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Software Development Documentation: What You Need Before Development Starts

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For those just starting to develop their software products or have been doing that for some time on their own, documentation might seem overwhelming and unnecessary, especially when you remember the Agile principles. The world has mostly transferred from Waterfall to the Agile model, and documentation remained a helpful and unavoidable part of a project, which helps to keep the team efforts aligned with the business goals and team members with each other.

In this article, we'll look through the different types of documents that are essential to have before the beginning of development and share some customizable templates for convenient use.

What is software development documentation?

Software development documentation is a set of artifacts that capture the business needs, goals, requirements, and specifications for a software product, as well as the design and implementation details needed to develop and maintain the product.

According to the stage of development where documentation is required, we can distinguish three software documentation categories:

Business-oriented documents

Business-oriented documents for software development are used to define the problem, capture the requirements, and describe the feature set. Such documents include vision statements, business requirements, technical requirements, and more. They are needed to have a unified product understanding among stakeholders and the development team and to align the effort of the team with business goals.

Business documents are usually created by a business analyst or product owner, who dives deep into the business needs to create detailed and precise specifications and takes responsibility for maintaining this documentation throughout the development process.

Engineering documents

Engineering documents capture the process and technical details that describe the practices of the development process. These can be, for example, testing documents, development documents, or API documentation. Having such documents, you can be sure that the processes are consistent and that all complex functionalities have fixed explanations, which helps when onboarding new team members or changing some product features.

As there are several different groups of development docs and they are highly specific, they are created by corresponding technical specialists. For example, process documentation is usually created by project managers, coding and API documentation by developers, and testing docs by QA engineers.

Supplementary documents

Supplementary software documentation includes support papers, installation guides, user guides, or manuals – everything that helps to deal with the final product. Such documents help avoid confusion with complex projects so that any user can start using the product quickly and conveniently.

Why you need software development documentation?

Software development documentation

Recent studies from IIBA, PMI, and IEEE suggest that good documentation practices are critical to the success of software development projects. For example, researchers at ScienceDirect have found that teams that wrote more documentation had higher productivity and produced higher-quality software.

But that is not the only reason to invest time into comprehensive documentation, there are even more benefits:

  • Improved communication: clear and exhaustive documentation helps the team stay on the same page, avoid misunderstandings, and ensure better collaboration between all experts involved in the project.
  • Increased quality: with appropriate documentation your project is more likely to fit the needs and requirements, as well as it is easier to test and debug, ensuring the software has no critical defects, covers all the requirements, and is generally high-quality.
  • Reduced development time: without scope creep, with fixed goals for your project and main tasks to solve you can control on-the-go changes to avoid endless development and deliver a high-quality product to the market faster.
  • Better scalability and maintainability: documentation helps to scale software development efforts by providing a blueprint for future development, maintenance, and enhancement, shortening the time needed to onboard new developers or implement new features without affecting others.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction: user manuals, help files, tutorials, and other user-oriented documents can help end-users to understand the software and its features more effectively, which reduces support requests, improves user adoption, and increases customer satisfaction.

However, you might not need all the possible documents for your project to experience these advantages. A good business analyst should define which documents are necessary for the project and focus on what’s beneficial for the business. But if you deal with this task yourself, use this article as a guide to understand what is the purpose of each of them and identify which documents you need.

What documents are required for software development?

Let’s focus on business-oriented documents, as you need to have them before the development starts to form the product understanding and ensure that all development efforts are consistent and aligned toward the right goals.

Lean Canvas

Example of a lean canvas for Google

The Lean Canvas is a one-page business plan that focuses on key aspects of a business idea, including the problem being solved, the unique value proposition, the target customer segments, and the channels to reach those customers. It is beneficial for startups when you don’t have enough time to prepare comprehensive documentation about each point.

Lean Canvas helps businesses to identify potential problems, evaluate their ideas, and develop a clear plan of action. It also helps to communicate your ideas effectively to stakeholders and investors, which can increase the chances of securing funding and support.

Business Model Canvas

Example of a problem definition canvas for Instagram

The Business Model Canvas, like Lean Canvas, is used to develop and refine business models and create action plans. Though this model is better suitable for established businesses when you need to enhance particular processes or extend the functionality.

It helps businesses to evaluate the viability of their business idea, define the goals, identify potential challenges and risks, and specify the steps to achieve those goals.

Problem Definition Canvas

Example of a problem definition canvas for Uber

A Problem Definition Canvas is a document that helps to identify, analyze and clarify the problem before starting the development. Usually, it includes the problem statement, the stakeholders, the pain points, and the alternative solutions to the problem.

If the problem is not well-defined, the team may end up building the wrong solution or creating something that does not adequately address the problem. As a result, the product can fail to meet the business goals and stakeholders’ expectations.

This document helps to ensure that the team understands the problem they are trying to solve and can come up with an effective solution that meets the needs of the users. It also helps the team focus on the important aspects of the problem and avoid getting sidetracked by less important details.

Product Vision Board

Example of a product vision board for YouTube-like app

A Product Vision Board is a document that describes the overall goals and aspirations for a software development project. It typically outlines the purpose of the project, the target audience, and the intended outcomes.

