Tools for Software Design Documentation

Software documentation tools are very important in software development. It is like a compass for your team. Documentation acts as a reference guide explaining how it works, how it operates, and how to use it. Software teams may refer to documentation when talking about product requirements, release notes, or design specs. They may use docs to detail code, APIs, and record their software development processes. Externally, documentation often takes the form of manuals and user guides for sys-admins, support teams, and other users. Technical documentation helps the new team members adapt faster to the working habits of the company. It provides information on how the product works and why. It helps to speed up a developer’s learning curve significantly. And helps to highlight the main points of an application for a developer who needs context for the application they are supporting.

Installation and configuration documents are also very useful for when developers need to set up new or additional application environments. Better if steps are detailed and easy to follow, screenshots can be added as well. Details such as necessary software, libraries, and application server versions, can be included to ensure the environment will be compatible and set up as intended.

And the code documentation is the backbone of every application. It can be split into multiple parts: comment blocks and specific file documentation. Information regarding the code repository, step-by-step instructions on how to create an application package or a build to be deployed, etc. Technical documentation and writing, in general, is a helpful tool for memory, it is a well-known fact that lists help keep people organized and there are numerous studies that suggest the act of writing something down ensures it has a higher likelihood of succeeding.

Even the best-written software can turn useless if other developers are unable to understand it. Software documentation tools are what turns your black box into a glass box. Good technical documentation using the right tools will make information easily accessible, provide a limited number of user entry points, help new developers learn quickly, simplify the product and help cut support costs. Also, it looks professional and generates trust.

Reasons to use Confluence for technical documentation

All in one place
You won’t have to search across your email, computer folders, or Google drive to find what you need. You can keep and organize release notes, requirements, and code reviews directly in Confluence. It also means that you won’t waste your time switching between Jira and other resources. Once you integrate the two tools ( Jira and Confluence), you will have access to the right documentation within Jira.

Simple reports
Jira continuously generates data about projects and issues, but in many cases, teams might not have the time or skills to use and understand these reports in detail. That’s why linking Jira to Confluence reports makes a difference. You can present a status report in understandable charts, on a simple user interface for your team and have wealth of data available in Jira in a more visual and organized way.

Collaborative editing
Confluence’ has customizable templates with a great text editor for creating documents that can be shared. This enables collaborative editing and you can create JIRA issues from anywhere within the tool.

Keep stakeholders on the same page
Confluence allows you to present information in a more user-friendly way for all of your team – including non-development teams. Developers may have everything in JIRA but stakeholders tend to prefer not to go searching through technical issues. This is where Confluence comes for creating summaries, synopses, reports, dashboards, progress updates or code metrics.

Knowledgebase
Your team will be able to create and organize knowledge base articles thanks to a blueprint that contains templates for how-to and troubleshooting articles. The templates are fully customizable and will help your team set up the knowledge base quickly. In Apiumhub we use Confluence a lot to create our knowledge base inside the company ( TDD, CI, DDD, Docker, etc).

Project information
This might include project requirements documents, project schedules and budgets, creative materials and wireframes, client files and contracts, and any other administrative details that a project team member might need to know as they are working through the project.

A confluence is a great tool and in Apiumhub we have been using it a lot, however, there are other tools that we also used for technical documentation. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Confluence is not useful, I just want to show you other tools with other features that may be a better alternative for your needs. Let me list down some of them:

Software documentation tools

Huddle

Huddle’s an all-in-one collaboration hub for your team. It has basically every tool your company might need to stay in sync, including file storage, project management and collaboration tools. What is important to know here is that this tool is for bigger companies that need a secure place to collaborate as an enterprise. The price is $20 per month per user.

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Read the Docs

Read the Docs is a free platform for software documentation hosting with freely available source code. It facilitates writing technical documentation by automating building, versioning, and hosting for you.

Javadoc

Javadoc is a documentation generator created by Sun Microsystems for the Java language for generating API documentation in HTML format from Java source code.

Markdown

Markdown is a lightweight markup language with plain text formatting syntax. It is designed so that it can be converted to HTML and many other formats using a tool by the same name. Markdown is often used to format readme files, for writing messages in online discussion forums, and to create rich text using a plain text editor.

Swagger

Swagger aides in development across the entire API lifecycle, from design and documentation, to test and deployment.

Proper software documentation tools are essential at every stage of working, development process and it doesn’t have to wait for a specific occasion. Technical documentation is simply a habit and a discipline and contrary to what many people think, it does not require great effort. Technical documentation goes in parallel with the development process and there is no need to wait for the entire work to be over.
I hope you found this article useful if you would like to add other tools to our list, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

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1. Document360

We’ll start with our own Document360. Document360 is our very own knowledge base solution which is perfect for creating user manuals. It offers an advanced portal for content producers with a state-of-the-art editor, category manager, and more. You can create up to six levels of categories and subcategories for your content which can easily be rearranged using the drag-and-drop UI.

The Markdown editor lets you focus on writing text-heavy documents but there is also a WYSIWYG editor for those who prefer that functionality. Both editors allow you to add links, images, videos, callouts, code blocks, and more. Never lose your work with Document360’s version history which allows you to roll back to a previous version.

