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Technical Documentation in Software Development: Types and Best Practices

Costanza Tagliaferri
- 3 min. to read

What do you do when you need to organize multiple tasks in a few days? Usually, you write all the tasks in a to-do list, checking off what you accomplish to keep track of your progress. That’s basically what technical software documentation is about. 

Whether you are working in a startup or an established company, technical documentation helps your team to be on the same page when organizing and planning different stages of the development project. 

Here is an overview of technical documentation, why it is important in software development, and which documentation you need for your project.

What is Technical Documentation? 

Technical documentation in software engineering refers to any documentation related to software product development. Usually, software documentation consists of written material, videos, and picture instructions on how computer software works. 

Technical documentation helps keep track of each stage of the development process and explains how to use services and programs. The main goal is to align developers and stakeholders during the development process. It is a valuable tool to engage anyone in the process and achieve goals by meeting deadlines. And it helps teams to save time and effort, optimize tasks, and review processes. 

In short, technical documentation is the rule book for current and future team members involved in development processes.

The Role of Technical Documentation in SDLC: Why It Is Important in Software Development 

Whether we talk about a small business or a large corporation, technical documentation is valuable to support the whole software development lifecycle (SDLC). Unlike what most people believe, creating a website or an app is a complex and intricate process. The time when developers were alone in a dark room producing something humans couldn’t even read belongs to fiction stories. Nowadays, developers actively collaborate with design, marketing, and sales departments.  

Technical documentation exists to make everyone’s life easier during the whole process. It explains product functionality, unifies project-related information, and facilitates communications between developers, stakeholders, and team members.

Key Steps in the Software Development Process

Depending on the method you are following, technical documentation covers the key steps of the software development process: 

  • Planning: Starting with marketing research, this stage aims to determine the viability of a product. The purpose is to explain to developers how to build functions and services to attract the target audience.
  • Analysis: At this stage, stakeholders decide on the user requirement and technical specification to achieve the goal, giving tasks, deadlines, and test parameters.
  • Design: This stage is for developers and architects. As they present the final project outcome, stockholders will discuss team responsibilities, risk level, schedule, budget, applicable technologies, architectural design, and project limitations.
  • Development and implementation: At this point, developers work on code scripts to meet the product specification and requirements. After that, the company will release guidelines and procedures to build an interactive interface and secure database
  • Testing: After the software is completed, developers test the running software to check bugs and verify if the performance satisfies users’ expectations. 
  • Deployment and maintenance: Finally, the IT department constantly monitors and maintains the software functionality to ensure the best performance for the user. 

Types of Software Technical Documentation

As we mentioned, the primary goal of technical documentation is to align developers and other departments on software development progress. 

Specifically, there are two types of software documentation: one for the product and the other for the development process. 

Product documentation collects instructions about how the product works, while process documentation illustrates each stage of the product development process. We’ll go over their specific characteristics and list their best practices.

1. Product Documentation 

System Documentation

System documentation is responsible for providing an overview of the system and its parts, including requirements, architecture design, source code, validation docs, verification and testing info, and a maintenance guide. 

Let’s go over the main types of system documentation in software development: 

 Product Requirement Document

A product requirement document (PRD) records information on the system’s functionality. This type of documentation covers business rules, user stories, use cases, etc. For this reason, the format should be clear and easy. You can use colors and visuals to highlight the product’s purpose, functionalities, maintenance, and behavior. For requirement documents, the best practice is to use a single template for everyone.

Template

  • Roles and Responsibilities: The doc introduction must include information about project participants (product owner, team members, and stakeholders). The scope is to clarify responsibilities and set targets for each team member.
  • Team goals and business objectives: Schedule short-term goals and assign tasks.
  • Mission: Include a brief explanation of the strategic aim of your actions and how they align with the company’s goals.
  • Assumptions: List technical assumptions and questions the team could have.
  • User stories: List user stories on the product to have an overview of customers’ actions and target future results.
  • Acceptance criteria: Acceptance criteria indicate when the user story is completed. They set standards to define a satisfactory result in a usage scenario.
  • User interaction and design: Link design expectation and call to action.
  • Questions: Record any question that arises during the development process.
  • To-do list: Make a list of future actions that aren’t a priority but the direction you are aiming for.

Best Practices

  • Links and anchors: For this type of documentation, link and anchor improve readability and page schematization. In addition, the reader can gradually go back to the links’ contents, facilitating the information’s assimilation.
  • Graphics and diagramming tools: Graphs and diagrams are the most efficient strategy to communicate problems and illustrate KPIs. 

User Experience Design Documentation

User experience design documentation includes research, prototyping, usability testing, and designing related to the UX experience.

Template

  • User Personas: Here, your team creates and documents user personas analyzing user interviews and surveys. The goal is to identify key characteristics of real users by examining behavior, thought patterns, and motivation.
  • User Scenario: This document describes the user’s steps to accomplish a specific task. The user scenario can be visual or narrative.
  • Scenario Maps: Scenario Maps collects all user scenarios into a single document showing the possible options at any given moment.
  • User Story Map: In the form of a scheme or table, this document records the backlog of the product to transform the user stories into future functions of the application.
  • UX Style Guide: UX Style Guide includes design patterns and UI elements of the product.

Best Practices

  • Site/product map: These visual schemes connect all the pages of the product. This practice allows team members to visualize the website/app structure and the connections between functions.
  • User flow/user journey scheme: It helps to record the steps users should take through the product. The user flow scheme usually includes pages, sections, buttons, and functions to illustrate the user’s movement.
  • Wireframes: These schemas explain how to arrange the elements on the page and their expected behavior. 
  • Mock-up: It shows the current look and experience of the project – a prototype is an interactive mock-up.
  • Usability testing report: The report is a feedback document to communicate the usability results of the testing stage. It should be short and full of visual examples. 

