The importance of software documentation

The importance of software documentation and why you need it

- Updated October 30, 2018

A software documentation is a written document which describes one information system and explains how it operates and how it should be used.

Imagine you did a lot of work and created a well-planned out project and you have one of the best project managers in the world leading the team.

Do you think that’s all it takes to complete the project and deliver desirable results?

Unfortunately, no.

You still need to make sure that everyone is on the same page, no matter whether they are experienced team members or new employees.

That’s where technical documentation comes into play.

Even though the Agile approaches question the need for extensive documentation, the lack of it can still pose significant risks of creating gaps in understanding what the system is expected to do.

One of the biggest myths regarding documentation is that it’s a loss of valuable time.

Documentation actually helps reduce the system downtime, speed up all maintenance-related tasks, and helps ease the system set-up in a new environment. Additionally, it can also be a powerful tool for testing and evaluating the system performance.

Types of software documentation

types of software documentation

There are two main categories of software documentation, product and process documentation.

The main difference between the two is that the process documentation describes the development process, while the product documentation describes the product.

Product documentation

This document provides instructions on how to perform different tasks with the product.

System documentation 

should describe the functions of a system and their implementation. It includes architecture descriptions, program source code, design decisions, and help guides.

User documentation

consists of manuals prepared for the users who will interact with the system. This includes tutorials, troubleshooting manuals etc.

Process documentation

includes all documents created during the development of the product. The most common process documentation files are project plans and reports, test schedules, meeting notes etc.

How to write a good system documentation?

importance of software documentation

  1. Create a requirements document that will provide all the necessary information about the functionality of the system. Stick to the point and don’t make this document too long. Simply cover the basic features, functionalities, and behavior and outline the product’s purpose.
  2. Provide information about roles & responsibilities. This will clarify the responsibilities of the different stakeholders and help them complete their part of the task.
  3. Explain the strategic aim of your actions. Why did you build this product? How did the actions you took affected the product? How do they align with the company goals?
  4. Create user stories. User stories are documents written from the user’s point of view. This should be a short description of the main actions the customer will take and the results they should achieve.
  5. Record all the questions. As time passes by, new problems will arrive. The team will eventually solve them but it’s a good practice to write down all the questions that will arise during the process.
  6. Use links and anchors. This will help make your document easier to read and navigate through.
  7. Use diagraming tools and images. People always digest information more easily when they get a visual perspective of the problem.
  8. Prepare a source code document. This should explain how the code works. Even though not always necessary, it’s recommendable to include topics that could potentially confuse the users.
  9. Prepare a quality assurance documentation. Include a test strategy and a test plan that should describe what should be tested at a given moment. Also, create a checklist to keep a track of which tests have been completed and which ones failed.
  10. Finally, create a maintenance and help guide that will cover the system’s most common problems and their solutions.

How to write a good user documentation?

user documentation

  1. Use active verbs. It’s always better to write “The GET document function generates a PDF” than “With the GET document function a PDF document will be generated”.
  2. Organize the document into chapters and paragraphs. This will help the user navigate through the documentation.
  3. Know your target audience. Generally, user-documentation is aimed at either end-users or system administrators. Learn more about the insights of both groups before starting to write the documentation and try to look at things from their perspective.
  4. Keep a track of customer feedback and update your user documentation accordingly.
  5. Finally, know your software, especially if you’re not a developer. Do your best to learn how the system operates before writing the documentation. Consulting with the developers is really helpful in this phase.

 How to write a good process documentation?

  1. Create plans, estimates, and schedules before the project starts and alter it as the product evolves.
  2. Define coding standards. Include all UX and coding standards and make sure all team members adhere to them as the project progresses.
  3. Create reports and establish metrics. This will reflect how time and human resources were allocated during the development phase.
  4. Keep a track of working papers. Use them to record the ideas of your developers during the project implementation. This isn’t a crucial part of the documentation but it’s useful to keep a track of it because it allows you to retrieve specific project details when needed.

Finally, let’s see what are…

The main reasons to have a software documentation

importance of software documentation

  1. It will help you clarify your goals and requirements. In the process of building software, developers can easily get distracted and derail from the core functionality you want the software to provide. With documentation, you’re making sure everyone is heading towards the same direction to accomplish the goals of the project
  2. It provides system support. After the implementation phase, the support team might need to reference some points from the implementation phase in order to resolve an issue. It’s important for the support team to have access to a history of the decisions that were made and the reasons why were they made. If project documents (ex. Software requirements) are available, then it becomes easier for the support team to solve the problem.
  3. It guides the users through the system. You’ve spent months creating this amazing software, that’s great. But you also need to make sure that the people you designed it for will know how it actually works.
  4. It can improve the communication among different units. Documentation can help to facilitate interaction across multiple departments, even when they are in different parts of the world. Different people interpret words differently. This can cause a lot of problems within an organization. Having a proper documentation that people can refer to helps avoid this potential problem.
  5. It can bring you more success in the future. If you complete one successful project and create a proper documentation for it, you can replicate that success in your next project. Even if some of the old team members aren’t there anymore.

Software documentation isn’t optional. It’s necessary. Allowing the team to wait until the last moment to create documentation is a poor project management tactic. It’s a good practice to start your documentation on time and alter it as the project progresses.

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