The majority of people avoid documentation because they find it time-consuming, unnecessary, or just dull. This is where software documentation tools come in.
There is a tipping point when documentation becomes the solution for scaling teams and SaaS companies. And when it comes to software development, documentation is critical to ensure that a high-quality product is created.
Sure, tools are just tools, and you need to have faith in people to use them since a team is only as good as their tools.
A good SaaS documentation tool can get you to overcome the problems that come with scaling, onboarding new developers, reducing knowledge churn, and much more.
But before deciding which software documentation tool is best for you, it is better to assess them to fit your needs.
What are software documentation tools?
Software documentation tools unify teams under a single platform.
Different teams use different tools: marketing might use Google Docs and Trello, and the product team Airtable, sales might use Quip (Salesforce Anywhere), and the dev team lives in Github.
You need a place where everyone meets to have a single source of truth and answer the how, when, why, who questions.
For distributed teams, it can also be the place where asynchronous communication happens.
The thing with software docs tools is that they cater to specific needs, from software architecture diagrams, document APIs, code snippets to non-tech like adding standup notes, meeting notes, product spec, etc.
So, what do you need to look for to find the best tools for software documentation?
- Smooth editing experience.
- There should be some form of collaboration functionality.
- Integrate with other tools in your stack: Github, Slack, Figma, Airtable, etc.
- Search and analytics are powerful.
- Add sample code for multiple languages.
- The hierarchical structure of the documents.
- Diagrams built-in and the option to embed external sources.
Best Software Documentation Tools
There are multiple options out there, and to determine the best software documentation tool for you, first, decide how much you care about documentation. You can find the right tool once you put the importance into perspective because there is no right or wrong tool, but the one that solves your problem will be the right one.
Also, it's unfair to list documentation tools without context. Some of them are open-source, others are enterprise-level, and everything in between.
Here is the list of software documentation tools:
Let's analyze them based on the context you might be using them.
Stage 1: Docs as code
Some startups start with a docs-as-code solution since developers would be doing most of the documentation.
Since you treat your documentation in the same way as your code, there is no specific tool, rather a set of principles:
- your code editor to write it
- the version control system stores and versions your data
- test it with your automation integrations
- build the docs site and deploy it
You will have to use tools like version control systems (Github) and automation systems (CICD) along with static site generators (SSG). So you could find anything from a custom solution to some integrations with open source software or product docs as a service with a Github integration.
Stage 2: Open-source software documentation tools
DIY docs use open source software documentation tools like ReadTheDocs, Docusaurus, Gatsby, Next.js.
Each of them is powerful in its way but makes you fully responsible for making them work. Usually, you need to set up the hosting and maintain the platform, migrating versions or updating it. This is more for coders that want complete control over the process. Here are some of the open-source software documentation tools
- ReadTheDocs - the place where you can create and host documentation. If you are an open-source project, Read the Docs will host your documentation for free. Like any open source project, they need to keep the light on and have various ways to contribute. Becoming a Gold member makes Read the Docs ad-free when you are logged in. Gold members may also wholly remove advertising for all visitors to their projects.
- Docusaurus - this tool is backed by Facebook. It is built with React and works with Markdown. It’s straightforward to install and start adding files. The only thing is that you need to manage the hosting, SSL certificates, and there is no editor since you will be uploading files to the project folder.
- Gatsby has many features, a rich ecosystem of plugins, and is typically more user-friendly. Compared to Docusaurus there is a higher learning curve, and there are many things Gatsby does well, and it works for a wide variety of website types. Docz is a Gatsby theme to create a documentation website. It is currently less featured than Docusaurus.
- Next.js - is a framework that enables React-based applications to generate static sites. It can help you build a good documentation website, but it is not opinionated toward the documentation use-case, and it will require a lot more work to implement what others provide out-of-the-box.
Stage 3: Developer-focused product docs as a service
Some tools are focused on documenting software. But even fewer focus engineering people's needs.
If you need a platform where developers can get in a document software and have the other teams contribute, Archbee is your best bet right now. You can check Archbee alternatives if you want to see other options in the market and do your research.
Tools like Archbee, Readme.com, Gitbook have an advantage over the previous tools:
- the doc website is hosted for you, so no headaches with the maintenance.
- a built in editor that is user friendly for non technical team members.
- integrations already built with other tools.
In general is less of a headache since you pay for a service instead of having to handle custom automations or processes.
Stage 4: Enterprise CCMS
A Component Content Management System like Paligo is the solution for technical documentation because it manages content at a granular level - thus the term component.
A CCMS is powerful and suited for enterprise companies because the so-called components can be chapters, documents, or even a single word.
This is because technical writers compose on topics. So instead of having a single document by a single author, you need granular control. The goal is to reuse the component and edit them individually o ensure consistency. Each component has a lifecycle - author, version, approval process, and use.
Instead of jumping to conclusions about the best software documentation tools, let's go over how to document software development in your team.
The four kinds of documentation
Have you ever felt that some documentation needed extra documentation just to make sense out of it?
Daniele Procida's talk about the types of documentation is helpful for developers and technical writers alike. The breakdown of the four types of documentation offers a good path in structuring software documentation.
This comes from a person's work on Django documentation, which is some of the best open-source documentation you'll find. The four kinds of documentation are:
- Tutorials are learning-oriented with practical steps and are most useful when studying.
- How-to guides are problem-oriented with practical steps and most useful when working.
- Explanations are understanding-oriented as theoretical knowledge is most useful when studying.
- References are information-oriented since they are most useful when working and combine theoretical knowledge.
If you want to dive into a documentation system and universally-applicable, check the Youtube video.
Each of the tools listed above has some unique features. It is entirely up to you to decide which tool will work best for your needs. The role of any software documentation tool is to ease the lives of the people that write docs, so share with us. How do you approach software documentation?