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Top 5 Open-Source Documentation Development Platforms of 2024

Top 5 Open-Source Documentation Development Platforms of 2024

Documentation is essential for every software project, helping orient users to the software and how to troubleshoot any issues that may arise.

Creating an excellent product is pointless if users can’t figure out how the program works and what they can do with it. Fortunately, you can produce excellent documentation for your software projects at a reasonable cost using open-source documentation creation tools.

In this article, we’ll examine the top five tools for developing documentation, highlighting their unique qualities. If you’re choosing a documentation tool, evaluating the following criteria can provide a more comprehensive understanding of each platform's strengths and weaknesses.

Criteria for judgement

Ease of use

How quickly can one set up and use the platform? Is it friendly for non-technical users, or does it require coding knowledge? Does the interface make writing, editing, and formatting documentation easy and intuitive? Are there helpful features like spell-checking and previewing?

Documentation quality

Does the platform accept many content formats such as Markdown, AsciiDoc, and reStructuredText and provide powerful version control features? Is it also possible to include multimedia, code snippets, or interactive features such as quizzes or polls?

Collaboration features

Does the platform provide real-time co-editing, easy access to revision history, and the option to roll back to prior versions?

Customization

Does the platform offer a wide range of customizable themes and options for branding and styling documentation? Is there a thriving plugin ecosystem that expands its functionality and adds capabilities like analytics, search, and sophisticated formatting?

Integration

Does the platform smoothly interact with CI/CD pipelines for automated documentation builds and deployments? Does it include built-in SEO elements and interface with analytics programs like Google Analytics?

Community Support

Is there a significant and active community on the platform that offers help, resources, and contributions through plugins, themes, or tutorials? Is it also open to contributions such as bug reports, feature requests, or documentation improvements?

Below are our top five documentation development tools of 2024.

Hugo

Hugo page screenshot

Hugo is a popular static site generator specifically designed to create websites and documentation lightning-fast. Its minimalist approach, emphasis on speed, and ease of use have made it popular among developers, technical writers, and anybody looking to construct high-quality websites without the complexity of typical CMS platforms.

It has an active community with extensive resources, plugins, and tutorials but requires additional tools for CI/CD integration and SEO.

Key strengths

  • Hugo is well-known for its remarkable rendering speed, making it excellent for creating huge and complex websites. It can produce an entire website in seconds, which is substantially faster than other static site generators and dynamic CMS platforms.

  • Hugo values simplicity and usability. Its user-friendly interface and templating system make it accessible to technical and non-technical users, making website development a smooth and fun experience.

  • Hugo makes extensive use of the Markdown language for content creation. This makes it simple for non-technical users to contribute. It also has an enormous number of theme modification options.

Drawbacks

  • Although using Markdown is easy and fun, it may not be suitable for creating complex design layouts or including multimedia material.

  • Hugo has a wide range of customization options; mastering them requires some technical expertise and work. This can be challenging for people who are new to web development fundamentals.

Companies and organizations benefiting from Hugo

Hugo is a wonderful solution for developers and content creators who place importance on speed, simplicity, and adaptability.

DigitalOcean uses Hugo to provide detailed documentation for its cloud hosting services. Also, Sentry uses Hugo to document its error-tracking platform, providing clear guidance for developers and engineers.

User testimonials

  • Working with @GoHugoIO is such a joy. Having worked with Jekyll in the past, the near-instant preview is a big win! Did not expect this to make such a huge difference. - Heinrich Hartmann

  • Can't overstate how much I enjoy @GoHugoIO. My site is relatively small, but 18 ms to build the whole thing made template development and proofing a breeze. - Joshua Steven

Docusaurus

Docusaurus screenshot

Docusaurus is an open-source static site generator built on React and has emerged as a popular tool for developing and maintaining product documentation. Its ease of use, extensive features, and robust community support make it a compelling choice for many organizations.

Because it’s an open-source tool, it is freely available for use and modification. Users can host their documentation for free on GitHub Pages or other static site hosting platforms.

Key strengths

  • Docusaurus supports various content formats, such as Markdown, MDX, JSX, and HTML, allowing users to build rich and entertaining documentation. This adaptability enables the incorporation of multimedia features, code snippets, and interactive elements.

  • Docusaurus provides significant theme modification possibilities, allowing users to alter the design of the documentation to match their brand identity and provide a unique user experience.

  • Docusaurus supports multi-user editing and version control but lacks real-time co-editing. It also seamlessly integrates with CI/CD pipelines and offers built-in SEO features, but advanced analytics require plugins.

