To build and support a strong development team, you need reliable documentation for everything that the team does. Maintaining thorough documentation becomes even more important for teams within a fast-growing company.
Why is documentation important?
Documentation provides the development team and its internal and external partners with a source of truth – a place where everyone can read about anything and everything relating to the company’s products. This source of truth represents a shared understanding about what the team has built. As the team looks to the future to see where they can take the product, their versioned documents paint a picture of where the product has already been.
Onboarding new team members quickly and efficiently is very important. Thorough product documentation for new team members is essential during this period to ensure that they understand the product and its development. Additionally, robust product documentation provides a playbook for existing team members, with the same context and information that allows them to perform their work more efficiently. It can connect different teams by providing a deeper understanding of all components of the product and how they all interact with each other. Beyond the product teams, sharing product documentation with client success, member care, marketing, and sales departments can provide them with the information they need to assist end users and customers.
What are some challenges to maintaining documentation?
When a company grows, everything grows, including the number of teams and the scope of development. This makes keeping the documentation updated and logically structured vital to the continued success of the development team and the organization as a whole.
As each team focuses on releasing features to satisfy product requirements and solve client problems, each release has a defined process flow. Documentation should be a part of that flow, but too often teams skip over that crucial step.
Some common fallacies teams use to skip documentation are:
- “No need to write it now; there are only a few of us in the team and we know for sure what a specific feature does.”
- “No need to rush; I will document once the feature is released.”
- “The feature was tested and approved. It works as designed; we have clean code, so there’s no need to document something that is obvious.”
How can documentation benefit my team?
There are many more reasons for ensuring that documentation is part of the software development process, including:
- Team members need to know the business requirements to design a user interface, to develop a user experience, or to plan a technical solution in code.
- Business requirements allow team members to work collaboratively, via a shared source of truth.
- Defined requirements and specifications allow team members to identify issues with the approach or gaps that they need to address before time is spent on design and development – saving time and effort upfront.
- Everyone on the team may know the functionality of the feature they are creating, but as team members evolve and move from team to team, that knowledge could easily be lost if it’s not written down.
- Without documentation, the reasons why technical and product decisions were made might be lost by the release date. The team must have traceability for all of the decisions made to ensure the integrity of the feature’s release.
- Team members who aren’t familiar with code will need to know product details via documentation.
- Clear, user-centered product documentation creates content that can be repurposed for internal-facing release notes, allowing teams outside the engineering team to understand what engineering is building and how it will benefit the company’s end users.
How can a team achieve better documentation?
- Nurture a culture that understands the importance of documentation.
- Get team members involved; teach and train them to write documentation and how to make it a consistent process.
- Build the documentation strategy. Try to answer the following questions in advance:
- What kind of documentation do we need?
- How do we write it?
- When do we start writing it?
- Where do we store it?
- Encourage team members to trust the documentation.
Execute the Plan
The main message that product teams should hear is “You are the owner of your documentation.”
- Treat documentation as code that you write and test.
- Make documentation valuable.
- Make documentation readable.
- Make documentation user-friendly.
- Make creating documentation easier by using templates.
Be patient and ready to help. Getting team members to consistently incorporate documentation into the software development life cycle (SDLC) requires hard work, hands-on involvement, and time.
Share Your Documentation
Once you achieve the goal – embrace it, share updates, and give thanks to everyone for their involvement and readiness to take initiative. Show that any intake is appreciated and valued.
For a technical writer, software engineer, QA specialist, or any other team member responsible for creating technical documentation, there are three main things to remember to create effective documentation:
- Plan - When reviewing a scope of tasks for a sprint, ask, “Does this task require documentation?” Usually, the answer is “yes.”
- Execute - Before developing or testing a feature, spend some time writing a draft and get feedback on the draft. Writing out the plan, in terms of business, technical, design requirements, or test plans, helps to focus the thoughts as well as communicate the plan to teammates. Getting feedback allows others to identify issues with the created plan or to offer suggestions for current or future improvements.
- Share - Do not keep documentation to yourself; make sure to share it and make sure it is discoverable within the organization. Maximize access to an understanding of what the tested feature is, what it does, and how to use it.
Remember, nobody’s born knowing everything, so documentation can be of tremendous help in the learning curve. Documentation brings value to a company and allows a company to scale.