The Art of Writing Better Documentation

Software documentation is written text or illustration that accompanies computer software. It either explains how it operates or how to use it, and may mean different things to people in different roles.

Documentation is an important part of software engineering. Types of documentation include:

  1. Requirements – Statements that identify attributes, capabilities, characteristics, or qualities of a system. This is the foundation for what will be or has been implemented.
  2. Architecture/Design – Overview of software. Includes relations to an environment and construction principles to be used in design of software components.
  3. Technical – Documentation of code, algorithms, interfaces, and APIs.
  4. End user – Manuals for the end-user, system administrators and support staff.
  5. Marketing – How to market the product and analysis of the market demand.

Requirements documentation

Requirements documentation is the description of what a particular software does or shall do. It is used throughout development to communicate how the software functions or how it is intended to operate. It is also used as an agreement or as the foundation for agreement on what the software will do. Requirements are produced and consumed by everyone involved in the production of software: end users, customers, product managers, project managers, sales, marketing, software architects, usability engineers, interaction designers, developers, and testers, to name a few. Thus, requirements documentation has many different purposes.

Requirements come in a variety of styles, notations and formality. Requirements can be goal-like (e.g., distributed work environment), close to design (e.g., builds can be started by right-clicking a configuration file and select the ‘build’ function), and anything in between. They can be specified as statements in natural language, as drawn figures, as detailed mathematical formulas, and as a combination of them all.

The need for requirements documentation is typically related to the complexity of the product, the impact of the product, and the life expectancy of the software. If the software is very complex or developed by many people (e.g., mobile phone software), requirements can help to better communicate what to achieve. If the software is safety-critical and can have negative impact on human life (e.g., nuclear power systems, medical equipment, mechanical equipment), more formal requirements documentation is often required. If the software is expected to live for only a month or two (e.g., very small mobile phone applications developed specifically for a certain campaign) very little requirements documentation may be needed. If the software is a first release that is later built upon, requirements documentation is very helpful when managing the change of the software and verifying that nothing has been broken in the software when it is modified.

Traditionally, requirements are specified in requirements documents (e.g. using word processing applications and spreadsheet applications). To manage the increased complexity and changing nature of requirements documentation (and software documentation in general), database-centric systems and special-purpose requirements management tools are advocated.

Architecture/design Documentation

Architecture documentation (also known as software architecture description) is a special breed of design document. In a way, architecture documents are third derivative from the code (design document being second derivative, and code documents being first). Very little in the architecture documents is specific to the code itself. These documents do not describe how to program a particular routine, or even why that particular routine exists in the form that it does, but instead merely lays out the general requirements that would motivate the existence of such a routine. A good architecture document is short on details but thick on explanation. It may suggest approaches for lower level design, but leave the actual exploration trade studies to other documents.

Another breed of design docs is the comparison document, or trade study. This would often take the form of a whitepaper. It focuses on one specific aspect of the system and suggests alternate approaches. It could be at the user interface, code, design, or even architectural level. It will outline what the situation is, describe one or more alternatives, and enumerate the pros and cons of each. A good trade study document is heavy on research, expresses its idea clearly (without relying heavily on obtuse jargon to dazzle the reader), and most importantly is impartial. It should honestly and clearly explain the costs of whatever solution it offers as best. The objective of a trade study is to devise the best solution, rather than to push a particular point of view. It is perfectly acceptable to state no conclusion, or to conclude that none of the alternatives are sufficiently better than the baseline to warrant a change. It should be approached as a scientific endeavor, not as a marketing technique.

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