Ever since the Agile Manifesto came to light, software development industries have been abandoning the Waterfall model for a more efficient Agile approach to programming.
As companies started to notice this cultural shift from traditional methods to more modern ones, many industries, not just software, began to implement Agile methodologies.
Agile called for a complete revamp of the Waterfall status quo, changing how people approached project management.
One such major change was how the Agile Manifesto believed in “working software over comprehensive documentation.” This was intended to streamline development processes but this principle has led many to believe that Agile doesn’t need technical documentation – causing many frustrations in the long run.
This can’t be further from the truth. Technical documentation builds the foundation for most software development projects. Instead, Agile prefers collaboration over documentation, emphasizing the need to produce just enough documentation to convey requirements.
This article covers Agile documentation, discusses its importance, and explores the steps of producing documentation for your organization.
What is Agile Documentation?
Agile documentation is the process of producing technical documentation within the principles mentioned in the Manifesto.
These principles include the following:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
In Agile environments, technical writers work closely with developers. They even integrate Agile ceremonies into the documentation to help to adapt to the overall Agile workflow. This documentation is then shared with the entire Agile team, including product owners, managers, and scrum masters.
Types of Documentation
In a software development process, many types of documentation carry varying significance for the project’s success.
The product documentation includes details about the end product and instructions on how to create it. It details what the product is, how it’s made, requirements for production, and instruction on how to use it.
This type of detailed documentation is further divided into two sections:
- System documentation/system overview documentation
- User documentations
System Documentation/System Overview Documentation
This documentation includes information about the system processes involved in making the product. It may include data regarding system architecture, source codes, models, and system design.
This documentation is made for users who will be using the product. It includes support documents like user guides, manuals, troubleshooting guides, and installation tutorials.
Process documentation describes the steps and phases that the team passes through to arrive at the desired end product. It includes information about the project plan, scheduling, budget tracking, test reports, and more.
Maintenance documentation includes any documents required to maintain the system processes and products and carry out inspection checks. Agile teams are required to move fast and consistently update their product by incorporating constant feedback. Without the proper maintenance documents, keeping the product updated and maintained throughout the software development life cycle (SDLC) is nearly impossible.
Importance of Agile Documentation
A common misconception is that documentation in agile does not go hand in hand. This misconception has been debunked by Jim Highsmith when he stated:
“We embrace documentation, but not hundreds of pages of never-maintained and rarely-used tomes.” – Jim Highsmith, American Software Engineer.
Agile documentation provides many benefits to software teams and should not be ignored.
Helps in Auditing
Lightweight documentation in an Agile organization helps perform internal audits with higher accuracy. Agile documentation gives auditors freedom and a way to engage with systems without insisting on compliance with extensive protocols.
Improves External Communication
With shared documentation, it’s possible to communicate with external stakeholders when all members of the development team are not available. This is especially true for remote teams where all team members may not be present to meet with external groups. Thus, having some form of documentation can maintain effective communication.
Meets Stakeholders’ Needs
Even if some team members feel they don’t need documentation, project stakeholders do. Developing the technical documentation is essential for attracting potential stakeholders to your idea, parties that need to know what they are supporting. Agile documentation includes the bare necessities that enable Agile project teams to not waste the valuable resources and time of the stakeholders.
Creates Organizational Memory
It’s difficult to remember every single thing when developing software. Agile documentation removes the need to remember everything as teams document software processes and systems to support organizational memory and maintain the working software over time.
How is Documentation Prepared for Waterfall vs Agile Software Development?
Agile methodologies streamline documentation by removing the need for lengthy compliance checks. Agile favors collaboration over referring to the documentation for every detail.
On the other hand, Waterfall requires a more rigid approach to maintaining documentation. In Waterfall project management, documentation is an extensive process where project requirements are clear and not subject to change.
This may work well in some organizations, such as construction, where making changes can be extremely costly and time-consuming.
Given how fast things are moving in the 21st century, businesses have to be agile to keep up with the rapidly changing customer trends and business dynamics. That’s why more and more businesses are switching to Agile documentation methods.
The table below summarizes the differences between Waterfall and Agile documentation:
|Extensive documentation is mandatory to prepare to move forward
|Basic documentation that includes the bare details to understand the process
|Lengthy review and compliance checks approved by executives
|No formal review and approval process; documentation is approved by the project manager
|Rigid documentation; less flexible to changes
|Flexible documents; adapt to changes
|Lengthy documentation managed through an approved system/process
|Minimal documentation managed in parallel by every team member
|Documentation is prepared with the help of standardized templates
|Documentation is prepared according to best practices
What to Include in Agile Documentation
We’ve learned that Agile documents are created differently than traditional documentation. So, what exactly do you include in Agile documentation?
Although it depends on your project requirements and complexities, here are some things you need to include in your documents.
This describes the product, including who it’s for, its purpose, and the unique characteristics that distinguish it from other products in the market.
Include the product vision in the Agile documentation to keep teams focused on the long-term goals of what the product should aspire to be.
The project scope is different from the product vision. It includes documenting the specific tasks and requirements necessary for the project. This may include documenting user stories, project deliverables, and estimated deadlines.
Documentation of the project scope is used as a guideline for teams to make decisions and stay on track with the project plan.
