The term software documentation is intimidating to many. Even though it seems self-explanatory (okay, it consists of documents that talk about software), what does that mean exactly?
Sofware documentation refers to all images, video, materials and text instructions that describe how to use computer software. There are two main types of software documentation: user-focused and developer-focused.
Therefore, software documentation is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of different documents, so there's no catch-all definition. However, they're all united by one common goal. They provide information about software. To what end, you might be wondering?
Software documentation provides people with information so that they can effectively use or work on a piece of software. Some documentation helps end-users get oriented, troubleshoot or start using a piece of software. Other documentation provides programmers, developers, software engineers and other industry professionals with more in-depth technical information about a piece of software.
Whatever the case may be, great software documentation should clearly communicate information about a piece of software. People should always finish reading software documentation and take away new knowledge, capabilities or data relating to that piece of software.
As mentioned before, software documentation can be separated into two broad categories: user-focused and developer-focused. Keep reading, because we'll be discussing those documentation types in a little more detail later on.
Who uses software documentation?
The people who use software documentation are as diverse as the kinds of documentation themselves. In fact, there's truly something for everyone when it comes to the different types of documentation. Many people see the words software documentation and automatically assume that they're technical documents that are only used by developers. In reality, this is not always the case.
As we'll discuss in the next section, software documentation can be divided into different categories.
1/ Some kinds of documentation are user-focused, meaning that they're normally read by end-users. This can include anything from customers to testers to external stakeholders.
2/ Other kinds of documentation are developer-focused. These are normally the more technical documents that are assembled and referred back to by developers, programmers, software engineers, project managers and the like.
Of course, these categories are not set in stone. There are also kinds of documentation that are used by end-users and developers alike, as well as more specific sub-categories.
User-focused software documentation
First things first, let's talk about user-focused documentation. By now you've probably figured out that these kinds of documents are intended for customers and other users that are receiving the finished version of your software development products. The goal of this kind of documentation is to help people use your software itself and/or features of your software. It can also provide them with details about your software, teach them how to download it and/or set it up and troubleshoot any issues.
This list is by no means extensive, but some common examples of user-focused software documentation include:
- How-to and user guides
- Release notes
- Reference documents
- Software design documents
- Explanations (often including videos, graphics & screenshots)
- Set-up and troubleshooting manuals
- Frequently asked questions
Developer-focused software documentation
On the other hand, we've got developer-focused software documentation. These documents are normally more technical and are used by people who are a part of developing a software product, or otherwise working on it after the fact. These people include programmers, developers, software engineers, project managers and other stakeholders.
Developer-focused documents are usually more difficult for people without industry experience to understand, but they should still be written as clearly as possible.
A variety of documents can fall under the umbrella of developer-focused software documentation, but here are some common examples:
- Back-end release notes
- Test plans
- API documentation
- README files
- Product requirements documents
- System documentation
- Source code document
- Other technical documentation & technical specifications
What to consider when choosing a software documentation tool
There are so many software documentation tools out there for all your documentation needs. However, it can be difficult to determine the best one for your team and specific project. If you ask us, here are some of the top features and considerations to keep in mind when you're thinking about trying some software documentation tools:
- How's its usability? Is it easy to navigate, or does it require a degree of industry experience to operate?
- Does it have search functionalities? Is it easy to find the documents you need, or do you need to do some sifting and searching every time?
- How are its integrations? Will it integrate easily with the web tools you already use, or will you have to move all your data over?
- Does it include customer service and/or user support? Do they offer demos, live chats, tutorials or user guides? Do they have a FAQ web-page or section?
- How do its organization features look? Are they advanced? Is it possible to create different channels, categories and sub-categories easily?
- Are the security features robust? What security norms, laws and qualifications are they compliant with? Do they offer different levels of security and/or accessibility?
- What elements can be added into your documentation? Is it easy to integrate things like source code snippets, files, videos, photos and embeds?
- Does its cost fit into your budget? Will you take advantage of its full array of features and functionalities?
If you consider the above questions and answer them honestly, you'll be able to easily identify the best software documentation tools for you and your team.
What's the best software to use for software documentation?
By now, you might have realized that one of the best ways to ensure you assemble excellent software documentation is by using a software or web app to help you. We're lucky to live in a time where software documentation no longer has to be a collection of papers in a file folder or binder. It goes without saying that modern technology makes the lives of software developers much easier.
As such, there's a wide variety of software out there that's perfect for your software docs needs. Keep reading for our top picks on the market at the moment. Whether you're looking for a web tool to host more technical information or a software to help you write internal documentation, there's something for everyone on our list.
1. Slite: Fast, flexible and easy to use
If you're looking for a straightforward, effective solution for all your software documentation needs, you can't go wrong with Slite. We arepassionate about helping people collaborate and innovate with ease, and your software development team is no exception. Our platform allows you to keep all your information and documentation in a centralized, easily accessible workspace.