  • Docusaurus offers robust search functionality and well-structured navigation menus, allowing users to quickly locate the information they require within the documentation.

Drawbacks

  • While the fundamentals of Docusaurus are simple to grasp, learning its additional capabilities and customization choices may take more time and effort.

  • Compared to dedicated documentation creation tools, Docusaurus may not be as well-suited for developing highly complicated layouts or combining complex design features.

Companies and organizations benefiting from Docusaurus

Docusaurus is used for documentation by many companies, organizations, and products, including Meta in React and GraphQL, Microsoft in Azure cloud computing platform, Paypal, Shopify, Figma, and others.

User testimonial

  • Been doing a lot of work with @docusaurus lately, and I have to say it is really fun to work with. A lot of really cool features. I love that you can easily reuse content by creating a markdown file and importing it as a component. 🔥 - Debbie O'Brien

  • We've been using Docusaurus for all the Redux org docs sites for the last couple of years, and it's great! We've been able to focus on content, customize some presentations and features, and It jjust works. - Mark Erikson

Docsify

Docsify homepage screenshot

Docsify, a lightweight and dynamic documentation generator built on Vue.js, has gained popularity among developers and organizations for creating and maintaining product documentation. Its simple setup, intuitive interface, drag-and-drop, and other powerful features make it a compelling choice for projects of all sizes.

Docsify is an open-source tool that is freely available for use and modification. Users can host their documentation for free on GitHub Pages or other static site hosting platforms.

Key strengths

  • Docsify dynamically generates content on the fly as the users request, removing the need for static HTML files and increasing efficiency and scalability.

  • Docsify works perfectly with Markdown, a popular lightweight markup language, and Vue.js, a well-known JavaScript framework, making it usable by both technical and non-technical users.

  • Docsify has an impressive feature: an offline mode driven by Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). This feature allows users to access content without an internet connection, making it a useful tool for mobile accessibility, inconsistent networks, and outdoor work.

  • Docsify provides several themes and plugins to allow customers to alter the style and functionality of the documentation to meet their individual needs. They support basic format and version control, but multimedia and interactivity options are short.

  • Docsify offers basic multi-user editing but not real-time co-editing and supports basic CI/CD and SEO integration options. It has a growing community and support compared to other tools.

Drawbacks

  • Handling massive amounts of documentation performance optimization and caching strategies may be required for projects with large content.

  • The foundations of Docsify, like many other documentation tools, can be learned quickly; however, understanding complex customization options and plugin development may take more time and effort.

Companies and organizations benefiting from Docsify

Docsify is used by a broad range of businesses and organizations for their documentation needs. It is used in Microsoft's typescript compiler, Ant Design's documentation, Vite, Element UI, Adobe's Experience Manager Forms, and other applications.

MkDocs

MkDocs homepage screenshot

MkDocs is a popular static site generator designed explicitly for building project documentation. Its minimalist approach, flexibility, and ease of use have made it a favorite among developers and ideal for non-technical users.

MkDocs is a free and open-source program. Some themes and plugins, however, may require a purchase or subscription. Furthermore, delivering documentation on specific hosting systems may involve fees.

It supports Markdown; however, its content formats and version control are limited. Plugins are required for multimedia, interactivity, and collaborative features. It has a smaller but active community that offers assistance and resources.

Key strengths

  • MkDocs generates static HTML files, making it simple to distribute documentation on various platforms, including GitHub pages and other static site hosting services.

  • MkDocs includes a range of themes and significant customization, allowing customers to adjust the documentation design to their individual needs.

  • MkDocs has a dev server that lets you preview your documentation as you write it. When you save your modifications, it will reload and refresh your browser.

Drawbacks

  • While Markdown support is helpful, it may not be appropriate for creating complicated layouts or combining rich multimedia content.

  • Understanding its sophisticated theme options and plugin development will require time and technical skills.

Companies and organizations benefiting from MkDocs

Some well-known companies utilize MkDocs for documentation and to provide clear instructions to their users or engineers. Like Mozilla's Firefox browser extensions, Django employs MkDocs to maintain flexible documentation.

The NumPy and SciPy scientific computing libraries use MkDocs to document their vast APIs and functions, which appeal to scientists and researchers.

Doxygen

Doxygen homepage screenshot

Doxygen is a documentation generator that can generate documentation from annotated C++ source code, but it is also open to projects written in other programming languages like C, Java, IDL, Fortran, Python, and PHP. Doxygen can generate documentation in various forms, such as HTML, XML, LaTeX, and RTF.

