The comprehensive guide to developer documentation

Taylor Bruneaux


Developer documentation is the bedrock for developers, product managers, and technical writers, enabling them to effectively understand, use, and integrate an app, tool, or device. This guide aims to shed light on the best practices for crafting documentation that not only meets but exceeds the needs of its readers.

Understanding developer documentation

Developer documentation is an umbrella term that encompasses all written materials and resources provided to guide developers in using a particular software or hardware. It encompasses all material like API documentation, code documentation, technical documentation, tutorials, and release notes.

Good developer documentation acts as a comprehensive help center, offering detailed information, data, and code samples that elucidate a product’s or service’s functionalities and capabilities.

Here are further details on some of the most critical types of developer documentation and why they are valuable.

API Documentation

API documentation provides developers with information on how to interact with your service. This information includes the endpoints, API requests, and parameters. A well-structured API reference can help developers understand how to make API calls, what data they can expect to receive, and how to handle errors. Include example API requests and code snippets to make the documentation more straightforward, making it easier for developers to integrate your API into their workflow.

Code documentation

Code documentation refers to the comments and descriptions within the source code itself. It provides insights into the purpose and functionality of various code blocks, functions, and libraries. Adequate code documentation is concise yet informative, offering a quick reference to developers working directly with the code. This internal documentation is crucial for maintaining a healthy codebase and facilitating collaboration among team members.

Technical documentation

Technical documentation covers the broader aspects of your product, including architecture, integration guides, user interface details, and information on plugins, themes, and widgets. It serves as an encyclopedia that developers can consult to understand the intricacies of your product.

Tutorials, code samples, and interactive documentation

Tutorials and code samples are pivotal in demonstrating your product’s real-world applications and usage scenarios. By walking through step-by-step instructions or exploring code samples, developers can quickly grasp how to implement specific functionalities. Interactive documentation takes this further by allowing developers to try out code snippets, make API requests, and see responses in real-time, thus providing a hands-on learning experience.

Why developer documentation is critical

Documentation is a cornerstone of efficient operations within any technical team. Paulo André, with his extensive background as a VP of Engineering and now a coach for tech leaders, gives us a deep dive into the critical nature of internal documentation.

Often, people only produce documentation when they realize they should have had it earlier. Paulo’s story shows that it’s better to document processes proactively. Documentation can help organizations make decisions without relying on a central authority, making scaling operations easier. Here’s how Paulo’s approach to proactive documentation is critical for developer experience:

Documentation enables better work.

Contrary to common misconceptions that label documentation as bureaucratic or unnecessary, Paulo argues that adequate documentation streamlines workflows. Capturing current practices or operational methods allows teams to progress swiftly and with fewer mistakes, thus providing a roadmap for immediate and future activities.

Transforming tacit knowledge into explicit guidelines

Transforming tacit knowledge into explicit guidelines is crucial for enhancing the developer experience. This approach helps clarify assumptions, standardize operations, and support informed decision-making, reducing the need for rework. It ensures that best practices are accessible to everyone, speeds up onboarding, facilitates remote work, and preserves organizational knowledge. By documenting implicit understandings, Paulo’s strategy streamlines development processes and fosters a more efficient, cohesive, and resilient engineering team.

Cultivating a documentation culture

It’s essential to shift the team’s mindset to encourage better documentation practices. They should view documentation as valuable beyond just meeting compliance requirements. The focus should be creating documentation that provides genuine value to the organization and its stakeholders.

Paulo identifies motivations such as enhancing decision-making, improving information accessibility, and streamlining onboarding. Addressing challenges like unclear requirements, outdated documents, or inaccessible information can solidify the commitment to maintaining current documentation.

Sustained documentation enables growth

Paulo champions documentation as a pivotal skill, emphasizing it’s streamlining through templates and integrating it into hiring, promotion, and evaluation criteria. He aims to engrain documentation excellence into the organizational culture by leading by example and rewarding exemplary documentation. This strategy significantly enhances the developer experience by improving clarity, facilitating knowledge sharing, boosting productivity, and ensuring the preservation of institutional knowledge, thereby fostering a more efficient, collaborative, and resilient engineering environment.

In remote environments, where face-to-face interactions are limited, documentation becomes the backbone of communication, ensuring that all team members, regardless of location, have access to the same information. This uniformity is vital for operational continuity, preventing disruptions arising from misunderstandings or lack of access to crucial data. As more organizations standardize remote work, the need for good documentation practices will become more important to keep teams united and work together smoothly.

This focus on documentation directly enhances the developer experience by providing clarity, supporting autonomy, and enabling efficient cross-team collaboration. These are all fundamental for sustaining productivity and innovation in remote and distributed teams.

