February 23, 2023

Software Architecture Documentation: Common Mistakes & Best Practices

Diagrams for Software Engineering
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What is Software Architecture Documentation?

Software architecture documentation is a guide to the structure of your software. It can be used for many purposes, from communicating key details to business stakeholders to serving as an onboarding resource or reference for other developers as they work to build out, expand, or fix the software. 

Documentation saves time by providing a source of truth to understand and analyze systems without having to analyze all the code. 

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Common Architecture Documentation Mistakes

Here are the things you should try to avoid when creating software architecture documentation, either because they could cause problems for your team in the future or make the documentation more difficult and inefficient to use. If you find yourself making these mistakes in your own documentation, be sure to read up in our best practices section to learn how to effectively avoid them.

❌ Not Having Documentation At All

A lack of documentation for your software architecture can cause issues later because it makes maintenance and expansion of systems a very difficult task — especially if key members of the engineering team leave the organization and take their knowledge with them. It also makes communicating information about the system to other stakeholders more difficult.

Some might argue that the code itself is all the documentation you need, but code alone doesn’t provide context for decision-making, and it’s not accessible for non-technical stakeholders.

❌ Outdated Documentation

Outdated documentation can be just as bad as no documentation at all. Documentation that doesn’t reflect the actual state of the system can result in poor decision-making and even critical errors if someone is referencing outdated information when making updates or changes.

❌ No Specific Audience

One document does not fit all when it comes to software architecture documentation. Different stakeholders have different information needs, and having only one document with all the details makes finding information less convenient. It may even make people less motivated to use documentation at all.

Make sure you are using the appropriate level of context for your audience, because business executives don’t need to see technical and code details while engineers may not be able to complete their work effectively without them.

❌ Lack of Structure

If you don’t have a framework for your documentation, it can be disorganized and difficult to understand — and difficult to know what you even need to create, making it more challenging to both build and access documentation.

❌ Lack of Consistency and Clarity

If you’re not using the correct diagram types for the information you are trying to convey, lacking organization, or not using consistent terminology throughout your documentation, that can cause miscommunications and misunderstandings.

It also makes documentation harder to read, as does writing ineffectively. Documentation with long chunks of text — no subheadings or visuals — and long-winded sentences make it difficult to gather information at a glance. In order for documentation to be a valuable resource, it shouldn’t require time to study.

❌ Lack of Accessibility

If no one can find your documentation or the information they need within the documentation, they may not use it at all, and the effort that went into creating it will have been wasted. In order for your documentation to be meaningful and effective, make sure that everyone who needs it knows where to find it and how to navigate it. 

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6 Architecture Documentation Best Practices for Better Knowledge Management

Do any of the common mistakes mentioned above sound familiar to you? Don’t worry — we've got a few best practices to address them now and avoid them in the future.

For even more details on building great documentation, check out our blog on using Confluence for documentation. Documentation is one of the primary functions Confluence is used for, so if you’re just getting started, it’s the perfect tool to build your base of knowledge. Plus, if you use Jira to manage tasks and workflows, Confluence and Jira integrate powerfully to transform the way your team works. 

Not a Confluence user? These tips are still relevant regardless of which platform you use to manage your documentation ⬇️

✅ Implement Documentation in the Development Process

One of the most common reasons software engineering teams don’t have documentation is because they’re waiting to create it until there’s enough time to focus on it. The problem is, with a new project or initiative always around the corner, how do you make that time? The reality for most teams is that there may never be a long stretch of down time to catch up on documentation.

The best solution for that problem is to create documentation as a part of the design process. Think of it as a key step that must be addressed before your designs are considered complete. This may mean that the process takes a little longer, but that extra time will have been worthwhile when it’s time to manage or expand your architecture in the future. Moreover, your team will be well-positioned and ultimately able to save time when thrown the inevitable-but-unexpected curveball.

✅ Document Only As Much As You Need

It’s easy to end up with outdated documentation, especially when it’s too difficult or time consuming to continue updating it every time there are changes to make. To avoid this issue, minimize the amount of documentation you create so there’s less to update in the future.

Don’t cut corners, but be judicious about what’s really essential to document. Plus, having less documentation makes it more concise and requires less time to create in the first place, eliminating wasted effort on unnecessary information people won’t read.

✅ Create Documentation for Specific Audiences

Business stakeholders only require big-picture documentation, while software engineers need all the detail that will tell them exactly how the software works so they can add functionality or fix bugs effectively. Separating documentation by intended audience will make it more likely for people to read it and easier and less time-consuming for them to do so.

✅ Use an Architectural Framework

An architectural framework provides structure for your software architecture documentation. An example of a simple architectural framework that many teams use is the C4 model — with Gliffy, you can create diagrams to illustrate this model for your architecture.

However, it doesn’t matter which type of framework you use, just that you use one that meets your needs. For example, less detailed frameworks that involve less pre-work planning are more fitting for agile teams due to the flexible nature of agile methodology.

✅ Use Templates and Write Clearly

Consistency across documentation makes it easier to read and find the information you need. This includes having a consistent visual language, defining terms clearly, and using those terms in the same way throughout your documentation.

Another way to bring visual consistency to your documentation is by using templates. Confluence has plenty that you can try out or you can create your own, and with Gliffy you can use an existing diagram as a template for a new one to ensure all of your diagrams throughout documentation are consistent.

Consistency is just one way to make your documentation more readable — clarity is another. Use subheadings and bulleted lists when applicable, write in short paragraphs and sentences, and use active voice. All these things will make it easier to skim through a document and find information quickly.

✅ Make Your Documentation Accessible

To encourage your team and other technical and business stakeholders to use documentation as part of their daily processes, place it in a standard location that’s easy for them to access, such as a wiki or shared drive.

Accessibility isn’t just about where the information lives, but also how easy it is to navigate. Make your documentation searchable by including tables of contents, labeling pages, and using descriptive titles that are easy to find in search results.

If you’re looking for a place for your documentation to live, Confluence is a great choice. Our Confluence documentation blog has more on what makes it a powerful tool to manage and share knowledge.

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Document Your Software Architecture With Gliffy

Visuals are an important part of software architecture documentation, as many frameworks include diagrams which make technical information easy to understand at a glance. However, it’s inconvenient to import and keep updating diagrams whenever changes are made.

Gliffy makes it easy to create technical diagrams for your documentation with deep integrations with Confluence, searchable text within diagrams, diagram copies that automatically update, and an intuitive drag and drop interface. To get started with creating all types of application architecture diagrams for your software architecture documentation, start your free trial of Gliffy today.

Not a Confluence user? Our online diagramming tool, Gliffy Online, may meet your needs. It doesn’t have the same deep integrations with Confluence, but it has the same easy-to-use interface, and lets you integrate diagrams where you work, including Trello and Slack.


Architecture documentation isn't the only type of documentation that can be helpful for software engineering teams as they collaborate to deliver great products. To learn more about other important types of documentation, check out our blog, The 3 Types of Documentation Your Team Needs >>

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