reasons why software projects fail. With this article, we will discuss why documentation is important and what makes high-quality software documentation. Then we’ll tell you about Best Free Documentation Tools.
Documentation is an integral part of any software product. It explains what the software does, how it works, how to integrate it into other tools, and provides a peek under the hood. There are several different types of software documentation, and they can all benefit from specialized tools that make creating them more manageable.
Written software documentation may be dead . . . or almost dead. At least, that’s what you may have heard. However, I believe that there will always be a place for good docs in writing code, particularly the open-source kind. That’s why this blog post exists: to introduce some of the best free and cheap tools available to help you improve your software’s documentation.
Software documentation is any written document that explains how a piece of software is built, operates, or used. For more complex software, it typically includes a section on general use as well as sections about each of the software’s various functions and features. Documentation comes in many forms, including user tutorials that demonstrate how to perform tasks, printed manuals or books with step-by-step instructions, or knowledge bases and FAQ pages on a company’s website.
Types of Software Documentation
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.
How important is documentation?
The software industry is one that is particularly fast-paced. To keep up, you might want to start developing as soon as you get a great idea. But hold your horses. Cutting corners won’t actually bring you further.
Time spent on documentation rather than developing is not lost. On the contrary, if it’s done right, it will not only save you time, but also improve your product. As a project scales, the documentation will serve as guidelines that will enable you to do things right on the first try. No guesswork or free-styling.
A project manager who has a great overview of the project in their head is great—but developers or new team members can’t access that. Details can get lost in communication.
Technical documentation can make or break a project. If every step of the way for a project is well-documented, it can run smoothly and save time. No one-on-one conversations to give the right people the right information, and with that, no misunderstandings.
Why write project documentation?
Your project will depend less on individual people
With detailed documentation, onboarding new team members becomes a breeze. When your product is growing, changing, and scaling, you can easily refer new talent to the necessary documentation and have them up and running in no time.
This also works the other way around: if a team member leaves, they don’t take all their knowledge about the project with them. It’s still there in the documentation.
A project with great documentation simply relies less on the individuals working on it. It has its own framework that anyone should be able to work with. It makes your software project more resilient against unexpected challenges.
Communication with stakeholders and clients becomes easier
But the benefits of having a well-documented software project go beyond internal processes.
With the right documentation, it also becomes easier to present your product to stakeholders, making it more understandable what you’ll be creating. Anything that’s on paper is easier to review and understand than ideas in your head.
Documentation for your product helps in the pitching process, but also when you’re further down the line. If a client has approved the documents you presented, it’s easy to fall back on them whenever an issue arises. No he-said-she-said: it’s all right there, ready to be referred to.
At the end of the day, a successful project isn’t only about the product you build—it’s also the relationships you built. Prevent any issues while you can and ensure a pleasant collaboration.
How to write good documentation
All of this doesn’t require encyclopedia-like documentation. Just make sure you cover the essentials for your project specifically. In this article, we’ll give you some advice on how to do that.
Make an inventory of what documents you will need
Do you have your whole project already planned out in your head? That’s a great start—but I’d still recommend that you document it. If you don’t see the sense of creating any documentation whatsoever for yourself, remember that you’re mainly doing it for the users of your end project.
They will notice: not only in how well the software tool works, but also in how fast it was delivered—without you having to make a lot of changes after launch.
But what kind of documents will you actually need? Depending on the size of the project, you could need documentation that will guide daily processes. Or maybe you mostly need a framework for the bigger picture.
Let’s divide software documentation into two categories: process and product documentation.
What is product documentation?
Product documentation describes the end goal: the actual product you are building. How it works, how to work with it, technological specifications, manuals–anything you need to know once the product exists.
For your developers, the most important product documentation is the system documentation. It explains how the software product works, why it works in a certain way, and how to work with it.
For the actual users of your software product, user documentation is essential. Think tutorials, FAQs for troubleshooting, and a manual that will help them use and love your product the way you intended.
What is process documentation?
See this as the roadmap that will bring your project from idea to existence. In this you can include:
- Test standards and schedules: making sure everyone tests your product in the same way, so the results will actually be relevant.
- Meeting notes: save them, so you can hand them over to your client whenever a disagreement arises.
- Project plans: how will you be building your product? What milestones do you want to reach along the way and when?
Determine crucial information
Within your process documentation, you can decide how detailed you’ll map out the steps and process. If you’re an experienced software developer or project manager, you will know what questions are likely to come up, and which discussions will arise.
If you’re new to this, you might be clueless as to what you can or should include. Here are some examples you might overlook or not think of that can fast-track your project development.
Data and privacy compliance
If it’s relevant to your product, create guidelines that will help your team stay in between the lines of what’s allowed regarding data regulations. What rules are in place? What process should employees follow so they know they’re safe?
What do you do when your server goes offline? What’s the first step after a security breach? What if your hardware tomorrow decides it doesn’t want to work anymore? Having answers to questions like these can save you a lot of time and money.
Don’t worry designers, technical documentation is not just words. People are still mostly visual thinkers. That’s why diagrams can help you make workflows clearer.
But visuals that explain how the product should be working at the end of the project also contributes to a more streamlined way of working—especially if what you’re building is quite complex.
Still unsure what to include? Ask the people it will concern. Sit your team around the table and determine together what they want to have on paper to prevent issues down the line.
Write effective technical documents
Don’t worry, I’ll actually tell you how. Most people aren’t born writers–let alone born technical writers. Writing technical documents can seem like a boring and at the same time daunting task. After all, making a mistake in a technical document could have pretty big implications for the product or process. Making an error in a user manual could, too.
Watch your language
You don’t need to impress anyone with a technical document. Your team members will know that you are knowledgeable, without you using jargon where it’s simply not necessary.