Document360 comes with advanced analytics that allows you to learn where your knowledge base traffic is coming from, what your visitors are looking for and how they’re interacting with your content. Document360 also integrates with a large number of popular apps including ticketing systems like Zendesk and Freshdesk, live chat software like Intercom and Drift, as well as analytics tools such as Google Analytics and Segment.

Document360’s startup plan costs $99 per project per month.

An intuitive knowledge base software to easily add your content and integrate it with any application. Give Document360 a try!Get Started

2. Nuclino

Nuclino is a good way to organize information within teams into workspaces. You can use Nuclino to create beautiful software documentation for your employees or your customers. Workspaces can be public or private. You can bring your content to life with text, images, videos, files, tasks, embeds, code blocks, and more. Write your content even faster with Markdown or use the WYSIWYG editor.   You can collaborate in real-time so you can see the changes your team members are making as they type, which means there’s no risk of version conflicts. You can type @ inside an item to link to another page in the knowledge base and use workspaces and clusters to organize items.   There’s a powerful search bar that you can type into to find relevant content. Work visually by organizing your team’s content into boards and graphs. Nuclino integrates with a large number of apps including Slack, Google Drive, Dropbox and more.   Nuclino’s standard plan costs $5 per user per month.  

Pros
  • Straightforward organization that helps users find the content they’re looking for.
  • Documents can be edited simultaneously, reducing the risk of version conflicts.
Cons
  • Lack of formatting options for content.
  • No ability to control access at the article level, only at the workspace level.

3. GitHub

  If you’re working in the software development world then it’s highly likely you’ll have used GitHub. It’s a popular platform with developers and a solid choice you can use for hosting your web-based documentation.   You have a choice between using the main GitHub platform wiki section or you can use GitHub Pages, which allows you one free page, hosting, and a custom domain. You can combine GitHub Pages with Jekyll to create modern and appealing documentation sites.   GitHub is free to use if your repositories are public.

Pros
  • It can be appealing to use GitHub if you are already using the platform for software development.
  • It’s a free platform for hosting your repositories if you choose the basic plan.
Cons
  • Requires development skills to use and maintain. May not be accessible for all members of your team.
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4. MarkdownPad

  MarkdownPad is a well-known Markdown editor for Windows. MarkdownPad offers instant HTML previews so you can view your documentation as you write it. It’s simple and as easy to use as Microsoft Word and comes with a WYSIWYG editor so you don’t even need to know Markdown to use the software.   You can take advantage of extensive customization options such as layouts, fonts and sizes. You can also include your own custom CSS style sheets. It comes with a CSS editor built into the platform so you can style your text to your heart’s content.   MarkdownPad is free for the basic plan or $14.95 USD for MarkdownPad Pro.  

Pros
  • Free on the basic plan.
  • Allows your team to write stunning documentation in Markdown.
Cons
  • MarkdownPad doesn’t have cloud features so you won’t be able to share your docs.
  • MarkdownPad is only available on Windows.

5. ProProfs

ProProfs knowledge base software is one of the best online documentation tools that enables you to create software documentation right out of the box. ProProfs allows you to create both public and private knowledge bases, from end user facing documentation to internal employee software docs. You can drag and drop content and categories.   You can control the article status to let your team know what’s going on with your content. You can easily customize your knowledge base from within the settings, including changing the theme, adding a favicon, updating the logo, and so on.   One of the big advantages of ProProfs knowledge base is you can integrate it with their live chat and help desk software for a more unified support experience.
ProProfs also integrates with Google Analytics, Zendesk, Freshdesk, and Desk so you can link your existing support software stack with your knowledge base.   ProProfs’s essential plan costs $60 per month.

Pros
  • Easy writing and publishing process means it’s a breeze to get started.
  • Allows you to set different roles for the content publishing – writer, editor and administrator.
Cons
  • Integrations could be more powerful.
  • The navigation is a little confusing.

6. Read the Docs

  Read the Docs comes with two versions – Read the Docs for open source and Read the Docs for Business. If you’re looking to invest in product documentation tools then we suggest you go with the latter.   Read the Docs for Business simplifies the entire process of building and deploying developer documentation. With support for Sphinx and Mkdocs, you can integrate your code and user-facing documentation using the same tools. Create beautiful documentation easily with themes, and preview every commit with Pull Request previews.   Read the Docs for Business starts at $50 USD per month.  

Pros
  • The ability to write your docs alongside your software using the same tools.
  • Documentation can be public or private.
Cons
  • Requires developer resources to use and maintain.

7. Doxygen

  Doxygen is a powerful software development documentation tool. It is the standard tool for generating documentation from annotated C++ sources, but it also supports other popular programming languages such as C, Objective-C, C#, PHP, Java, Python, and IDL.   Doxygen is a good choice if you want to provide documentation for developers. It can generate an on-line documentation browser (in HTML) and/or an off-line reference manual (in LaTeX) from a set of documented source files. There is also support for generating output in RTF (MS-Word), PostScript, hyperlinked PDF, compressed HTML, and Unix man pages. The documentation is extracted directly from the sources, which makes it much easier to keep the documentation consistent with the source code. It also works for creating normal documentation unrelated to code source files.   Doxygen is free.  

