What Is Software Documentation? An Overview

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Claudiu
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This overview examines software documentation, its types, and its uses. It also lists a few best practices to help you create helpful docs for your product.

📚 Table of contents

If you’ve developed a software product, you need a way to teach the users how to make the most of it—and what better way to do that than with software documentation.

These documents provide an insight into everything one needs to know to use the product successfully.

However, they can also contain technical information that other developers need in order to keep developing the product.

In this article, we’ll go over what software documentation usually consists of, what it aims to achieve, and finally, how to write great docs.

So, let’s see what makes documentation an indispensable part of every software product.

Software Documentation Definition

Software documentation is an umbrella term for all the documents that show the user how a piece of software works. It also covers information intended for people who develop software.

Sounds too vague?

Let’s see some real-life examples of software documentation to paint the picture.

If you’ve ever had to submit an official document in writing, chances are you’ve used Microsoft Word, especially before the age of better writing tools.

If so, you’ve probably had to look up page numbering.

Source: Microsoft

User guides on specific software features, like the one you see above, are just one of the ways users interact with software documentation daily.

You can also find docs intended to represent the product and highlight its abilities.

On the other hand, software documentation intended for developers usually covers integrations and API references that allow people from other companies to integrate the software into their products.

Source: Nexweave

You’ll frequently see pieces of software documentation that contain both docs for end-users and developers.

Take Nexweave, the GIF-making company whose documentation we’ve just seen, for example.

While a significant portion of their documentation is written for users, there’s also a part where developers can see the ins and outs of the product and learn how to incorporate it into their solutions.

All things considered, we can conclude that software documentation covers all records that accompany a software product and help users and developers navigate it.

Now, let’s learn more about the software documentation types.

Different Categories of Software Documentation

There are many subcategories of software documents, but the two main ones are product documentation and process documentation.

Some also classify marketing documentation as the third category. While marketing docs can elevate the state of your product, product and process documentation are crucial for its success.

If you’re a visual learner, you might like this overview of documentation categories from our article about technical documentation in general.

Source: Archbee

Now that you see the bigger picture, it’s time to get into details about the two main categories of software documentation.

Product Documentation

As the name suggests, product documentation describes the software and its features in detail.

User-facing documents tell the end-user how to use the software.

Manuals, FAQs, and troubleshooting guides are the subcategories that teach users how to get started with the product, utilize different functionalities, and even solve the problems they potentially encounter.

Here’s an example of a troubleshooting guide written by ChartHop, an HR platform.

Source: ChartHop

It lists the common errors and references possible solutions.

Paired with a thorough product overview available in the same set of documents, this guide ensures that users find relevant information for different scenarios that happen while using the product.

However, product documentation also covers the information other developers or system administrators need to modify the product or integrate it with other solutions.

For this purpose, ChartHop has a dedicated product documentation section titled “Developers.”

Source: ChartHop

That section navigates developers through the ways they can share and manage their organization’s information via API and integrations.

So, whatever tips or instructions you have for your users, product documentation is the place to list those.

We’ll now see what process documentation is about.

Process Documentation

While product documentation shows how the product works, process documentation is there to shed light on the development process.

External process documentation includes product plans, notes, and the development schedule.

It acts as a roadmap that tells your clients and customers what they can expect from the product in the future.

For instance, Slack hosts their roadmap on Trello. There you can see what features they’ve added to the product and what they’re planning to work on and when.

Source: Slack

In addition to publicly available process documentation, you can also create internal roadmaps with more details. That way, your in-house team can track the development progress.

You can also find examples of a retrograde approach to sharing process documentation; that’s what we do in Archbee.

We keep a changelog and update it every time we alter our product documentation platform.

Source: Archbee

By sharing pieces of our development journey, we show the clients that we’re taking their suggestions into consideration and are constantly working on upgrading the product.

You should keep in mind that software products undergo changes more frequently than physical ones.

Therefore, if you decide to share your process documentation with the audience, be prepared for the maintenance work necessary to keep the information you share up to date and accurate.

Purpose of Software Documentation

Seeing that software documentation consists of much more than random notes about the product thrown together in a doc, you might be wondering if document creation is really worth the resources it takes.

If that’s the case, you should remember that the purpose of software documentation is to share knowledge about the product, which can help you decrease support costs and even generate more sales.

Did you know that customers don’t actually like contacting support?

That’s right; a study of more than 75,000 people has found that customers prefer more straightforward solutions, such as self-service centers, over being transferred to multiple agents to resolve an issue.

The study reports that Cisco, a networking company, has increased the percentage of problems customers solve through self-service from 30% to 84% by developing informative product documentation.

Source: Cisco

It seems like a decrease in support tickets of more than 50% seems like good motivation for setting up a software documentation base, right?

Software documentation is primarily created to help end-users, but it ultimately also benefits you because you get customers who are happier with your product.

Similarly, customers find an additional purpose of software documentation in informing themselves about the product before making a purchase.

For instance, just a look at the documentation created by CallerDesk shows that the company aims to empower the users to use the platform with ease.

Step-by-step instructions accompanied by informative screenshots demonstrate CallerDesk’s dedication to making the product approachable.

Source: CallerDesk

An insight into documentation lets the customer see how much troubleshooting support they can expect if needed and learn how complicated the features are to use.

CallerDesk’s documentation even contains a FAQ section where potential customers can read about questions the actual users encounter—all that without pushy, salesy language.

