Do you have a new software project on the horizon? You should prepare for success. The process of development determines the outcome. And a crucial part of making sure things run smoothly is having the right documentation in place.
Before you start designing, coding, building, and testing, take the time to prepare all the software documentation you need. It’s not the most exciting part of a software project, but it does make all the difference.
How important is documentation?
The software industry is one that is particularly fast-paced. To keep up, you might want to start developing as soon as you get a great idea. But hold your horses. Cutting corners won’t actually bring you further.
Time spent on documentation rather than developing is not lost. On the contrary, if it’s done right, it will not only save you time, but also improve your product. As a project scales, the documentation will serve as guidelines that will enable you to do things right on the first try. No guesswork or free-styling.
A project manager who has a great overview of the project in their head is great—but developers or new team members can't access that. Details can get lost in communication.
Technical documentation can make or break a project. If every step of the way for a project is well-documented, it can run smoothly and save time. No one-on-one conversations to give the right people the right information, and with that, no misunderstandings.
Why write project documentation?
Your project will depend less on individual people
With detailed documentation, onboarding new team members becomes a breeze. When your product is growing, changing, and scaling, you can easily refer new talent to the necessary documentation and have them up and running in no time.
This also works the other way around: if a team member leaves, they don’t take all their knowledge about the project with them. It’s still there in the documentation.
A project with great documentation simply relies less on the individuals working on it. It has its own framework that anyone should be able to work with. It makes your software project more resilient against unexpected challenges.
Communication with stakeholders and clients becomes easier
But the benefits of having a well-documented software project go beyond internal processes.
With the right documentation, it also becomes easier to present your product to stakeholders, making it more understandable what you’ll be creating. Anything that’s on paper is easier to review and understand than ideas in your head.
Documentation for your product helps in the pitching process, but also when you're further down the line. If a client has approved the documents you presented, it’s easy to fall back on them whenever an issue arises. No he-said-she-said: it’s all right there, ready to be referred to.
At the end of the day, a successful project isn’t only about the product you build—it’s also the relationships you built. Prevent any issues while you can and ensure a pleasant collaboration.
How to write good documentation
All of this doesn’t require encyclopedia-like documentation. Just make sure you cover the essentials for your project specifically. In this article, we’ll give you some advice on how to do that.
Make an inventory of what documents you will need
Do you have your whole project already planned out in your head? That’s a great start—but I’d still recommend that you document it. If you don’t see the sense of creating any documentation whatsoever for yourself, remember that you’re mainly doing it for the users of your end project.
They will notice: not only in how well the software tool works, but also in how fast it was delivered—without you having to make a lot of changes after launch.
But what kind of documents will you actually need? Depending on the size of the project, you could need documentation that will guide daily processes. Or maybe you mostly need a framework for the bigger picture.
Let’s divide software documentation into two categories: process and product documentation.
What is product documentation?
Product documentation describes the end goal: the actual product you are building. How it works, how to work with it, technological specifications, manuals–anything you need to know once the product exists.
For your developers, the most important product documentation is the system documentation. It explains how the software product works, why it works in a certain way, and how to work with it.
For the actual users of your software product, user documentation is essential. Think tutorials, FAQs for troubleshooting, and a manual that will help them use and love your product the way you intended.
What is process documentation?
See this as the roadmap that will bring your project from idea to existence. In this you can include:
- Test standards and schedules: making sure everyone tests your product in the same way, so the results will actually be relevant.
- Meeting notes: save them, so you can hand them over to your client whenever a disagreement arises.
- Project plans: how will you be building your product? What milestones do you want to reach along the way and when?
Determine crucial information
Within your process documentation, you can decide how detailed you’ll map out the steps and process. If you’re an experienced software developer or project manager, you will know what questions are likely to come up, and which discussions will arise.
If you’re new to this, you might be clueless as to what you can or should include. Here are some examples you might overlook or not think of that can fast-track your project development.
Data and privacy compliance
If it’s relevant to your product, create guidelines that will help your team stay in between the lines of what’s allowed regarding data regulations. What rules are in place? What process should employees follow so they know they’re safe?
What do you do when your server goes offline? What’s the first step after a security breach? What if your hardware tomorrow decides it doesn't want to work anymore? Having answers to questions like these can save you a lot of time and money.
Don’t worry designers, technical documentation is not just words. People are still mostly visual thinkers. That’s why diagrams can help you make workflows clearer.
But visuals that explain how the product should be working at the end of the project also contributes to a more streamlined way of working—especially if what you’re building is quite complex.
Still unsure what to include? Ask the people it will concern. Sit your team around the table and determine together what they want to have on paper to prevent issues down the line.
Write effective technical documents
Don’t worry, I’ll actually tell you how. Most people aren’t born writers–let alone born technical writers. Writing technical documents can seem like a boring and at the same time daunting task. After all, making a mistake in a technical document could have pretty big implications for the product or process. Making an error in a user manual could, too.
Watch your language
You don't need to impress anyone with a technical document. Your team members will know that you are knowledgeable, without you using jargon where it's simply not necessary.
Many people feel the need to write way more difficult language when it comes to business-related documents. But you’re still dealing with people, humans you speak to in a certain way. Try to use that way of speaking in your writing as well to make your documents more comprehensible.
Keep your sentences short. Simplify your words. Prevent misunderstandings.
The goal of technical documentation is to make things clearer and speed things up. Not to produce more questions. This applies even more so on documents that are meant for the end-user.
For bonus points, write different documentation based on different user personas. Take Python for instance, which has great documentation for a variety of different users from beginners to seasoned professionals.
Organize your thoughts
Yes, if you are planning to write a plan, you’ll need to have a plan for writing it. Having a clear structure in your technical documentation is what will save the readers and users time. Use headers. Find a chronological order.
If it’s your first rodeo, simply start with using a template for your technical document. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Time to test
Let someone else read your technical documentation to make sure it’s easy to understand and covers all relevant aspects.
Too often, user manuals are just seen as a side-product and not included in the testing. Set yourself up for success by including it in your tests and development.
Do yourself a favor for future projects
Creating technical documentation doesn’t just benefit the project you’re working on now. It can also help future projects, as the framework is already there. Just make the necessary changes based on your product and past experience and you’re ready to start developing.