System documentation is a vital and important part of successful software development and software engineering. Generally speaking, it is comprised of detailed language, illustrations and photos that help different people understand the software, and it is essential reference material. Many developers face challenges in creating software documentation that is both comprehensively helpful and easy to read.
Different Types of Documentation
Computer software documentation is broadly defined. It can be a user manual that consumers read to understand the requirements and operations of a software system so they can then download it, install it and use it. It can also be more technical, describing the capabilities and characteristics of the system for a technical user, such as someone in IT or a systems administrator. Technical documentation can include coding for the software and a record of how it was designed, such as the architecture of the creation and the goals of designing the software and each of its aspects.
Generally, documentation is designed to inform the reader about the software and describe how it was created, what it is intended to do and how it works. It should also be easy to find or access, and it should have the ability to be updated as changes are made to the software over the course of time. While details have to be included for documentation to be properly comprehensive and effective, the goal is for all computer software documentation to be written in language that’s fairly easily understood. This can be a challenge when using technical language.
Categories of Documentation
Overall, documentation can be divided into a couple of different categories: process documentation and product documentation. Process documentation is designed for those working in the internet technology field, and it uses industry-specific jargon about the process of engineering and developing the software. Product documentation describes the product and how it is to be used.
However, these categories are further divided. Product documentation includes both system documentation, which is technical, and user documentation, which should not be too technical. This is because it’s designed for the everyday average computer user, not someone in the software engineering or IT field.
System Documentation and User Documentation
There is a difference between system documentation and user documentation. In the information systems world, system documentation is much more technical. It is geared toward an advanced or specialized reader, such as a systems administrator or IT professional. System documentation includes things like source code, testing documentation and API documentation (programmers’ documentation or instructions). It describes the requirements and capabilities of the software and informs the reader about what the software can and can’t do – in other words, its functionality.
This is important for IT people to understand when they are, for example, evaluating whether or not a software program is good for their entire company to purchase and put on everyone’s computers for broad usage. They need to understand the space and computing requirements and the product’s intended use so they can gauge whether or not it is something the department can install and something that everyone will ultimately be able to use. On the other hand, user documentation is designed for the average user, also called an “end user.”
What Is User Documentation?
User documentation is descriptive language designed to speak to the average user of the software or system as opposed to an IT professional or other technical professional. It is designed to explain to the average person how to properly install and use the software or service.
User documentation may also include best practices for optimal results, describe features and the benefits of those features and can include a description of different tips and tricks for maximizing software performance as well as how to customize the software so it works best for each user and the intended task.
Software documentation can include an explanation of the purpose of different settings and how to manipulate them, menus and other customization options within the software once it has been installed. User documentation has to be written in language the average person can understand, whereas system documentation is written from a much more technical standpoint. This can be a challenge for a technical professional. Understanding the difference between writing for an end user and writing for another IT professional can be difficult.
Components of User Documentation
User documentation can include everything from how to download and install software to how to use each aspect of the software or system. This includes user manuals and frequently asked questions sections, which are designed for everyday consumers to read, use and understand.
It can include instructions such as video tutorials, flash cards, web pages to visit for help or on-screen help text along with step-by-step illustrations or screenshots on how to perform all the different functions of the software.
Finally, it should also include instructions for troubleshooting problems that crop up when using the software, such as how to deal with different errors and how to obtain help if there is an undocumented problem or an issue they are unable to solve.
Types of Documentation
Types of system documentation include a requirements document, source code document, quality assurance documentation, software architecture documentation, solution instructions and a help guide for advanced users.
Types of user documentation include training manuals, user manuals, release notes and installation guides. User documentation can also include system requirements so that the users understand whether or not their system will be able to handle the software.
Documentation and Software Development
Reliable, understandable documentation is an important part of software engineering. Even on small projects, documentation should not be overlooked, as it helps with maintenance and upgrades over time. Small projects can become big before you know it, and documentation helps ensure everyone is on the same page. Documentation improves quality and records requirements and key decisions that went into the creation of the product.
This documentation is used to inform, describe and record knowledge about the software that can be communicated to others, whether they are in a technical job such as a systems administrator or are simply consumers wanting to install software on their computer or mobile device. As an engineer or developer, you may be working on multiple applications at once, so documenting everything for each specific application becomes even more important.
Comprehensive and instructive documentation is almost as important as creating the software itself. Yes, it can be tedious or complicated. Software requirements explanations can become several pages long and extremely technical and text heavy, making them cumbersome to read through and difficult to use rather than being helpful and explanatory.
Balancing Documentation Types
Finding the balance between conveying the necessary information for both system documentation and user documentation without it being longer and more technical than necessary for the reader to understand can be a challenge for any software engineer. Indeed, it is part of the skill of designing and engineering software to be able to create proper, helpful process and product documentation.
Users must be able to understand how the product was designed, what the environment was like where it was created, what it is intended to do, what it can and cannot be reasonably expected to perform, how to troubleshoot and fix errors that may arise through normal use and how to get help if nothing else is working.
Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She has been writing on business-related topics for nearly 10 years. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com) and she works with a number of small businesses to develop B2B content for their websites, social media accounts, and marketing materials. In addition to this content, she has written business-related articles for sites like Sweet Frivolity, Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, Bloom Co and Spent.