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A Comprehensive Guide to Software Architecture Documentation

Category: Technical Documentation

Last updated on Nov 28, 2023

The reasoning behind why software development teams make the choices that they do for software architecture is often lost. New team members are often mystified as to why developers have chosen a programming language such as Ruby or React, or why they have hosted the software on one platform and not another.

For this purpose and more, teams responsible for software architecture development may want to document their decisions. Although developers, software architects, and other interested parties are often skeptical about the value of documentation in software architecture, especially in an agile context where they believe the code documents itself, good documentation is absolutely essential for functioning teams.

Software architecture documentation, as we shall see, is particularly important for development teams because the code simply doesn’t tell the whole story. Many questions remain unanswered. An outsider looking at the code can’t tell why the architecture has been built in a certain way or whether making a change would negatively impact the integrity of the system, significantly hindering change.

What is Software Architecture Documentation?

Software architecture documentation is the thorough documentation of a software system’s architecture, including deliberate design decisions, components, and some specific artifacts such as diagrams, specs, and descriptions. It tells you how and why the code was built the way it was and enables team members and clients to understand and improve the software.

  • Software architecture documentation aims to document these areas of the code:
  • The non-functional requirements of the system
  • The goals of the system

The decisions driving the architecture and the reasoning behind them

So, while good code will naturally speak for itself, there are some aspects of the software architecture that are not self-explanatory, and this is where good documentation comes in. It makes future maintenance and updating of the software a much more feasible process.

Software architecture documentation is usually aimed at these interested parties:

  • Developers
  • Software architects
  • Testers
  • QA
  • Support
  • Clients
  • Ops
  • Project managers

And anyone else who has a stake in how the software solution has been architected. If you don’t document the software architecture, you run the risk of losing track of why and how it has been built, potentially reversing and damaging previous choices when you make changes.

Why Should We Document Software Architecture?

We’ve just touched on why software development teams might want to document their software architecture, and we’re now going to look at the reasons for doing so in more depth.

Knowledge Sharing

While documentation is often low on the task list of many technical contributors, it’s essential for knowledge sharing in the domain of software architecture. Team members may forget why decisions were made over time and risk changing the software in a way that is not in line with the original mission. Documenting software architecture means that development teams can better share knowledge and preserve that knowledge for future contributors, who may be entirely different to the original creators.

Collaboration

Proper software architecture documentation enables teams to collaborate more effectively because stakeholders from across the board can understand the system. Intentions behind the code that are not immediately obvious gain more clarity and even less technical users can understand how and why the code functions the way it does, enabling better and more practical business decisions.

Scalability

In order to scale a project, you need to document the design decisions behind the architecture, specifications, and other technical details. Your team and architecture cannot grow if not properly documented, as vital information will be lost, and your software may become destined to fail. When first embarking on your software, your scope may be limited, but this will likely change over time as you embrace more features and use cases.

Reduce Maintenance Cost

If your software is to develop and keep pace with customer demand, your developers will need to perform regular maintenance of the code to ensure bugs are fixed and so on. If your software architecture is properly documented, this means any developer – even new ones – can theoretically jump in and confidently make changes. This reduces the maintenance cost of the code as updates and patches are easier.

Maintaining and Modernizing Outdated Software

As your software evolves, it must also meet different and increasingly stringent requirements, but stakeholders can often lose track of the software due to the pace of change. Software must be maintained and more importantly, modernized and that requires updated software architecture. Robust documentation tells you what changes need to be made and where you might be failing to meet standards.

Decision Support

The right documentation supports decision-making as architects, developers, project managers, and other parties responsible for driving the have access to more information. Although some like to think the simply looking at the code provides all the necessary insight, the reality is that intentions and context are completely lacking from this approach. Software architecture documentation fills the gap.

Also read: What is Software Documentation? Its types and Best practices

How to Create Software Architecture Documentation

Now, we’re going to go through the steps you need to take when creating your software architecture documentation.

Understand the Audience and Purpose

As with all forms of writing, you need to understand your software architecture documentation’s intended audience or audiences. You might initially think of other software architects, but audiences could also include developers, technical writers, project managers, and clients. It’s usually sensible to have different documents that are aimed at discrete audiences since the information that might be relevant to some could be distracting or overwhelming for others.

Gather Existing Information

It’s likely that the documentation you want to create for your software architecture may already exist in some form. If you gather existing materials, this will save you time in the documentation process and ensure you are making the best use of your resources. Taking this approach makes it more likely that all your collateral is up-to-date and accurate, and keeps all your important information in one place.

Choose a Documentation Format

You’ll need to decide whether you want to present your documentation as images, text, video, or some combination of the above. Different formats will require varying resources and be harder to update or translate into multilingual content as time goes on. Take into account which format best suits your users and has the lowest maintenance cost to ensure ongoing commitment to the documentation.

Outline the Documentation

Before you set to work creating large amounts of software architecture documentation, make sure you build an outline first, so you understand how it all fits together. It’s likely that you will have many collaborators involved in your documentation efforts so everyone needs to have a roadmap they can work with, just like they would with the software code.