Many people feel the need to write way more difficult language when it comes to business-related documents. But you’re still dealing with people, humans you speak to in a certain way. Try to use that way of speaking in your writing as well to make your documents more comprehensible.
Keep your sentences short. Simplify your words. Prevent misunderstandings.
The goal of technical documentation is to make things clearer and speed things up. Not to produce more questions. This applies even more so on documents that are meant for the end-user.
For bonus points, write different documentation based on different user personas. Take Python for instance, which has great documentation for a variety of different users from beginners to seasoned professionals.
BEST END-USER SOFTWARE DOCUMENTATION TOOLS
Whatfix is a Digital Adoption Platform that allows you to create step-by-step walkthroughs that act as real-time software documentation by guiding employees through your software. If you already have a knowledge base, you can display your documentation in a self-help widget.
Whatfix is redefining how software documentation is displayed and consumed, with new content embedded directly within your software applications in forms such as interactive guidance, contextual walkthroughs, self-help FAQs, popup notifications and beacons, and more. The platform also allows you to measure the usage and effectiveness of your documentation with user analytics.
Bit.ai is a documentation collaboration platform that allows you to manage all of your documents in one place. It allows you to create notes, documents, and wikis, and you can manage your company’s documentation across teams or departments.
ProProfs knowledge base software is a knowledge management tool that lets you create searchable online FAQs and help docs. In addition, you can add videos, audio, images, and infographics to your documentation to make your software documentation more interactive and compelling.
4. Dropbox Paper
Dropbox Paper is an online document workspace that lets you organize and display text, media, and files all in one place. It’s a web-based tool, so it’s accessible as long as you have an internet connection. If you’re already a Dropbox user, you can create and edit documents without leaving Dropbox.
Tettra is a tool for internal company use. It’s a wiki and knowledge management system that lets teams create content other employees can read and comment on. This tool is specifically built to work with Slack and features integrations with several other tools, including GSuite, Microsoft Teams, GitHub, and Zapier.
Tallyfy is workflow and process management software that lets you capture and automate your company’s knowledge. This software offers the ability to see the status of your tasks, and it is built to integrate into many other systems like Slack or Gmail. It also automates the process of tracking document changes.
Scribe is tool that automatically creates software documentation. It’s a Chrome extension and desktop application that captures a process you complete in a software tool, then turns your actions into instructions and screenshots in seconds.
Users can then modify instructions, edit screenshots, redact sensitive information, and more. Scribes can be shared to select people or teams, or be made available publicly. They can be embedded in a CMS, knowledge base, wiki, help center, or other platforms.
BEST DEVELOPER DOCUMENTATION TOOLS
GitHub is a cloud-based website and service that stores code and helps developers control and track changes through a version control system called GIT to host and review code. In addition to their repository, they offer GitHub Pages, a website hosting service that takes files directly from a GitHub repository and runs the files through a process that creates a website. This feature gives developers an easy way to create software documentation in plain text or Markdown.
Apiary by Oracle is a dedicated host for Application Programming Interface (API) documentation that lets you design, prototype, document, and test APIs. One helpful feature is the ability to prototype an API without written code.
10. Read the Docs
Read the Docs is open-source documentation software that helps developers build and host documents. It can also build multiple versions of your documents by creating a separate branch or tag in your version control system, which is helpful for making sure your documents stay up to date.
MarkdownPad is a full-featured Markdown editor for Windows. This tool allows you to create text-based web content, blog posts, websites, articles, READMEs, and software documentation.
Typora is a simple document reader and writer that provides support for Markdown — a plain text format that’s easy to read and write. This software appeals to developers who want to remove distractions by hiding unwanted elements, like preview windows. It also has a live preview feature to allow you to focus on your content.
Doxygen is a top-rated tool for generating documentation from annotated C++ sources, and it supports other programming languages. It can generate online documentation and offline reference manuals from specific source files by extracting information directly from the source, creating continuity between your documentation and source code.
What is Software Documentation?
Software documentation refers to the documents, tutorials, and other material describing a software product’s development, functionality, and use. It is one of the many forms of technical documentation.
The purpose of software documentation is simple: to streamline the communication between all the parties involved with the product.
Within an org where the software is being developed, a technical document can be considered a wiki page – a guiding blueprint that the development team can refer to when working on it. Additionally, it can also help those who use the finished version of the product.
To be more specific, adequate software documentation can help:
- Align Expectations with Understanding—one of the main concerns of any software company is to ensure that the software engineers work towards bringing the stakeholders’ vision to life. An error in documentation can cause discrepancies between what’s required and developed.
- Aid in Helping the End-User—in addition to guiding the programmers in implementing requirements, software documentation also helps the audience set up the software, understand the user interface, and follow the best use-cases.
- Record Progress—another internal use of software documentation is to keep track of the software development lifecycle (SDLC). This can help a company measure progress, learn from mistakes, and make better decisions in the future.
Every tech company—from small startups to well-established giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google—uses some form of software documentation.
Programmers, stakeholders, and users alike benefit from this form of technical communication.
Having best developer documentation is essential for the success of an organization, software project or team. If you have a large number of developers trying to collaborate, having good tools to document your software projects and related processes can be a big boost. That’s because these help eliminate spelling mistakes, misconceptions about the technology used, and ultimately confusion. Therefore, you can use free software documentation tools.
We all have been through similar situations. Software documentation, taken as a necessary evil, not fun to think about. We remember it only when things start getting out of control and we are running out of time. A lot of startups hire freelancers to fix this problem at the last minute. This article is intended to help you avoid this pitfall by preparing early in advance with useful tools and methods that save time and help you succeed in your next project.