Regardless of whether you're working on end-user manuals, system documentation or software requirements, Slite's editor will help you express your thoughts with ease. They have a wide variety of elements to choose from that are pre-formatted and ready to add into your documentation, including:
- Code snippets
- File attachments
- Photo galleries
If you've already started writing documentation elsewhere, Slite also enables you to import external documents with just a few clicks. Rather than worrying about tracking down different documents across various platforms, you'll have them all safely stored and organized in one place. Even better, you can keep your documents internal, or share them with external stakeholders or technical writers as needed.
It's easy to begin working on your software documentation development process with Slite. We have a wide variety of free templates to save you time when you're getting started, or you can start from scratch. It's totally up to you.
You also don't have to worry about security. We're Google/Slack SSO, OAuth, OKTA and OpenID compliant. Only the people you want to be able to access your documents will be able to.
If you're working on a large-scale project or really want to dive into Slite's functionalities, you can opt for a paid plan that includes access to an account manager to help you out. Otherwise, we have an introductory free plan and a standard plan that starts at $8 per member per month.
2. Bit.ai: Create, collaborate & get organized
Bit.ai was founded in 2017 and has quickly become one of the most powerful collaboration platforms out there. They specialize in helping professionals and individuals communicate effectively, collaborate seamlessly and get organized together. They're already being used by a diverse range of companies in over 100 countries worldwide.
Bit.ai has a wide range of uses, including:
- Customer service
- Human resources
In terms of software documentation, they're also popularly used by tech team members. It's a great solution for software product development as Bit.ai is designed to help developers throughout their entire tech and building process.
First, software developers are fond of using Bit.ai to facilitate an organized content management system. Bit.ai workspaces can act as a kind of internal wiki or knowledge base software for development project teams. They keep all the most important information in one place so that it can be easily accessed by team members as needed.
You can also create different workspaces for different purposes. Depending on your project needs, you might want to create workspaces for different teams, departments, clients, tasks or subjects. Regardless of which categories you choose, you can be sure that your data will be well stored, organized, searchable and up to date.
Last but not least, Bit.ai also integrates with over 100 web popular web apps, so it's easy to integrate their software with your existing methodologies and workflows. Rather than having to log into a bunch of different web tools, you'll be able to access everything you need in one centralized workspace.
Bit.ai has a free plan with limited features, and their paid plans start from $12 per month per month.
3. Github: A technical dream
Github has been around since 2008 and is one of the largest and most-used software development platforms on the market. If you work in software engineering, you're likely already familiar with Github. It's used by millions of developers and is the perfect solution for you if you're looking for a more technical documentation tool.
Programmers love Github's almost dizzying selection of tools to help them in their software development process. Some of the most notable include:
- Collaborative coding makes it easy to work on source code as a team with advanced notification, review, discussion, assignee and ownership functionalities.
- Advanced automations including but not limited to CI/CD, testing, planning, workflows, product management, project management, issue management, actions and approvals.
- Powerful security features like private repos, two-factor authentication, code & secret scanning, audit logs, advisories, required reviews and dependency graphs.
- Intuitive client apps for mobile devices and desktops.
- Project management capabilities that help keep your team members organized, report on your progress& priorities, keep track of milestones & issues and even provide you with specific insights & graphs. You can even host different documentation types by setting up a wiki.
If you're developing a piece of software and are putting together a great deal of technical software documentation, you'll love using Github. They have a free plan that provides the basics to teams and developers. Their paid plans unlock their features' full capabilities and range between $4-21 per user per month.
4. Document360: Comprehensive documentation development
Document360 is one of many enterprise software developed by Kovai.co. It's designed to enable growing companies to put together knowledge bases, both internal and external, for their customers and employees. It's used by big names like Microsoft, Harvard University and Stackify and is a great solution for your software documentation needs.
First of all, Document360 has a wide range of editor features that are perfect for writing software and technical documentation. The following functionalities (and more!) will help you integrate all the information you could possible need:
- Markdown support
- HTML editor
- Embedded images & videos
- Source code blocks
- File attachments
- Call outs
Document360 will also keep you organized with their advanced documentation and categorization features. You'll be able to play around with the categorization settings so that they perfectly match your needs by creating sub-categories, reordering articles, hiding categories and even adjusting different users' access.
Finally, Document360's branding features really set it apart from the crowd. When putting together great software documentation, it's important for your different documents to look appealing and consistent across the board. Achieve this by taking advantage of Document360's advanced customization tools, smart bars, colour themes, header & footer navigation branding and custom logo capabilities.
Document360 doesn't come cheap. You can book a demo to get the lay of the land, but after that their cheapest paid plan starts at $59 per project per month. As such, this solution is best suited for well-established businesses that'll really benefit from their full range of features.
5. Tettra: Simple, clean internal documentation
Tettra came to life in 2016 with a mission to bring ease and efficiency into professional communication and knowledge exchange. They argue that "it's time our work lives caught up to the rest of our lives," pointing out that the technology we use in our professional lives is often leagues behind the technology we use in our personal lives.
As a result, Tettra has developed a sleek, intuitive internal knowledge base that allows teams to share knowledge and exchange information effectively. By storing all your key information in one place, you'll keep yourself (and your team!) organized while cutting down on repetitive questions and answers.
