It can be challenging to write extensive software documentation.
These texts need to be unfailingly exact, detailed, and easily digestible—this is the only way they will assist their readers.
With such painstaking criteria, you might be wondering if producing software documentation is worth the effort.
We’re here to tell you—it definitely is.
By gathering all possible knowledge about a piece of software in a single, centralized document, you are doing your entire team a favor in more ways than one.
In this article, we’ll walk you through some benefits—features that your team will surely appreciate—of maintaining extensive software documentation.
Helps Developers Stay Focused on the Goal
One of the main advantages of software documentation is that it enables developers to focus on their goals.
Having their objectives outlined in writing gives developers a reference point for their project and a set of guidelines to rely on.
These instructions are crucial, as they safeguard the project from going off-track.
Google takes this philosophy a step further. The company relies heavily on its design docs, which are created before a project and list implementation strategy and design decisions.
Of course, the goals of the project are included, but Google also lists non-goals.
The company points out what to avoid, or what simply isn’t that much of a priority, in addition to recounting what should be accomplished.
This way, developers can refer to an extensive checklist to ensure they’re fulfilling expectations.
The non-goals are explained below:
For a real-life depiction of Google’s goals and non-goals, there is an example document publicly available. Here is an excerpt:
Such non-goals are a handy supplement to the goals.
That being said, the standard method of aiding focus is compiling a requirements document—a record of what the software should do, containing information regarding functionalities and features.
Requirements documents are often compiled in cooperation with stakeholders, which has the added benefit of ensuring that everyone is in agreement on what’s written within.
If everyone adheres to the stipulations of the requirements document, there’s no chance of miscommunication or misunderstandings, and stakeholders must commit to their decisions. In short, everything is written down and reviewed.
The text also defines their success metric, as explained here:
There’s no chance of uncertainties with a requirements document since all expectations must be clearly summarized. Shown below is an example of a requirements document:
This particular requirements document also incorporates user stories into its methodology. Those are informal software explanations written from the user’s perspective.
They illustrate the user’s goal; what the user wants to achieve from the software.
Incorporating user stories is beneficial as developers can place themselves in their customers’ shoes and clearly visualize if they’ve completed the desired goal; the defined objectives become much less abstract.
Facilitates Knowledge Transfer
Extensive software documentation is an invaluable resource when it comes to sharing knowledge.
By recording information about a project, a plethora of intelligence and data is gathered in one place, available for anyone in need.
This can be a massive help in a project, and Professor Bashar Nuseibeh advocates framing documentation as a knowledge-sharing tool in general.
Thinking of documentation as knowledge transfer is also an excellent mindset to have in the context of teamwork.
By documenting well, you ensure that all employees are cohesively aligned; everyone has access to the same information and is provided with the same resources.
Furthermore, as soon as employees update the software, they can easily communicate that new information with their co-workers by editing the documentation.
There’s no chance of knowledge being lost.
It’s then no surprise that sharing knowledge is proven to increase productivity. Research revealed the following:
If knowledge about a project is faithfully documented, developers will have more time to advance the software, as opposed to searching for information.
No time gets lost on emails or instant messaging; intelligence is available in just a few clicks, boosting productivity.
Furthermore, there is less effort duplication, as developers won’t work on the same thing twice.
For example, if a developer discovers a bug but doesn’t have the time to deal with it, they can still record it, thus making it easier for other developers to debug it.
Since the bug has been located, the other team members won’t have to waste time searching for it and can focus on finding a solution. Productivity is bound to skyrocket.
Archbee, an online documentation platform, is also a handy tool for knowledge sharing.
By uploading all the documentation to a shared platform, teams can easily navigate all relevant intelligence in an internal, online knowledge base.
Here is what a knowledge base looks like:
Archbee can be used as a helpful one-stop for a development team, providing an interactive, clear space for companies to organize and maintain their software documentation.
Makes Coding Easier
Another noteworthy benefit of documentation is the ease it brings to coding, especially when revisiting old code.
There is quite a small chance developers will remember why they wrote their code the way they did six months down the line; sometimes, it’s difficult to recognize just what was for breakfast.
However, documentation can answer most developers' questions about the code, even when they themselves wrote it.
If there are any irregularities, such as strange naming conventions or unclear requirements, chances are the explanation will be in the documentation.
In fact, Larry Wall, creator of Perl, quipped:
Wall jokes about laziness, but compiling well-written documentation will genuinely answer most questions, therefore easing the coding upkeep.
APIs are another excellent example of this. Developers spend more than 10 hours a week working with APIs, and documentation on them is sacred.
If an API is accompanied by a structured document with clear guidelines on integration and use, utilizing that API will be ten times easier.
Useful API documentation typically hosts tutorials, a quick start guide, examples of request and return, error messages, and similar.
Take a look at Facebook’s Graph API guide below. They’ve provided clear instructions from the beginning, including a ‘Getting Started’ section for developers without much API experience.
So much information at once can be overwhelming, and it’s always helpful to slowly introduce new users to a new concept.
API documentation also frequently includes status and errors. There are, of course, standard status codes, but also those errors that are specific to the API.
Having a documented list of possible errors is a huge help for developers, as it makes these errors much easier to resolve.
Style guides are also not to be scoffed at. When coding while using a style guide, developers don’t need to worry about particulars.
There shouldn’t be any ambiguity about, for example, naming variables or vertical alignment. For instance, take a look at tidyverse style guide’s naming conventions.
When all such conventions are laid out and documented in the style guide, developers don’t lose time wondering what format to follow.