Change Management and Versioning

Your software architecture documentation will change over time, so you’ll need to have a formal change management system in place as well as provisions for versioning. Versions should be updated with the original version kept intact in case there is ever a dispute or need for reversal, with everyone on the team kept informed of the latest version of your documentation.

Include Appendix and References

In the process of creating your software architecture documentation, you will likely make references to external sources and materials. Make sure you include an appendix and references so documentation users can look up the original sources and find out more information, ensuring that your documentation is comprehensive and reliable.

Regularly Maintain and Update

The final product of your software architecture documentation is never finished and must be adapted as the system is improved, changed, and updated. High-quality documentation accurately reflects the particulars of the system and gives users faith that it is actually useful. This requires regular maintenance and updating of the documentation as your software architecture evolves while preserving the original versions for reference.

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Best Practices for Software Architecture Documentation

Now consider these best practices for implementing software architecture documentation.

1. Implement Documentation in the Development Phase

Thorough documentation should be considered part of your prototype rather than an afterthought if you have time. Documentation should be as important as the code because it provides insights and information to key stakeholders who are developing the software. Important documents should be produced alongside the code to keep pace with an evolving product.

2. Document Only What You Need and Keep it Up-to-date

Thorough documentation does not mean you document everything – you should document only what you need or risk overwhelming and alienating your users who find the documentation too imposing. Documentation that is concise, relevant, and up-to-date will better serve the needs of your users than extensive, long-winded documents. Just enough documentation, and not too much, is the goal to aim for here.

3. Document for Different Stakeholders

As we’ve already discussed, you’ll need different forms of documentation for different stakeholders. There are a number of roles within the software development team who might be interested in software architecture documentation, who are the following:

Developers

Of course, developers will be interested in the particulars of the software system including specifications, dependencies and component relationships. In order to develop code most effectively, developers must understand the software architecture, thus enabling them to avoid breaking things or making sub-optimal changes.

Testers

Testers are responsible for intentionally trying to break the software to check for weak points, and therefore, they must have an intimate understanding of its architecture and design decisions so they can create effective test cases.

Project managers

Project managers must have a broad-level overview of the software architecture to help them understand what is possible and drive projects forward. Allocating resources requires appreciating the limits of the software and the skills required to complete certain milestones in a reasonable time.

Technical writers

Technical writers absolutely must know the system architecture in order to create effective and useful documentation for users. All documentation is interconnected and is needed to inform the authors of different types of docs. Software architects who are interested in documentation may also benefit from the help of professional technical writers.

4. Avoid Ambiguity and Be Concise

When your stakeholders are looking for documentation about the software architecture they need you to avoid ambiguity and be concise. If you make reference to a specific component then make sure to be consistent with your naming conventions and terminology.

5. Granular Accessibility

Granular accessibility is important for users searching for specific information within your documentation portal, so you’ll need to combine the capabilities to search for content with restricted access for some users and content. Keeping results relevant and useful is key for the adoption of your documentation.

Documentation Techniques in Software Architecture

Now we’ll look at these common techniques in documentation for software architecture.

Diagrams

Sometimes there is no better way to express your software architecture than through a visual diagram, typically using Unified Modeling Language (UML). If you want to explain your system’s design to users, including how the system parts function together, and how information flows between different parts of the system, then diagrams are a useful tool.

Textual Documentation

On the other hand, text is sometimes the only way to get a more complex point across, which is especially relevant when documenting your software architecture. Using textual documentation can help you explain high-level concepts, detail the functionality of components and more.

Hybrid Documentation

Of course, using a combination of diagrams and text can often be the best solution to presenting your documentation for a diverse user base. Diagrams can be as complex as you like with text accompanying them to explain what you mean.

Software Architecture Document Template

Here’s a common software architecture document template according to arc42. It’s open source and completely free to use, removing the pain of constructing your software architecture documents.

arc42 template

software documentation template

Image source

Document360 for Software Architecture Documentation

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Document360 is an exceptional platform designed to streamline and elevate the process of creating and managing software architecture documentation. In the realm of software development, clear and comprehensive documentation is a critical component for successful project execution, collaboration, and knowledge retention. Document360 provides a user-friendly and powerful solution tailored specifically for software architects, developers, and technical writers, allowing them to create, maintain, and share software architecture documentation with ease and efficiency.

Also read: Top 20 Software Documentation Tools of 2023

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Wrapping Up

Ultimately, the people developing, updating, maintaining, and adding new features to the software may not be the ones who originally built it. For this reason, as well as others mentioned earlier, it’s therefore a very good idea to document your software architecture to ensure that your software continues to function effectively.
Without the proper documentation, software teams can descend into chaos and lose track of where they are going. Software architecture becomes impenetrable as engineers leave their positions and their replacements have no idea why certain decisions were made.

While documentation may not always be a priority for software architects, your team members and users will thank you for making the effort.

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