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Documenting application architecture is essential to every aspect of software system management, from design, to maintenance, to expansion. Good architecture documentation provides important context that shapes decisions and helps teams work better together.
The biggest challenge in building application architecture documentation is that its development must be an intentional effort. So many of the decisions that go into the creation of a software system take place in casual, interactive contexts that aren’t meant to last, like whiteboard sketches, chats between team members on Slack or email threads, or verbal conversations.
So how do you make sure you’re not losing that important context? Implement the creation of documentation into the design process, and put in the effort to make it detailed, clear, and accessible to your team. To learn more ways to do that, check out our blog on software documentation best practices — but here we’ll focus on one important way: diagramming for documentation.
Diagramming is a key part of application architecture documentation because it provides a way to understand complex systems and processes at a glance, making documentation more readable for all users and more useful for collaborating with non-technical stakeholders.
But in order for your diagrams to truly make an impact, it’s important that the diagrams you use are well-constructed and are the right types for what you need to convey. How do you decide which diagrams to use in your documentation and where to begin?
There are certain diagram types commonly used to visualize application architecture, and these range from more broad to more specific, so they can be used by a wide range of audiences. We will explore a few of those and provide all the resources you’ll need to make your own.
You can follow along with our tutorials to diagram directly alongside your documentation in Confluence — no extra logins, windows, or uploads. If you don’t use Confluence, try our online diagramming tool, Gliffy Online, which lets you embed your diagrams wherever your team works.
Research from Gartner shows that the diagram types described below will often be the most helpful types when you are putting together architecture documentation. We’ll give a brief summary of each one and what it describes, and guide you toward the resources you’ll need to create your own.
Component diagrams are the most conceptual type of application architecture diagram and are used to illustrate how various components connect to form a system. If you are creating documentation for business stakeholders, you’ll want to include component diagrams because they show the system’s structure without getting too deep into technical details — however, more technical versions of component diagrams can also be created for your technical team to refer to.
COMPONENT DIAGRAM TEMPLATE
Activity diagrams show the activities that a system performs and are another type of diagram that effectively bridges the gap between technical and non-technical audiences. They can be used to communicate technical information about system processes in a way that is easy to understand at a glance. Whenever you’re working with system processes, an activity diagram may be helpful.
ACTIVITY DIAGRAM TUTORIAL
Data flow diagrams, or DFDs, show the flow of information through a system or process using symbols and text labels. They can also be used to show non-technical audiences the solution or logical architecture of a system at a higher level. DFDs can even be used to visualize physical architecture. They have 3 levels of specificity, so make sure you choose the one that is right for your audience — our tutorial will help you determine the correct one.
DATA FLOW DIAGRAM TUTORIAL
Sequence diagrams display the way processes operate over time and how different parts of a system interact with each other, specifically in the order that it happens. Documenting a system in this way helps with understanding its requirements, which is important for onboarding new team members and making important decisions.
SEQUENCE DIAGRAM TUTORIAL
State machine diagrams, also called state diagrams, model system behavior over a number of transitions so the designer can see the “state” of a system at any given time. These are helpful for visualizing dynamic systems whose responses may change based on certain events or circumstances. These structures are often complex, so visualizing them with a diagram is helpful when trying to describe and document them.
STATE MACHINE DIAGRAM TUTORIAL
Entity relationship diagrams are exactly what the name sounds like — they visualize the relationships between different entities in a defined space or system. They are commonly used in database design and show the structure of data or information in a system. The reason entity relationship diagrams are so essential is because working with a large amount of data can quickly become complex and overwhelming. Visualizing the structure of such data clearly is a great way to save time and effort in understanding it.
ENTITY RELATIONSHIP DIAGRAM TUTORIAL ER DIAGRAM SYMBOLS
Deployment diagrams show where pieces of software live on each piece of hardware by mapping out their artifacts or nodes. They also show the relationships between those pieces. These are different from many of the other diagram types on this list because they strictly show physical structures as opposed to logical ones, but are just as important for documenting your application architecture.
DEPLOYMENT DIAGRAM TEMPLATE
Creating diagrams for your documentation has never been easier. With Gliffy, you can create, share, and collaborate on technical diagrams without ever leaving Confluence, helping your team save valuable time and build resources that ensure future work is successful.
Not a Confluence user? We’ve still got you covered. Gliffy Online makes it easy and intuitive to draw even the most technical of diagrams and place them wherever you need them.
If you haven’t yet, make sure to start your free trial of Gliffy to start building the essential application architecture diagrams and take your documentation to the next level.