Software Architecture Design Document

As technical specifications, software architecture design documentation covers architectural decisions. It describes how to build a product, including solutions, strategies, and methods. This type of documentation doesn’t need to be detailed or technical. The goal is to visualize and communicate possible solutions and scenarios.

Template

  • Overview and Background: Brief description of project goals and results.
  • Architecture and design principles: List guiding architecture and design principles of the product.
  • User Story description: Connect user stories with business processes and related scenarios (no technical elements).
  • Solution details: List services, modules, components, and why they are a solution to current problems.
  • Diagrammatic representation of the solution: Graphic materials to illustrate structure and design principles.
  • Milestones: Overall timeline, deadlines, etc. This document aims to organize the work process by providing a metric to monitor progress.

Best Practices

  • Review often: Architecture and its design can change drastically as the project evolves beyond its initial concept. Make sure you keep this document up to date, be it text or graphics, so your team always has a solid foundation to check upon when they’re in doubt about anything. 

Quality Assurance Documentation

To monitor and track tests to ensure the quality of the product, you can follow this quality assurance documentation:

Template

  • Quality management plan: Similar to a requirement document for testing. It sets a standard for product quality and its method – recommendable for large-scale projects.
  • Test strategy: Describes the different approaches to achieve testing objectives, including information about team structure and resources.
  • Test plan: Should contain:
    • The list of features
    • Testing methods
    • Timeframes
    • Roles and responsibilities
  • Test case specifications: A set of actions to verify each functionality of a product based on the approach of the test plan.
  • Test checklist: List of tests and failures (checklist)

Best Practices

  • Review your user stories: the user stories defined in other documents will give you pointers about what features your end-users need and how they should function. These will usually give you useful pointers on what to test and the expected results, helping you point your product’s tests to meet the end-user’s needs and find specific issues. 

2. Process Documentation

As we mentioned, process documentation includes the activities related to product development. The aim is to schedule an organized and fair work plan reducing the amount of system documentation. As a result, this type of technical documentation format is minimal, including key contacts, release dates, and expectations with assumptions.

Most of these documents relate to specific products or phases of the process. Even though some papers will become outdated, process documentation helps illustrate the whole development process. In addition, this type of documentation helps transparency across departments and supports future maintenance.

Template

  • Plans, estimates, and schedules: Created at the beginning of the project, adjusted with the running project.
  • Reports and metrics: Generated on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, they are helpful to analyze how to optimize time and resources. 
  • Working papers: These documents record engineers’ solutions during project implementation, containing code, sketches, and ideas to solve technical issues.
  • Standards: From coding script to UX design, standards set the level of performance your team needs to achieve.

Best Practices

  • Make it clear and concise: You want your team to easily know whatever they need at any time. Make it easy for them to search and replicate a process without errors and supposition.
  • Make your documents accessible and easy to edit: Your team should be able to update and check the documentation at any time during the project’s life cycle. Making them easy to edit goes a long way to ensure they are up to date. Setup an automatic versioning system to create a backup and to make sure you don’t lose important information down the line.
  • Involve the team and update often: All this accessibility and ease are there to ensure your team stays motivated to keep these documents updated since they’ll be the ones most capable of doing so and also the ones that benefit the most from the information.

3. User Documentation

The user documentation is meant for product users, and it aims at two categories:

  • End-users
  • System administrators

 End-user Documentation

End-user documentation aims to explain how software can solve a user’s problems in the easiest possible way. This type of instruction usually comes in the printed form, online, or offline on a device.

Template 

  • Quick start guide: Overview of the product’s functionality with basic guidelines on the use.
  • Complete manual: Complete information and instructions to install and use the product. It usually includes hardware and software requirements, features, and full guidelines.
  • Troubleshooting guide: Information to resolve possible issues.

Best Practices

Online end-user documentation practices usually include:

  • FAQs
  • Video tutorials
  • Embedded assistance
  • Support portals and forum

User documentation is an integral part of customers’ experience. It’s your duty to make it as simple as possible – just think about how you react when instructions are more complicated than the product itself. These are tools to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty and to collect valuable feedback to improve your product. 

System Administrators’ Documentation

System administrators’ documents cover installation and updates to support a system administrator with product maintenance. 

Software Documentation Template: System Administrator Documentation 

  • Functional description for the product functionality. 
  • System admin guide to explain different types of system behaviors in different environments.
Best Practices
  • Be specific: System administrators will usually know how to deal with the product, but need pointers to mold it according to their needs. Use technical language and be specific with details so they are aware and can deal with all the pitfalls they might encounter.
  • Include examples: Make guides and provide examples for specific cases, especially the most common ones a system administrator is likely to find.

Best Software for Technical Documentation

Here is a list of 9 tools you should consider to improve the production of your technical documentation: 

  1. Confluence
  2. HelpDocs
  3. Helpjuice
  4. MediaWiki
  5. HelpNDoc
  6. Knowledge Owl
  7. ClickHelp
  8. Document360
  9. KnowAll

Conclusion 

To recap, technical documentation covers each stage of software development. Tracking and monitoring product development is a valuable tool to illustrate your project processes and improve quality products. As a support for your team, it helps keep the process transparent and organize results and future tasks.

However, to achieve the best quality product, you still need a great team. For that, we are here to help! Contact us if you plan to hire talented and remote software engineers to grow your distributed team with skilled and international candidates!

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