If you're developing internal software documentation and are looking for a straightforward solution to help you do so, Tettra is a great option for you. It's not as well suited to highly technical documentation as some of the other options we've covered in our breakdown, but would work great for user documentation and other internal content.
Whatever the case may be, your software documentation process will be made much easier if you establish a solid framework to work off of from the get-go. Tettra can help you do just that. You can build everything just the way you like it from the ground up, or use one of their templates to get started.
Tettra can also fit perfectly into your existing workflows as it integrates easily with a wide range of handy web apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams and G Suite.
If you want to take Tettra for a spin, check out their free starting plan for your first 5 users. After that, their paid plans start at $99 per month for 10 users.
What's so great about software documentation?
There are so many reasons why excellent software documentation is absolutely key in the software development process. We could write an entire article about that in itself. Nevertheless, the most important reason is that it helps people use your software product. This might sounds obvious, but if you dive into it a little more, you'll see what we mean.
You can have an incredible product roadmap and develop the most amazing piece of software in the world, but if no one can use it, it isn't worth much. Equally, if no one understands the technical details behind your software, it'll be impossible to update it or improve it in the future. Excellent software documentation ensures that internal and external parties alike will understand and be able to use your software and the full range of its features. This is incredibly powerful and is not a given without clear documentation.
There are tons of associated benefits that come along with people having a great understanding of how to use your software. You'll save time, increase efficiency, improve internal and external relationships, foster clear communication, stay organized, establish sustainable workflows & professional systems, increase credibility, contribute to your branding and encourage effective collaboration... just to name a few.
Our top tips for writing great software documentation
The term software documentation is intimidating. Unfortunately, it's become associated with highly technical documentation that's long, confusing and jargon-heavy. This doesn't have to be the case. In fact, if you can produce clear, helpful software documentation, you'll truly fulfill the goal behind software documentation: helping people use your software.
These tips will help make sure that your documentation development process goes off without a hitch:
1. Hire a professional
If there's someone on your team who's a great writer, fantastic. If they're willing, there's no problem with putting them in charge of writing your software documentation. However, if you don't have any obvious choices for writers on your team, consider hiring a professional tech writer.
Many people make the mistake of assigning software documentation to any random person on their team, regardless of their writing or technical skills. This is one of the big driving forces behind confusing or poorly assembled documentation. Technical writers in the software field have both industry know-how and writing experience. They'll also be complicated dedicated to the writing process. Hiring one is well worth your while.
2. Make a Documentation Plan
Another common mistake in software documentation is diving in before you're done planning. Insist on making an outline of all the different kinds of documentation you and your team will be working on. This will help you stay organized throughout the development process and make it much easier to delegate work to different teams.
Documentation plans also help ensure a higher degree of writing quality. You'll avoid repeating information and it'll be easier for your readers to navigate between your documents overall.
3. Don't forget version control
Software documentation is dynamic. By the end of your software product's lifecycle, it's likely that you'll go through at least a few versions of your documentation. In order to make sure your documentation stays effective and valuable, you'll need to have a system in place that helps with version control and always displays the most up to date information.
Nowadays, many teams use design documentation templates that saves automatically and updates in real-time
4. Work collaboratively
Software and product documentation is always best written collaboratively. Harness the strengths of different team members and assign them documentation that will make their best abilities shine.
Working on documentation collaboratively also saves time and helps you get things done much faster. Writing documentation is labour intensive and it doesn't make sense to have one or two people spending months on something that could take weeks when worked on as a team.
5. Think about your audience
There's a wide variety of software documentation types out there. When getting started, it can be difficult to determine what kind of content you need to produce and what can be left out. The easiest way to prioritize what kind of documentation you need to put together is by thinking about your audience. Determining whether you're writing for end-users or programmers and engineers right off the bat will help you narrow down the kind of documentation you want to focus on.
6. Put together a style guide
When it comes to documentation of any kind, consistency and design are important. Make sure all your documentation looks like it belongs together. This will make it more appealing to read and easier to navigate. A good way to ensure that your documentation stays consistent when it's being assembled by a team is putting together a style guide. Style guides can encompass everything from language & writing style to formatting and fonts.
Find out what software documentation can do for you
As you can see, having killer software documentation is an incredible asset for both your development team and your software product itself. You'll empower your users to truly enjoy getting to know your software and putting it into action. You'll avoid frustrations and build trust by providing users with resources and answering their questions before they have to ask. You'll provide developers and other internal team members with the key information they need to do their best work and produce amazing results, right now and in the future.
The documentation development process might feel overwhelming at the outset, but keep this guide to refer back to and you'll be writing away in no time. Put together your documentation plan, take things step-by-step and you'll be amazed at what you come up with.
Be sure to think about our considerations when choosing a software or web tool to help with your documentation development process, take a browse through the options we've curated to help make writing and working on your documentation easy and enjoyable and refer back to our tips and tricks when it comes to writing your software documentation.
The sky's the limit, so dive into the world of software documentation and hit the ground running.
Laure Albouy is Slite's first marketing hire and in charge of Product Marketing. Her role? Making sure our users get the most out of Slite —including guides, product announcements, market research and more. Laure lives in Paris and is a pasta afficionada.