Software development is a complex and often messy process. Each software project involves many different stages and stakeholders. One crucial aspect of the success of a project is documentation.
While it can be a pain to write, documentation serves as a roadmap for understanding and maintaining code, as well as a communication tool for team members and stakeholders. Without proper documentation, it can be difficult to understand the purpose and functionality of code, leading to increased maintenance costs and slower development times. Poorly documented code can also hamper onboarding new team members. Here, I’ll list five different types of documentation, weighing their advantages, and providing some tips on how to use them effectively.
📄 The README
A README is a text file included in the root directory of the project. It gives a general overview of the project, and it usually provides a list of steps to set it up and run it. READMEs are often the first thing that users see when they encounter a new project, so they’re important to do well.
- READMEs can easily become outdated as the project evolves. Try to incrementally update the README as you make code changes, rather than all at once at the end.
- Keep the README contents relatively high level, including links to more detailed documentation where needed. This prevents new developers from feeling overwhelmed.
- When handing off a project, run through the setup steps on a different machine to check whether you’ve missed anything. You don’t want to be the one responsible for the team’s, “But it worked on my machine!” jokes.
📁 Structure & Naming Conventions
The structure of a codebase and the naming conventions used for variables and functions can serve as a form of code documentation. By organizing files into logical groups, you can make your codebase easier to navigate and maintain. Naming files, variables, and functions descriptively and consistently improves readability, and this can also enhance collaboration and communication within a development team.
- The organization scheme of a project can be subjective and open to debate. Try to land on something that works for your team, and only make changes when necessary. This’ll help you avoid messy Git conflicts.
- Separate code into modules that can work independently of one another (e.g., client-side code, server-side code, and business logic).
- Good variable and function names should clearly and accurately describe their purpose or content. Avoid abbreviations, shorthands, and
💬 Inline Comments
Inline comments are messages placed directly in the code. They are often used to provide additional context or explanation for specific lines of code. Inline comments can be a useful tool, but they are also subject to pitfalls.
- Use inline comments judiciously and avoid over-commenting, as excessive comments can make the code more difficult to read and understand. They may also become out-of-date, which can confuse future developers.
- Don’t use inline comments to explain what the code does. Rather, use them to explain why the code is written the way it is.
- Avoid TODO comments. Instead, put future tasks in a more easy-to-track place—like a backlog.
✏️ Commit Messages
Commit messages provide a record of changes made to a codebase over time. They can be used to describe the purpose and context of a change. They can also be used to track the progress of a project and identify when and why certain changes were made.
- Be concise and specific. Commit messages should be short and to the point, and they should clearly describe the changes made in the commit. Avoid using vague or generic messages like “fixing bugs” or “updating code.”
- In addition to describing the changes made in the commit, it can be helpful to include some context or explanation for why the change was made. This can help other developers to understand the reasoning behind the change
A wiki is a collaborative platform that allows users to create and edit pages of content. They provide a flexible and easy-to-use platform for creating and organizing documentation. They’re particularly useful for documenting the historical decisions of a project.
- Use the wiki as a shared knowledge base. Write down any decisions made during the course of the project so you can go back and reference them later.
- Choose a tool that is easily accessible and editable by all members of the team—not just developers! The tool can be as simple as a Google Drive folder.
Software Project Documentation
By following these tips, you can improve the documentation of your software project. This should make it easier to understand, maintain, and scale as you go. Good documentation is an essential part of building successful software, and it can be the difference between a project that flourishes and one that flounders. So don’t neglect your documentation—your team (and your future self) will thank you!