Pros
  • Use Doxygen to write developer documentation extracting content directly from the source code.
  • Simple to set up and easy to use.
  • Works on all operating systems – MacOS, Windows and Linux.
Cons
  • Might be too complex for simple documentation software projects.
  • Requires development resources to use and maintain.

8. ClickHelp

  ClickHelp is a help authoring tool that enables you to publish your software documentation to a variety of outputs. It offers easy imports from Madcap Flare, RoboHelp, MS Word and Confluence. ClickHelp is cloud-based and hosts your content and authoring environment. It is a structured authoring tool that allows you to reuse content as snippets, variables and conditional content.   You can publish multiple projects and project versions from a single portal. Output formats include online documentation, PDF, Web Help and more. You have the ability to publish either public or password-protected documentation, all from the same portal.   It includes a patented full-text search engine customized for documentation search so users can easily find content they’re looking for. You have the ability to create taxonomies and search customization features. ClickHelp also offers in-depth analytics and reporting with author contribution and reader behavior reports, 30+ content metrics that include readability, time to read, word count, etc, and topic ratings based on user votes.   ClickHelp’s Essentials plan costs $55 per author per month.  

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Pros
  • Feature-rich help authoring tool for a very reasonable price-tag.
  • Allows you to single-source your documentation, saving time and money.
Cons
  • Might be an overly complex tool for simpler documentation requirements.

9. iA Writer

  iA Writer is a popular Markdown editor with a focus on writing. When you use iA Writer you will be impressed by its unique writing experience that allows you to hone and clarify your message. When writing in the editor, iA Writer highlights only the sentence or paragraph you’re working on, and uses syntax highlighting to help you spot superfluous adjectives, weak verbs, and repetitions.   You can export your Markdown files to HTML, PDF, and Microsoft Word file format using custom templates. The interface is minimalist, eliminating distractions, and allows you to focus purely on the text.   iA Writer is $29.99 on macOS.  

Pros
  • Makes writing a breeze due to the distraction-free interface.
  • Works on MacOS, Windows, and iOS.
Cons
  • Doesn’t offer any storage for your files so you will need to integrate with another service like Google Drive.
  • Isn’t cloud-based so you won’t be able to share your documentation with anyone else.

10. SimpleMDE

  SimpleMDE is a WYSIWYG Markdown editor built on JavaScript. It’s free and open source, so you can take advantage of this software for your documentation without paying a penny. SimpleMDE has a focus on creating simple documentation that includes autosave and spell checking.   If you don’t know Markdown then you can use the WYSIWYG editor to style and format your files using familiar toolbar buttons and shortcuts. The syntax is rendered while editing so you can preview the final result.   SimpleMDE is free and open source.

Pros
  • Simple editor for creating Markdown files.
Cons
  • There is no way to host your documentation for end-users to share.

11. Tettra

  Tettra is an internal knowledge base that organizes your scattered company knowledge so you can use it to answer your team’s repetitive questions right in Slack or MS Teams. It’s suitable for internal software documentation with a user-friendly and intuitive User Interface.   This software is built in a Q&A style format so users can ask questions and get answers in Tettra. With the Slack and MS Teams integration, you can answer questions directly in these platforms by linking to existing content. Tettra allows you to define knowledge experts within the interface so the right people can answer questions.   You have the ability to ask Subject Matter Experts to verify content according to a set schedule, so your content is never out-of-date. Teammates can also request new pages or request page updates so you can fill the gaps in your content.   Tettra is $8.33 per user per month for the scaling plan.  

Pros
  • Tettra is a simple platform that streamlines all your documents in one place.
  • It makes it easy to keep documents up-to-date.
Cons
  • Drafts can only be worked on by one individual with no collaborative editing.
  • It’s not possible to create a public knowledge base for your software documentation.

What Is Software Documentation?

Remember, docs or it didn’t happen. Software documentation is any written document that explains how a piece of software works, why it was built, and how it is intended to be used. Depending on the complexity of your software, your documentation can contain information on the general use of the product and in-depth dives into functions and features.

Software documentation, according to Daniele Procida, can be divided into four categories:

  • Learning-oriented tutorials
  • Goal-oriented how-to guides
  • Understanding-oriented discussions
  • Information-oriented reference material

Conclusion

Throughout my life as a software engineer and technical writer I’ve enjoyed the process of coding a product from the ground up. The best part about this is the ability to put into writing each step that needs to be taken in order to achieve a functioning product. Unlike other technical documentation, documentation that concerns software design is much more sparse as there are no hard-lined rules for its format. There are however, some great tools for creating design documents for your next project.

Software design documentation refers to the process of documenting the design decisions in a software system. The goal is to create a record that can be referred to in later stages of the project and also used by other team members and new developers joining the project at a later stage. Making code readable and easy to follow is essential so that other developers can work on your project after you have left your job or because another developer will work on the same project. But somehow, the importance of documentation has been lost over time. I believe this has happened mostly due to time limitations, but it can also be caused by people being willing to write code fast and skip over important steps.

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