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Documentation Best Practices for Developer Tools

Documentation quality can make or break developer tools. Good docs are essential so devs can learn how tools work and which use cases they apply to. Content should be detailed, accurate, and accessible, clearly explaining concepts without making readers spend time hunting for additional information.

This article shares some best practices for creating and publishing developer-oriented documentation. These pointers will ensure your guides, tutorials, API references, and other resources all create a positive experience for devs using your tool.

Why Developer Tools Need Good Docs

Developers use software documentation in two main ways: first, to evaluate the high-level capabilities of your tool and, second, to learn the technical details of how it’s used and integrated. Even the best tools are useless if developers don’t know what the tool does or how it achieves its purpose, so it’s vital to invest in authoring quality documentation that makes dev life easier.

The effects of bad documentation—whether missing, outdated, or hard to find—shouldn’t be underestimated. Documentation issues create developer roadblocks that cause frustration and can lead to tools abandonment. Poor docs also drain your internal resources as support teams field more inquiries from uncertain devs seeking answers.

Best Practices for Great Documentation

Creating effective documentation starts with following standard best practices for communicating information:

  • Write clearly and concisely, avoiding ambiguous terms and jargon.
  • Adopt or create a style guide to ensure a consistent tone applies across your documentation.
  • Ensure your docs entry point is easy to find, such as a link from your website or README file.
  • Review your docs and replace any outdated information regularly. (If there’s anything more frustrating to developers than missing docs, it’s docs that prove to be incorrect.)

Beyond these principles of documentation, here are four key features to focus on when you’re writing for developers.

Go In-Depth into Features and Use Cases

Your documentation should be a comprehensive, one-stop place to find any answers that developers require. It’s important to provide in-depth details about all the features provided by your tool in addition to the ways in which they can be used.

Beyond a description of the what and how of your tool, your docs should also clearly explain the why. Detailing your target use cases with the ways in which your tool achieves them and the reasons behind any opinionated behavior enables devs and buyers to easily understand the problems you’re trying to solve.

The exact content to cover depends on the type of tool you’re creating. APIs need a breakdown of every endpoint, the parameters they accept, and the responses they issue, for example, while CLI apps should include a reference for each supported command with its options and how they can be combined.

Such detailed reference material ensures developers can easily discover available functions and learn how to use them. The npm documentation provides clear instructions for every command, for example, offering a clear technical synopsis, a description of the command’s use case, and a list of supported configuration parameters:

Screenshot showing the npm install command page on the npm Docs site

Create High-Level Summaries to Help Devs Familiarize Themselves with Your Tool

Technical depth mustn’t replace high-level guides and overviews, however. Introductory tutorials that are relatively light on detail but walk users through common workflows in simple steps should also be provided. In particular, create concise installation or setup guides for all supported platforms and environments to ensure that first encounters with your tool are frictionless.

This kind of content lowers the learning curve for first-time users who aren’t yet ready to head deep into your reference material. The GitHub REST API showcases how both these content types can be presented—the top of the sidebar is dedicated to quick-start guides and explanations of key concepts, while the bottom section provides a feature-by-feature index of each API capability:

Screenshot showing the GitHub REST API Quickstart guide

Use Examples to Support Understanding

Who doesn’t love a good example? Examples can make concepts and features much easier for devs to understand, especially around areas that are unique to your tool. Even comparatively simple functions should include examples as this provides extra clarity to developers and prevents uncomfortable doubts from arising.

Examples should be easy to find, ready to run, and approachable for those who’ve never experienced your tool before. Incomplete examples can create more confusion than they solve as developers might not yet have enough background knowledge to be able to fill in the gaps.