Checklist: How to create and maintain developer documentation

Creating and maintaining developer documentation is essential for the success and usability of software projects. A good documentation process ensures that your code is accessible, understandable, and usable by others, including your future self. Here’s a clear and thorough checklist to guide you through the process:

Planning and structuring

  • Define your audience: Understand who your documentation is for (e.g., beginners, experienced developers, contributors). Tailor the complexity and language accordingly.
  • Outline key sections: Introduction, Getting Started, Tutorials, API Reference, FAQs, and Contribution Guidelines.
  • Choose your tools: Decide the tools and platforms for hosting your documentation (e.g., GitHub Wiki, ReadTheDocs, static site generators like Docusaurus).
  • Establish versioning practices: Document how updates in your codebase will reflect in the documentation to keep them in sync.

Writing Documentation

  • Introduction: Provide an overview of the project, its purpose, and what it can do.
  • Getting started guide: Include a simple, quick start guide for users to see immediate results.
  • Tutorials: Write step-by-step tutorials that solve specific problems or demonstrate critical features.
  • API reference: Document all public interfaces, classes, functions, and parameters. Where possible, use automated tools to keep this section up-to-date.
  • Examples and code snippets: Offer real-world examples and snippets that users can quickly adapt for their purposes.
  • Troubleshooting/FAQ: List common issues and their solutions to help users solve problems quickly.
  • Glossary: Define terms unique to the project or used in a specific context within your documentation.

Maintenance and Improvement

  • Keep documentation updated: Regularly review and update the documentation to reflect changes in the software.
  • Incorporate user feedback: Be open to feedback from users and contributors to improve clarity and completeness.
  • Test your documentation: As a new user, periodically review your documentation to ensure clear and accurate instructions.
  • Accessibility and inclusivity: Make your documentation accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities. Use clear, inclusive language.
  • Localization: If your user base is international, consider translating your documentation into other languages to reach a wider audience.
  • Contribution guidelines: Provide clear guidelines for how others can contribute to the documentation, including style guides and the process for submitting changes.
  • Version control: Use version control for your documentation to track changes and contributions and roll back if necessary.
  • Feedback mechanisms: Implement ways for users to provide feedback directly on the documentation pages, such as comments or a feedback form.
  • Monitor analytics: Use analytics to understand which parts of your documentation are most popular or need improvement based on user behavior.

Best practices for creating, improving and maintaining developer documentation

At Canonical, Director of Engineering Daniele Procida leads the drive to elevate developer documentation. Recognizing documentation as a recurring challenge for customers and teams alike, Canonical has embarked on a mission to redefine its approach to creating and maintaining technical documentation. Daniele’s rich experience developing documentation frameworks, such as those for Divio and Django, informs his strategic vision. His commitment is to work harder on documentation and refine the process for efficiency and effectiveness, underpinned by a unified vision for quality and standards.

Here are some of Canonical’s critical strategies for enhancing and improving documentation:

Establishing documentation standards

The cornerstone of Daniele’s methodology is the introduction of documentation standards, exemplified by his Diátaxis framework. This framework categorizes documentation into tutorials, how-to guides, reference guides, and explanations, each serving distinct user needs. Such classification clarifies where to find or place information for authors and users, addressing navigational confusion within documentation systems.

Embedding documentation practices in onboarding

Canonical strongly emphasizes documentation literacy from the outset of a developer’s tenure. Daniele conducts quarterly workshops for new hires, focusing on the Diátaxis framework and practical exercises in writing adequate documentation. This immersive experience equips developers with essential skills and embeds a culture of quality documentation from day one.

Collaborative goal setting for documentation improvement

To maintain momentum and focus on documentation enhancement, Daniele collaborates with teams to set and track quarterly objectives. This approach ensures a collective effort to identify and address documentation gaps, monitoring progress through a comprehensive tracking system.

Adopting a flexible approach to documentation structure

Recognizing the dynamic nature of software development, Daniele advises against overly rigid documentation structures. He champions an organic, iterative process that allows documentation to adapt swiftly to changes in the software it describes. This flexibility mitigates the risk of documentation becoming a bottleneck or outdated.

Choosing the right tools for the job

In Daniele’s view, tool selection should be pragmatic and aimed at serving the specific needs of documentation work. While he has preferences (e.g., Sphinx, reStructuredText, Git, and, the overarching principle is to choose tools that best support the documentation’s objectives and the team’s workflow.

How DX can enhance developer documentation practices

DX offers a powerful way to assess and improve how developers feel about technical documentation, going beyond traditional metrics to provide deeper insights. By leveraging DX’s comprehensive suite of tools, organizations can capture both qualitative and quantitative feedback on documentation quality and effectiveness.

With tools like DevEx 360, DX quantifies internal developer experience, including their interactions with documentation. This tool helps identify areas where documentation may be causing friction or where it excels, providing actionable insights for improvement. Additionally, Data Cloud unifies metrics from various sources, giving a holistic view of how documentation impacts overall developer productivity and satisfaction.

Implementing DX allows organizations to move beyond simple usage statistics to understand the nuanced ways documentation affects developer workflows. By integrating real-time feedback with comprehensive data analysis, DX helps set clear, actionable goals for enhancing documentation. This ensures that your documentation not only meets but exceeds the needs of its users, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and excellence in technical communication.

April 1, 2024

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