All in all, while the primary purpose of software documentation is to provide the users with knowledge, you shouldn’t forget about the benefits it brings to companies.

Sounds like something you’d like for your product? Let’s learn about the practices that will help you create your own software documentation.

General Best Practices for All Types of Software Documents

Before you dive into listing the features of your software governed by the desire to assist your users, you need a strategy to make the end result more successful.

You can start by borrowing the Agile framework from the software development community and applying it to the process of creating documentation.

Follow Agile Practices for Software Documentation

Embracing change and constant collaboration are the bases that make the Agile approach to software development so successful.

By applying the same principles to writing software documentation, you’ll be able to create an accurate knowledge base that always reflects the current state of the product.

Unlike traditional development processes, the Agile approach relies on being cyclical, meaning that the project is pursued in several successive phases.

Source: InDevLab

In the context of software documentation, that means that companies shouldn’t wait until the project is done to start drafting the docs.

Instead, it’s better to update the documentation as the project progresses.

At this point, you might be wondering if such an approach conflicts with one of the four core principles of the Agile manifesto, namely the one that prioritizes the product over the docs.

Source: Agile Alliance

If that’s the case, you should keep in mind that the manifesto doesn’t claim that documentation is unimportant.

On the contrary, it implies that software documentation is highly valuable, but only when it complements the product without becoming the main, demanding project on its own.

In other words, there’s no need to describe the features that you’ve planned but still haven’t carried out—a lot may change during the development process.

And as we said, Agile is all about responding to change.

Lastly, your software documentation can benefit from the Agile practices if you also implement the collaborative aspect of the framework, which is a method advised by the framework experts.

Source: Quora

So, according to Agile practices, you shouldn’t let the sole technical writer maintain the docs.

Rather, you’ll get the software documentation of the highest quality if you ask the entire team to contribute whenever they make changes.

Prioritize Documentation in the Development Lifecycle

Without a conscious effort, you could accidentally put documentation on the back burner and jeopardize the success of the entire product.

To prevent that, you should prioritize documentation in the development lifecycle and start working on the docs as each feature is near completion.

When you start the development cycle, it’s easy to focus on coding and forget everything else.

However, you shouldn’t forget that the sooner you start documenting, the smaller your backlog of docs-related tasks will be, which is another reason to try out Agile practices in documentation.

Source: Agile Modeling

Not only will prioritizing documentation help technical writers organize the content better, but your development team will also get a detailed overview of the features they’ve implemented so far.

Also, the lack of documentation is as frustrating to the in-house team as it is to end-users, so it’s best to prevent situations where a part of the product isn’t accompanied by documentation.

Source: CommitStrip

Of course, there’s no need to create documentation before a feature is created because unforeseen changes could impact the documentation, as the Agile methodology warns.

The best approach would be to adopt the just-in-time approach and create documentation as each feature is developed—not earlier, not later.

That way, you’re ensuring that you have good document foundations for all features once you move to writing and coordinating your technical content.

Collaborate With Subject Matter Experts

While it’s a common practice to task technical writers with creating software documentation, you’ll get better content if you set up the collaboration between writers and those developing the product, i.e., the subject matter experts (SMEs).

If you’re aiming to provide readers with a great user experience, you need a balance between precise information and storytelling.

Accuracy is a vital quality of software documentation.

The most straightforward way to ensure accuracy is to get the information straight from the source, from the people who created the product.

This is why many companies ask engineers to document the software they’ve created, especially when it comes to code, as you can see in this Stack Exchange thread.

Source: Stack Exchange

However, readers will hardly find raw data informative, which is why you still need technical writers on your team to shape the information into an approachable format.

Here’s the rest of the Stack Exchange answer we’ve just seen, emphasizing how important it is to leave the creation of educational materials to those who understand the end-users better.

Source: Stack Exchange

So, if you’ve hired a tech writer to create software documentation for your product, it’s vital to establish collaboration between them and SMEs, even if that seems like an unlikely crossover.

Those who have actively participated in product development have a better understanding of how the software works, making them an invaluable resource for documentation.

And if your lead engineers are too busy to deal with active documentation work, you should at least make sure there’s enough time for an expert review before you share the docs with the world.

Identify Your Target Audience

You can only provide the readers with the relevant information if you know who they are. Before you start writing, you should identify whether you’re writing for end-users or tech specialists.

If you’re writing for a specialized audience, you can feel free to use jargon when it conveys meaning better than plain language would.

In such cases, it’s helpful to provide brief descriptions or include explainer links, as advocated by the Google Developer Styleguide.

This will also help the users who are still learning about the technology you’re utilizing.

Source: Google Developers

The specialized vocabulary can help you make your docs more informative because it removes the distractions caused by additional explanations.

On the other hand, if you’re writing for end-users, using plain language is a better strategy—you don’t want the vocabulary barriers to render your docs ineffective.

Source: Twitter

All in all, identifying your audience’s goals and expertise levels will help you find the direction in which to build your software documentation.

Whether you’re writing for developers or for end-users, you can increase the effectiveness of your documentation by keeping your audience in mind during the writing process.

Conclusion

A software product isn’t complete without documentation.

While the topic of software documentation can be seen as perplexing, we hope that this overview has provided you with an insight into the main characteristics of software docs.

Equipped with the knowledge outlined here, you’ll be able to create informative documentation effectively and enhance the quality of your product.