Doxygen is a good choice for teams that want to generate documentation from their source code and is a standout choice for groups requiring documentation for multiple programming languages.

Doxygen involves a configuration file(Doxyfile) that stores all its configuration information. You can edit your project config file in a text editor or use doxywizard, a GUI frontend that supports writing, reading, and creating Doxygen configuration files.

It does not encourage collaboration and instead focuses on individual code documentation. Because it is designed for code documentation, it lacks formatting features. It involves a smaller group concentrating on code documentation rather than general documentation support.

Key strengths

  • A unique strength of Doxygen is its ability to generate documentation from annotated source code. This means you can generate documentation for your software by adding comments to your source code.

  • Another great feature of Doxygen is its support for various programming languages. With Doxygen, you can generate documentation for software written in various programming languages, making it a good choice for projects that use multiple programming languages.

  • It is simple to keep upgrading because it is written within the code. Furthermore, it may cross-reference the code and documentation, making referring to the real code easier.

Drawbacks

  • While Doxygen is a powerful tool for generating documentation, improving its search capabilities will provide a more comprehensive and user-friendly experience.

  • Currently, client-side searching in Doxygen is restricted to symbols, limiting the scope of information users can access. This restriction can be particularly challenging when searching for keywords or phrases not directly linked to characters.

  • Additionally, server-side searching in Doxygen occasionally exhibits issues when working locally, hindering the ability to search documentation files effectively. This limitation can be particularly problematic for developers working offline or in environments with limited internet connectivity.

Companies and organizations benefiting from Doxygen

Many companies and organizations use Doxygen, such as Drupal, PointShop3D, Adobe Open Source, and Red Hat. Linux, FreeImage, FreeCoins, and the LLVM (low-level visual machine) compiler infrastructure project are just two open-source projects using Doxygen.

Trends and development

The open-source development tool ecosystem is continuously growing to fulfill the needs of users and developers. The following are some of the most intriguing developments and advancements that are happening right now.

  • Increased focus on developer experience: Tools focus on user-friendly interfaces, streamlined workflows, and seamless connections. To boost developer productivity and pleasure, consider user-friendly code editors, sophisticated build and deployment automation, and robust debugging tools.
  • Growing emphasis on collaborations and communication: Collaboration technologies are essential as geographically spread teams become the norm. Open-source solutions for code review, project management, and real-time communication are in high demand, encouraging greater transparency and collaboration.
  • AI and Machine learning integration: AI and machine learning are revolutionizing open-source tools. Consider code completion, automated testing and optimization, and even AI-powered debugging helpers. Machine learning also impacts the development and deployment processes, allowing for more intelligent resource allocation and optimization.
  • Community-driven Innovation: The open-source community continues to drive tool development. Contributions, partnerships, and feedback cycles drive quick innovation and continuous enhancement of tools, ensuring they remain relevant and meet the changing demands of developers.

Ratings

Here's a comparison of the mentioned documentation tools based on their ratings on various platforms as of the day this post was published:

Docusaurus

  • GitHub Stars: 49.9k
  • StackShare: 210
  • GitHub Forks: 7,700

Hugo

  • GitHub Stars: 70.2k
  • StackShare: 1.2k
  • GitHub Forks: 7.5k

MkDocs

  • GitHub Stars: 17.5k
  • StackShare: 108
  • GitHub Forks: 2.3k

Doxygen

  • GitHub Stars: 5.1k
  • StackShare: 25
  • GitHub Forks: 1.2k

Docsify

  • GitHub Stars: 25.7k
  • StackShare: 34
  • GitHub Forks: 5.7k

While Docusaurus has the most GitHub forks, Hugo has the most GitHub stars and StackShare popularity. MkDocs has a significant presence in the company and product consumption. Doxygen has voice-in-code documentation, and Docsify stands out for its lightweight and offline capabilities.

Docusaurus could be best suited for teams with some technical skills, as it balances usability and complex capabilities. Docsify is best suited for non-technical users who require basic documentation but lack sophisticated capabilities and customization. MkDocs is easy to set up and use for minor tasks but has limited formatting options and collaboration tools. Hugo requires coding skills to be fully functional, yet it provides flexibility to skilled users. Doxygen is not suitable for general documentation; it’s best suited for code documentation.

Conclusion

This post discusses the top five free open-source tools to use and modify, offering enough features and functionality to help you create the documentation you need. Choosing the best isn't a straightforward process, as it will depend on your individual or team's needs and requirements.

Resources


About the author

Software Engineer and Technical Writer

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