It defines the project’s requirements and communicates what’s needed to satisfy customer desires. Requirements documentation may include use cases, product features, and system information to ensure all stakeholders understand the requirements.
This type of document helps stakeholders navigate customer problems and solve them efficiently.
These are documents specifically made for customer support teams to assist them in solving common customer problems.
These documents include troubleshooting guides, checklists, and other training material to help the staff streamline the customer experience.
These documents are made specifically for end-users of your product. They may include guides and user manuals to help educate users on your product.
User documentation should be kept concise and easy to understand. Rather than talking about technical details, adopt a user-centric, scenario-based approach to help guide users through relevant solutions.
How to Produce Technical Agile Documentation
Before documentation can start, have a planning session to determine what work will be done in the upcoming sprint. Product owners prioritize items in the product backlog and negotiate over tasks with team members. This results in a sprint backlog, a set of agreed-upon tasks to be completed in the sprint.
The product owner or project manager sets goals for these sprints, and writes user stories to get a better understanding of the requirements.
These are then documented to keep track of the project scope and create a guideline for teams.
Agile documentation favors collaboration over detailed technical requirements. Because of this, developers, technical writers, and other Agile team members can contribute to the creation of the documents.
When attending Agile ceremonies, such as daily stand-ups, team members may come together and decide if the documentation needs to be updated. Teams then agree upon a set of updated tasks and revise the documentation accordingly.
Although there’s no formal approval process for Agile documentation, it’s important to present the documentation to stakeholders to get everyone on the same page.
This is usually done during the sprint review, where the team holds a demo presentation displaying what the team achieved during the sprint and they write the documentation accordingly.
A scrum master arranges a sprint retrospective at the end of every sprint to reflect on what worked well, what didn’t, and how to move forward.
This prompts team members to reflect on their progress and learn from their mistakes. The scrum master documents these learnings that enable continuous improvement.
After the conclusion of a sprint, the product owner revises the product backlog to re-prioritize tasks of importance. This helps to streamline documentation efforts to include only the most important details of the project.
Challenges of Producing Agile Documentation
Lack of Accessibility
To streamline documentation, every Agile team member is empowered to create and maintain the documentation. This approach produces documentation faster and keeps everyone on track with the most important elements of the development process.
For effective documentation, project managers have to ensure that documentation is openly accessible to all team members to view, share, edit, and update easily.
Lack of Technical Writing Expertise
Writing documentation is a difficult task, which is why technical writers are commonly hired to create it. However, under Agile methodology, everyone, including developers, is required to contribute to document creation.
Without writing experience, developers may find it hard to convey changes to the documentation and hesitate to communicate requirements. To overcome this, prioritize good collaboration and written communication skills when you hire programmers. You may also train your programmers to write better so they can help with building relevant documentation.
Starting Too Early
With an Agile approach, teams should try to write with a just-in-time (JIT) approach. This means documentation should only be written when it needs to be.
Unlike traditional documentation, where extensive documents are prepared before development starts, Agile documentation is prepared just before it is required. So Agile teams only document what is needed and what they’ve produced.
This ensures that the final documentation is of high value and relevant to the user. It also helps save time in revising and rewriting since most documents won’t need to be revised as they’re written late in the process.
When Should You Create Documentation?
In Agile project management, there’s no specific stage for creating documentation.
Agile teams develop products in sprints that are iterated and incremented. For this reason, documentation should also be produced incrementally as the team completes its work on each feature. This allows teams to have a document-late approach and complete documentation just in time.
Best Practices for Writing Agile Documentation
Technical writers follow proven best practices to create well-crafted and effective Agile documents. Below are some well-known best practices to follow.
Understand Your Users
Adopting a user-centric approach is essential to the success of your Agile projects. Before starting a project, project managers and the product owner should have a good idea of who their users are. This includes understanding their problems, interests, situation, etc. Customer personas can help with this.
Having a good understanding of your users will help you document specific goals and work towards meaningful deliverables that add value to the end user.
Keep It Simple
The Manifesto clearly states that collaboration is to be valued more than comprehensive documentation. For that reason, teams shouldn’t go into every technical detail of the software, rather only document important and useful information in an easy-to-understand and digestible manner.
Agile documentation should be kept concise to allow easier maintenance and to prevent errors. It should include just enough information to navigate through the source code and provide value to staff and users alike.
Agile teams should develop documentation only in the later stages of production – just before the release of a new feature. This way, team members only document what they’ve actually built, ensuring the accuracy of the documents.
Use a Test-Based Approach
Test-driven development is crucial to maintain the value of your documentation over time. Performing unit tests will help plan deliverables and keep project requirements up-to-date.
When developing documentation, conduct unit tests to define system requirements and processes and validate your work.
Maintain Good Communication
Agile documentation is not essential for Agile teams to kick off a project. Other forms of communication, like face-to-face conversations and videoconferencing, are much more effective.
Maintaining good communication is an essential part of the Agile mindset. It’s an appropriate alternative to creating multiple pages of documentation and it ensures higher team effectiveness.
Contrary to popular belief, Agile does value documentation, but it is compiled differently than the traditional Waterfall approach.
With Agile documentation, teams can streamline documentation efforts while staying true to the principles stated in the Agile Manifesto.
However, such a shift from traditional to Agile documentation can be overwhelming, which is why this article discussed the common challenges and solutions to adopting Agile practices in documentation.