Documentation for custom software is like liability insurance: No one wants to invest in it, as the costs are up-front and any return feels very distant. But you need insurance to protect your interests, and you also must have software documentation to avoid big headaches down the road.
Most businesses naturally prioritize the features of their new software as they establish budgets and project timelines. If documentation gets any thought at all, it’s an afterthought. But it’s important to avoid that mistake. Even if you see no immediate benefit to documentation, take the steps necessary to create it to avoid the inevitable regret that results from failing to do so.
What Is Custom Software Documentation?
A user manual is probably the first type of documentation that comes to mind. The manual comprises a set of documents and/or video tutorials that serve as a “how-to” for navigating a software program. User manuals directly serve user or customer needs. They’re created early on because customers expect them, and their value is easy to recognize.
Here we’ll focus on a second type of software documentation, targeted for internal users, IT, and developers. This type of documentation offers insights into the creation of the software. Its instructions help those who develop and deploy the software. It can include two broad categories of information:
- User stories
- Use cases
- Business process flow diagrams
- Glossaries of industry-specific terminology
- High-level technical requirements
- Software architecture diagrams
- Explanations of common patterns and behaviors
- API specifications
- Database schemas
- Code comments
Generally, the business-facing documentation should come first. It lists who uses the software and the tasks it’s expected to perform, and it explains why those tasks require custom software. Technical documentation aims at a technical audience of developers, IT personnel, etc. It explains how the software was built and how its components work.
Why Is Custom Software Documentation Important?
Benefits of software documentation:
- Documentation allows your development team to scale. It takes time to transfer knowledge to new developers. Solid documentation streamlines this process and brings new hires on board quickly.
- It records past decisions, lessons learned, and technical debt. Building software involves a lot more than just writing code — there are discussions, decisions, and compromises. An enduring written record of this process spares your team from the endless re-invention of the wheel.
- Software documentation safeguards business continuity. Developers come and go. Make sure the knowledge of how your system works resides somewhere beyond someone who might leave.
The best testament to the importance of documentation lies in projects created without it. Clients approach Northwoods all the time to seek help with their orphaned software. Usually, the software was outsourced, there’s little to no documentation, and the client is having trouble finding a new developer to continue building or maintaining the system. Such cases aren’t easy; we must learn our way around the code, and that takes time and costs the client money – generally a considerable amount that could have been avoided if documentation was available or up to date.
When Is the Best Time to Create Custom Software Documentation?
Create documentation before development begins. Start by compiling business-facing information, such as user stories and use cases, and incorporate documentation into your budget and project plan. As you progress to the development phase, collect and include input from multiple roles across your team, and record the software creation process.
The more mission-critical your software is, the greater the risk to your business. Effective documentation ensures that your custom software will serve the evolving needs of your company and help you meet your present and future business goals.
If you need advice about custom software documentation or want to discuss how a custom solution could meet your needs, our expert software development team can help! Contact us today.