You should include examples in line with your quick-start guides and technical reference information to help contextualize what you’re describing. It’s also useful to prepare a cheat sheet of examples for your tool’s most commonly used operations. Command line HTTP client HTTPie does a good job of succinctly illustrating how to achieve key use cases, for instance:

Screenshot of the **Examples** page in the HTTPie documentation

Where possible, try to favor the use of interactive examples that are embedded into your content. These allow devs to observe features in action without leaving the docs, creating a more intuitive and satisfying experience. The web platform documentation on MDN illustrates this pattern: examples are clearly signposted in the content, including interactive Play buttons that open the code in a live playground environment:

Screenshot of an **MDN Web Docs** page with an interactive example

Provide a Convenient UI/UX

The way in which docs are presented is almost as important as their content. Select a clean UI that’s easy to use and well optimized for readability so developers can easily find and digest your material. Setting up a dedicated docs site provides a more sophisticated experience than relying on wikis and plaintext files while creating an opportunity to showcase your brand style and design expertise.

A specialist docs interface also facilitates the use of more powerful capabilities that produce a more convenient developer experience. For example, you could link your docs site to your developer accounts system, then customize your code samples so they include real account values after developers log in.

The Stripe API documentation uses this technique to good effect. Once you’re logged in, the API keys and other configurable values shown in the docs are fetched from your account. You can copy and run the examples without having to manually alter any options:

Screenshot showing a **Stripe API Docs** page that dynamically changes the example based on the logged-in user

It’s also good practice to let developers persistently select the client library, programming language, or integration type they’re using. This allows irrelevant information to be filtered out, making it easier for developers to focus on the steps that apply to them.

Prioritize Search and Navigation

In whatever way the documentation is published, it needs to be supported by a clear navigation structure that makes it obvious how to jump between different content types and topics. Establish a logical pathway for users to follow, from the guide to getting started through to the in-depth reference material, but ensure it’s always possible to skip to specific areas when developers already know what they’re looking for.

Use links—both internal and external—to tie topics together. This lets devs effortlessly discover more information that’s related to the topic they’re reading. Similarly, adding a table of contents at the start of each topic and section aids readers in quickly gauging whether they’ve reached their intended destination.

Discoverability is key to the success of documentation, so it’s crucial to integrate search functionality extensively throughout your docs system. Search needs to be fast, accurate, and capable of surfacing material from all your content sections as users are likely to rely on it to reach the topics they’re looking for. A powerful example is Docker, which lets you open their search panel from anywhere using a keyboard shortcut and then neatly groups all the matching pages based on content type:

Screenshot showing the search overlay in the Docker Docs

Furthermore, optimizing content for search engine visibility provides more paths into relevant content, including when developers are still evaluating different tools within the marketplace. SEO for docs is similar to other evergreen content types: add correct HTML meta tags to your pages, use descriptive URLs and headers, and avoid indexing any autogenerated reference material that might trigger a search engine’s spam or AI detection algorithms.

Shareability is another navigation aspect to consider. Making headers into anchors that act as link targets allows devs to more conveniently reference specific parts of your documentation in chat messages, work specifications, and comments on issues and pull requests. This reduces time spent hunting for information, leading to a more satisfying and productive developer experience.


Focusing on documentation quality ensures devs have the simplest possible experience as they use your tools. Properly formatted, easily navigable docs that provide an exhaustive reference for available capabilities—alongside accessible getting-started guides—keep devs productive, improve retention, and reduce the volume of support tickets you receive.

Creating good documentation takes time, but the benefits more than offset any investment you make. As you’ve seen in this article, many of the most successful developer-oriented tools and platforms have prioritized their docs, ensuring newcomers can quickly find accurate answers to their questions while more experienced users have a clear route to the precise technical info they need. In a crowded marketplace, documentation quality can sell your tool over a competitor’s, so implementing the tips shared here will help improve your business outcomes.

James Walker

By James Walker

James Walker is the founder of Heron Web, a UK-based software development studio providing bespoke solutions for SMEs. He's experienced in delivering custom software using engineering workflows built around modern DevOps methodologies. As a freelance technical writer, James has written extensively about the software development lifecycle, current industry trends, and DevOps concepts and technologies.