Instead, they just follow predetermined rules, making coding much easier.
Makes Change Management Easier
Just as the documentation makes coding easier, it also makes changing management much easier.
A classic example of this is when a developer is freshly hired and takes over someone else’s work; the new recruit didn’t write the code but now must maintain it.
This task is significantly facilitated if there is ample documentation. One Reddit user recounts his own experience:
This particular developer had wasted hours when they could have simply skimmed through the documentation and solved the issue almost immediately.
Making sure the software is well-documented ensures that the new employees can quickly be brought up to speed with a project.
They might also contribute a fresh perspective on the product (as opposed to their colleagues) and suggest new solutions.
However, for this to happen, they must be on the same page as everyone else. In this way, software documentation can be considered an onboarding document.
For example, let’s say the software incorporates some simple calculator configuration or shipping services for a retail business.
In such cases, the logic is most easily described with a switch case flowchart, shown below.
Utilizing a switch case flowchart provides a clear overview of switching cases and default statements without having to dive deep into the code.
The structure is accessible, making the program’s working mechanism and basic build block easily readable.
This is invaluable to new hires, as it means they can easily understand the logic and debug any possible errors without combing through code.
However, software documentation isn’t only valuable when acquiring new team members; it’s also a considerable asset when someone leaves.
By documenting everything, no knowledge is lost when an employee departs. Instead, all of their expertise is recorded, and the remaining team members aren’t at a disadvantage.
They still have the same resources available to them.
One Quora user recounted a particularly humorous, somewhat silly example of this instance in this thread:
Somewhat of a frivolous story, but the point still stands. Had the previous employee not alerted the current one to the lack of payments, who knows what would have happened?
This way, the present worker is fully aware of all the specifications surrounding the program.
Serves as a Foundation for User Guides
Software documentation is not only beneficial for developers; it is quite helpful for end-users as well.
Much of the material in software documentation can be repurposed for preparing a user guide. This includes user manuals, FAQs, training materials, and similar.
The mind map below depicts the various types of project documentation by purpose and stages.
The most high-level requirements and design documents (software documentation) are developed at the beginning of the project, in the planning stage.
The user documentation only comes at the end, once the product has been developed and tested. As such, there is plenty of material available for use.
Consider installation procedures. This is an obligatory process the developers would have had to design and implement.
The vocabulary developers use might be too technical for end-users, but the workflow is the same.
For example, system requirements are essential information for users, including details about web servers or API configuration.
If the software documentation for developers was recorded faithfully, all the necessary intelligence should be documented.
That intelligence then simply needs to be ‘translated’ into a language for end-users. There’s an example in the Energy Lens user guide:
The guide emphasizes the necessity of downloading the setup file—a superb example of walking users through installation prerequisites, which would have been more technically explained in the original documentation.
Although the instructions are straightforward, it is evident that none of these actions could be executed without the developers having documented a process previously.
The details are invisible, but the basic framework is undoubtedly apparent.
When designing software, it’s also common to utilize user story mapping.
In other words, developers create a visual representation of a user’s experience, envisioning what the user wants to get out of the product and what they think is valuable.
You can see an example of this below:
The map walks developers through every possible encounter a user might have while using their software, which in turn helps them code and document the software.
Then, later when writing the user guide, the user story map serves as a repository of all the possible interactions a user can have.
These types of records are irreplaceable when compiling a user guide, acting once again as guidelines.
Supports Software Maintenance
Last but not least, software documentation is incredibly helpful to software maintenance.
After shipping a piece of software, there is always the possibility that something might, unfortunately, go wrong.
However, it’s much easier for the developers to resolve problems if they have the intelligence to fall back on, i.e. the documentation.
This is especially important when considering how much of the SDLC cost is made up of maintenance. As seen below, it’s double that of development.
Given how essential maintenance is to a software project, a solid starting point is crucial.
For example, with proper documentation, developers can view the software’s system configuration or the agreed-upon initial setup, which is already a helpful springboard.
They should also be able to understand the logic behind certain decisions and then discover if users should apply change request procedures to fix their issues.
In general, the documentation should have all the information that support staff can use as references.
One Reddit user explains below how he utilizes documentation as a sort of support document.
This developer makes it a point to include warnings and important deployment instructions and notes any known issues that might cause problems later down the road.
Future developers who work on this code will greatly appreciate his input, and it should make maintaining the software much more manageable.
Documentation also frequently hosts a list of known bugs. Bugs are not necessarily going to break a piece of software, and there are often plenty of bugs with no real impact on usability.
However, further down the line, developers can add new features or introduce new environments, and the once-harmless bug may suddenly increase in severity.
On such occasions, a list of known bugs is priceless.
Instead of searching for a needle in the haystack, developers have an orderly checklist they can use to extrapolate where the bug is located.
An example of a list of known bugs is displayed here:
The first bug listed has a workaround, but the second one lacks any resolution.
At the moment, it’s not a huge issue, but if there are problems down the line, the developer has a clear overview of possible culprits.
The positives of maintaining extensive software documentation go without saying.
Not only does it help developers stay focused on their objectives, but it also facilitates sharing knowledge, making sure everyone is on the same page.
Furthermore, software documentation is indispensable for changing management and coding in general—detailed records make both processes easier.
Finally, software documentation is a fantastic launchpad for user guides and software maintenance, as they can lean on quality documentation.
Having taken all this into account, upholding extensive software documentation is bound to increase your company’s productivity, so we highly recommend investing in it.