1. Software Engineering

Technical Documentation in Software Development: Types, Best Practices, and Tools

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ick we delve into the crucial role technical documentation plays in software development. We’ll guide you through the various types of documentation, share best practices for crafting clear and concise documents, and introduce tools that can streamline the process. Gain valuable insights to improve your team’s efficiency and enhance communication throughout your development journey.

What is technical documentation in software development?

Technical documentation in software engineering is the umbrella term that encompasses all written documents and materials dealing with software product development. All software development products, whether created by a small team or a large corporation, require some related documentation. And different types of documents are created throughout the whole software development lifecycle (SDLC). Documentation exists to explain product functionality, unify project-related information, and allow for discussing all significant questions arising between stakeholders and developers.

Agile and Waterfall approaches to software documentation

The documentation types that the team produces and their scope depending on the software development approach that was chosen. There are two main ones: Agile and Waterfall. Each is unique in terms of accompanying technical documentation.

Waterfall approach

The Waterfall approach is a linear method with distinct goals for each development phase. Teams that use waterfall spend a reasonable amount of time on product planning in the early stages of the project. They create an extensive overview of the main goals and objectives and plan what the working process will look like. Waterfall teams strive to create detailed documentation before any of the engineering stages begin. Careful planning works well for projects with little to no changes in progress as it allows for precise budgeting and time estimates.

Agile approach

The Agile approach is based on teamwork, close collaboration between developers, stakeholders, and end customers, flexibility, and the ability to quickly respond to changes. The basic building blocks of Agile development are iterations: Each one of them includes planning, analysis, design, development, and testing.

Types of technical documentation

The main goal of effective documentation is to ensure that developers and stakeholders are headed in the same direction to accomplish the objectives of the project. To achieve them, different software documentation types exist.

All software documentation can be divided into two main categories:

  • Product documentation
  • Process documentation

Product documentation describes the product that is being developed and provides instructions on how to perform various tasks with it. In general, product documentation includes requirements, tech specifications, business logic, and manuals. There are two main types of product documentation:

Process documentation represents all documents produced during development and maintenance that describe… well, the process. Common examples of process-related documents are standards and project documentation, such as project plans, test schedules, reports, meeting notes, or even business correspondence.

Product: System documentation

System documentation provides an overview of the system and helps engineers and stakeholders understand the underlying technology. It usually consists of the requirements document, architecture design, source code, validation docs, verification and testing info, and maintenance or help guides. It’s worth emphasizing that this list isn’t exhaustive. So, let’s have a look at the details of the main types.

Product requirement document

A product requirement document or PRD provides information about system functionality. Generally, requirements are statements of what a system should do. They can be functional and nonfunctional, and our dedicated article explains the differences in detail. So a product requirement document contains business rules, user stories, use cases, etc., and it should be clear and shouldn’t be an extensive and solid wall of text. It should contain enough to outline the product’s purpose, features, functionalities, maintenance, and behavior.

User Experience Design documentation

User experience design (UX design) begins at the requirements stage and proceeds through all the stages of development, including the testing and post-release stages. The process of UX design includes research, prototyping, usability testing, and the actual designing part, during which lots of documentation and deliverables are produced.

he research stage includes:

  • User personas
  • User scenario
  • Scenario map
  • User story map
  • UX style guide

Software architecture design document

Software architecture design documents, sometimes also called technical specifications, include the main architectural decisions made by the solution architect. Unlike the above-mentioned product requirement document that describes what needs to be built, the architecture design documentation is about how to build it. It has to describe in what way each product component will contribute to and meet the requirements, including solutions, strategies, and methods to achieve that. So, the software design document gives an overview of the product architecture, determines the full scope of work, and sets the milestones, thus, looping in all the team members involved and providing the overall guidance.

Source code document

A source code document is a technical section that explains how the code works. While it’s not necessary, the aspects that have the greatest potential to confuse should be covered. The main users of the source code documents are software engineers.

Source code documents may include but are not limited to the following details:

  • HTML generation framework and other frameworks applied;
  • type of data binding;
  • design pattern with examples (e.g., model-view-controller);
  • security measures; and
  • other patterns and principles

Quality assurance documentation

There are different types of user acceptance testing in agile. We have outlined the most common:

  • Quality management plan
  • Test strategy
  • Test plan
  • Test case specifications
  • Test checklists

Maintenance and help guide

One of the key documents created as part of product system documentation is the help and maintenance guide. This document serves as a crucial resource for ensuring the smooth operation and longevity of the system. It should describe known problems with the system and their solutions and provide step-by-step instructions for users and administrators to troubleshoot and resolve common issues. The guide should also outline best practices for maintaining and updating the system, as well as any necessary security measures. Additionally, it should represent the dependencies between different parts of the system to provide a comprehensive understanding of the system’s architecture and functionality.

API documentation

Nearly any product has its APIs or Application Programming Interfaces. Their documentation informs developers how to effectively use and connect to the required APIs.

Process Documentation

Process documentation covers all activities surrounding product development. The value of keeping process documentation is to make development more organized and well-planned. This branch of documentation requires some planning and paperwork both before the project starts and during the development. Here are common types of process documentation:

Plans, estimates, and schedules. These documents are usually created before the project starts and can be altered as the product evolves.

Reports and metrics. Reports reflect how time and human resources were used during development. They can be generated on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Consult our article on Agile delivery metrics to learn more about process documents such as velocity chats, sprint burndown charts, and release burndown charts.

Working papers. These documents exist to record engineers’ ideas and thoughts during project implementation. Working papers usually contain some information about an engineer’s code, sketches, and ideas on how to solve technical issues. While they shouldn’t be the major source of information, keeping track of them allows for retrieving highly specific project details if needed.

Tools for software documentation

General purpose tools

There are countless collaborative tools for software development teams. Those can help to state requirements, share information, and document features and processes:

  • Atlassian Confluence is the most popular collaborative project tool that has the whole ecosystem for managing product requirements and writing documentation. Confluence is known for a stable wiki system and an efficient user story management interface.
  • Document 360 is a self-service knowledge base/software documentation platform designed for Software-as-a-Service products.
  • bit.ai is a tool for collaborative documentation creation, storing, data sharing, and using a wiki system. The documentation is interactive, meaning that developers can embed blocks or snippets of code right into the document and share it in one click. Once you finish editing your documentation, you can save it in PDF or markdown format, and post it on any other platform.
  • Github needs no introduction, except for those who want to use it for software documentation. It provides you with its own wiki system and allows for converting your documentation into compelling website showcases.

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