The primary goal of every software product is for it to be successful and a huge percentage of that success depends on how well the documentation is designed. In fact, a well-built software product without decent documentation is as good as nothing. The success of a software product depends more on how comprehensible and detailed the documentation of that software is, and not just the code.
In this article, I will discuss software documentation in regards to types, best practices, tools for building, and the importance of documentation.
Eric Holscher the co-founder of Write the Docs once said, "Documentation is one of the most important parts of a software project. However, a lot of projects have little or no documentation to help their (potential) users use the software".
What is Software Documentation?
Software documentation refers to any written document that provides users with information such as; the processes involved in building a particular software, why a piece of software was built, what it does, how it works, and basically how it can be used in a clear and easy to comprehend approach.
Incorrect documentation is often worse than no documentation - Bertrand Meyer
Most times, users of a software product usually find themselves in the documentation only when the need arises. They are often in a haste to quickly find information that solves their problem. If the user finds the documentation complex, poorly structured, and inconsistent, they will easily ditch the service or product for an alternative. As a result, the availability of documentation is not enough. The content of the documentation has to be given the highest priority and delivered in a strategic approach in a way that the user can easily grasp.
Software documentation should be nothing short of elegance and effective because bad documentation can also hurt your software product even more than when there is no documentation. Bad documentation can lead to scaring away potential clients, losing existing clients, and wasting internal resources.
Types of Software Documentation
Software documentation is divided into two main categories, which are:
- Process documentation
- Product documentation
Process documentation refers to a document that describes the processes involved in building and maintaining a software product.
Product documentation is a document that basically describes a software product and provides information such as software requirements, how-to guides on different use cases of the software, terminologies, and concepts used in the software.
There isn’t one thing called “documentation” but four things known as documentation and they represent different purposes. According to Daniele Procida, the structure of good documentation is broken down into four quadrants which are; tutorials, how-to guides, explanation, and reference.
The documentation system ~ Daniel Procida
- Tutorials (learning-oriented)
- How-to guides (problem-oriented)
- Explanation (understanding-oriented)
- Reference (information-oriented)
Software documentation delivered in this format makes it easier to maintain and update and also on the part of end-users, navigation and search for information in the documentation becomes a seamless experience.
- Explicitly Structured: The structure of documentation really matters a lot, because it determines how users can navigate and access information quickly; Delivering documentation following the tutorials, how-to guides, explanation, and reference structure makes it easy for users to navigate and find information quickly.
- Consistency: Good documentation is consistent with information covering all aspects of the software use cases and without gaps.
- Up-to-date: The documentation of software should evolve according to the changes in the software, to capture all changes and remain consistent.
- Clear and Inviting: Users always look for documentation that is clear and easily comprehensible.
- Sample Code: Good documentation should provide code examples for various use cases of the software, so users can see key concepts in action.
- Know your Target Audience: Identify and evaluate different personas for your software and curate documentation that is appealing to their various use cases.
- User Experience: Good documentation should consider the users' experience of the software documentation and also should be as inclusive as possible.
- The documentation should be scannable, easy to find, and contribute to.
There are various tools for creating software documentation; some of the popular ones are GitHub, Read The Docs, Docz, Docusaurus, Dropbox Paper, Documize, etc. You can use whichever tool you feel comfortable with, having in mind that they all have their ups and downs.
Importance of effective documentation
Some of the benefits of good software documentation are as follows;
- Sustains Open Source Software: The success of an open source software depends on the strength of the community behind it, effective documentation enables contributors to use and contribute to the software and this ensures growth, maintainability, and scalability.
- Content Marketing: Good software documentation serves as a form of an advert for your software because it makes your software appealing and easier for intending users to comprehend the various use cases for your software.
- Saves Time and Effort: Decent documentation saves time and effort for both developers and end-users of your product.
- Makes Hiring and Onboarding so much easier: It simplifies, the hiring and onboarding of new members because all necessary information relating to process, product, and the company is made available.
- Cuts down Duplicate Tasks: The issue of having to reinvent the wheel or creating something that already exists is handled by good documentation.
- Defines your product: Documentation summarizes important information about your software such as what the product does, how it works, and other essential details about the software
The success of a good software product depends not just on the code and the functionalities behind it but also on the documentation of that software. Writing documentation has to be strategic and follow best practices in other to avoid bad documentation.
The goal of Documentation doesn’t have to be “Just documentation” but effective documentation.
To recap, we discussed what software documentation is, types, best practices, tools for creating documentation, and the importance of effective software documentation.
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