This document is needed to ensure that the team has a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve and what success looks like. It helps to align the team around a common goal and provides direction for decision-making throughout the project.

Impact Map

Example of an impact map for an HRM system

Impact Map helps teams identify the outcomes they want to achieve, and the actions they need to take to reach their goals. This document defines goals, stakeholders, activities, and main product features.

With an impact map, you ensure that the team has a clear understanding of the desired outcomes and prioritized actions to ensure working on the most important tasks.

If the team does not have a clear understanding of the goal, they might end up working on tasks that do not contribute to the success of the project, which leads to wasted time and resourses.

Feature breakdown list

Example of a feature breakdown list for an online PDF editor

A feature breakdown list is a document that includes a list of features, a description, and priority of each feature. This document helps to estimate the time required for work, manage the scope of the project, and ensure that the team is working on the most important tasks first.

Without a feature breakdown list, you risk facing scope creep or developing an inconsistent feature set, which might result in the final product not meeting the expectation or not functioning at all.

Functional requirements

Example of a use case for reseting password

Functional requirements are a set of use cases or specifications that describe the expected behavior of a software system in terms of inputs, processes, and outputs. They define the functions that the system should perform and the requirements it needs to meet to satisfy the needs of its users.

Functional requirements serve as a blueprint for developers. They help ensure that the software meets the needs of the users and performs its intended functions correctly. They also help to identify any gaps in the requirements and provide a basis for testing and quality assurance.

If functional requirements are not created appropriately, they can lead to a variety of problems. For example, if the requirements are too vague or ambiguous, developers may not understand what is expected of them, leading to misunderstandings and errors. If the requirements are too complex, developers may have difficulty implementing them, leading to delays and cost overruns.

Process of creating documentation

Creating software documentation

Creating software development documentation requires some effort from almost all the team members, though this effort pays off many times in the quality and speed of the development. Here’s the typical documentation creation process:

  1. Elicitation: The first step is to elicit requirements from stakeholders, and gather information about the business problem, the goals, and the objectives of the software application.
  2. Research: The goal is to gather the information needed about the domain, market, users, and technical capabilities to make accurate and data-driven decisions.
  3. Analysis: Once the raw data is gathered, there comes the analysis of the information to identify the key features and functionality that the software must have. This may involve creating use cases, flow diagrams, and other models to help clarify the requirements.
  4. Planning: The next step is to develop a plan for creating the required documentation. This plan includes the types of documents to be produced, the level of detail required, and the timeline for completing the documentation.
  5. Document Creation: With the plan in place, it's time to write software development documents, paying close attention to details and creating statements based on the analysis results.
  6. Review and Feedback: Once the documentation has been created, it is reviewed by stakeholders and subject matter experts to ensure that it accurately reflects the requirements and specifications of the software application.
  7. Approval and Sign-Off: After the documentation has been reviewed and revised, it is presented to stakeholders for approval and sign-off. Once approved, the documentation becomes the baseline for the software development process.
  8. Maintenance: It is necessary to update the documentation as requirements change, revise it to reflect new features and functionality, and ensure that all documents remain current and accurate.

Overall, creating documentation involves a rigorous approach to cover all steps. The goal is to produce high-quality documentation that serves as a critical reference for all members of the development team.

Tools and templates

There are several software development documentation tools that can make your work easier and more efficient. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Document management tools: Google Docs, Sheets, and Presentations are commonly used for creating various types of software development documentation, such as requirements documents, use cases, flowcharts, and wireframes.
  • Project Management Software: Task management software such as Jira, Trello, Notion, and Asana can be used to create and manage software project documentation related to tasks, requirements, and issues.
  • Diagramming and Modeling Tools: Tools such as Draw.io, Figma, Lucidchart, and Gliffy can be used to create diagrams and models such as flowcharts, data models, and process diagrams.
  • Requirements Management Tools: Requirements management tools such as Atlassian Confluence or Gitlab are used to manage and trace requirements throughout the software development lifecycle.

Overall, the choice of tools will depend on the specifics of the project, as well as the preferences and expertise of the person responsible for document creation.

The other option to save time in creating documentation for software development and make the documents more structured and consistent is using templates. They help to ensure that all relevant information is captured and presented in a clear and easy-to-understand way. That’s why templates are incredibly helpful for new businesses and product owners with a lack of experience in document creation.

The important thing is to ensure that the templates follow software documentation standards but are tailored to the needs of your project and that they are consistently used throughout the documentation process.

To recap

Comprehensive software development documentation leads to improved communication, increased quality, reduced development time, better scalability, and enhanced customer and team satisfaction. At the same time, it requires a deep understanding of business goals, strategies, and technical aspects of the development of a particular project.

It's essential to assign creating software product documentation to professionals with relevant expertise. If you’re unsure about your in-house resources, consider outsourcing this task to a business analyst or product owner, to cover all types of software documentation and ensure it is accurate, precise, and clear for all stakeholders and development team members.

If you're looking for a business analyst to give you a head start on your new project,
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