Documentation best practices (dashboards and notebooks)

Allie Cliffe
  • Updated

Learn how to make your work on Terra understandable and reproducible - for yourself, your team, and others - with clear and complete documentation. Read on for best practice guidelines to help improve documentation in workspace dashboards and in notebooks. 

Workspace dashboard documentation best practices

Workspace documentation is written in GitHub-flavored Markdown, with a handful of exceptions (currently, the emoji shortcut and linking by id within the page are not allowed in Terra). You can edit the dashboard by clicking the pencil icon at the top of the Dashboard tab. 

Why good documentation matters

Your Workspace Dashboard should include - or clearly reference - any information needed to reproduce the analysis. This makes it easier for your colleagues and even yourself (e.g., if you return to the workspace after some time). 

Must-have Dashboard components

At a minimum, tutorial, and template Workspace Dashboards should include the components below, set apart with h1 or h2 headings in Markdown (i.e., # or ##). 

Make sure to follow Markdown best practicesTo make sure your Dashboard, as well as the Workspace card (in Your Workspaces or Featured Workspaces pages), renders correctly, see the Markdown Best Practices

Heading Best Practices
Markdown applications don’t agree on how to handle a missing space between the number signs (#) and the heading name. For compatibility, always put a space between the number signs and the heading name.

Paragraph Best Practices
To create paragraphs, use a blank line to separate one or more lines of text. You can use two or more spaces (commonly referred to as “trailing whitespace”) for line breaks in nearly every Markdown application, but it’s controversial. It’s hard to see trailing whitespace in an editor, and many people accidentally or intentionally put two spaces after every sentence. For this reason, you may want to use something other than trailing whitespace for line breaks. If your Markdown application supports HTML, you can use the <br> HTML tag.

For compatibility, use trailing white space or the <br> HTML tag at the end of the line. Unless the paragraph is in a list, don’t indent paragraphs with spaces or tabs.

1. Overview paragraph

The first paragraph should include a short, descriptive summary. The first paragraph (or the first five lines of a long paragraph) will be displayed on the workspace card with no Markdown. 


Do not include graphics, lists of author names, or other information before the intro paragraph. 

2. Workspace purpose (i.e.,"What am I going to be doing?")

This should be brief and at the top (could be part of the overview). 

3. Workspace expectations

  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What tools will I be using?
  • What is the expected outcome?

(include as sections - i.e., #, ## in Markdown)

4. Separate step-by-step instructions

Your work may require users to follow a detailed set of instructions, but dashboards that include step-by-step instructions (with screenshots) can be hard to process. Instead of making readers scroll through endless instructions, write separate instructions (in PDF or external online format such as GitBook or Zendesk) and Include links to those separate instructions in the dashboard.

Example of separate step-by-step instructions (Zendesk article or pdf)

Overall dashboard recommendations

Dashboards have somewhat limited formatting options, since security considerations require a version of Markdown that doesn't support Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or anchor tags (e.g., useful for making a table of contents). To capture the information you want while making it easier for people to quickly find what they need, take advantage of these suggestions.

1. Limit dashboard to high-level content

Keep dashboard documentation to a minimum.  A clear dashboard with adequate space in between headers and grouping of relevant blocks is a more effective way to communicate study goals and methods. Use links to reference more information, when needed.

Click here for an example dashboard.

Example dashboard screenshot

Screen Shot 2022-03-11 at 11.47.05 AM.png

2. Offload details like step-by-step instructions or configurations

For step-by-step instructions, link to a support (for User-Ed/Comms) or GitBook article, or a PDF. For an example of step-by-step instructions to go along with a workspace, see Workflows Quickstart 1 or this Workflows worksheet of step-by-step instructions. Make it very clear in the dashboard how to access these resources!

3. Use whitespace (not horizontal lines) to group information in sections

Markdown puts the same amount of space between every item, which means a lot of scrolling without a lot of breaks. Horizontal lines ("-------" in Markdown) make for a cluttered dashboard that is hard to read.

To add whitespace, use html (<br>).  

Example whitespace in the dashboard


Note the additional whitespace before each section header.

Example Markdown code to add whitespace


4. Use visuals

Graphic elements can help visual learners and break up a long dashboard description. You can use the graphic assets here to generate your own. Note: If you are embedding images using Markdown (instead of HTML, below) you may need to scale images to fit nicely in the dashboard, as Markdown puts the image in full size, whatever size that is.

Example visual (workspace flow diagram)


Example code to add visuals

To add a visual of an image, click the picture icon in the dashboard edit menu. The image must be stored online (in a public Google bucket, for example) for it to be viewable. Once you click the icon, it will display the following:

 ![your-image-title - i.e. the "alt" tag](https://your-image-full-file-name) 

Within the brackets, put the image title, and in the parentheses, put the location.

Or use HTML (see more on this below):

<img alt="A Warm Hello!" title="Hello, World!" src="" width="64">

Supported HTML tags in dashboard documentation

To make your dashboard easier to read, you can also use some embedded HTML tags. Note that although custom scripting and styling (i.e., CSS code, and alt tags) are not allowed, most HTML is.

Some HTML in Terra Dashboard examples

This is only a subset of what you can do with HTML tags! For a full list of the HTML allowed in GitHub Markdown (the kind used in Terra Dashboards), see their documentation.

Embedding an image

<img alt="A Warm Hello!" title="Hello, World!" src="" width="64">: 
A Warm Hello!

Opening a link in a new browser tab

<a href="https://somewhere" target="_blank">link text</a>

Superscript and subscript


Notebooks documentation Best Practices

Combining documentation and code, notebooks are a wonderful tool to make your analysis more understandable, shareable, and reproducible - for yourself, your colleagues, and others. To make the most of the documentation tools in a notebook, follow the Best Practices suggestions below.

1. Use collapsible headings to streamline information

Collapsible headings are exactly what they sound like: sub-section Markdown cells nested under a heading. To use collapsible headings, click on the downward-facing gray arrow at the left of the Markdown cell to collapse the sections under that heading. The saved Notebook will save these states.

You can use collapsible headings to hide optional information. For example, see the screenshots by expanding the collapsed section below:

Collapsed tip


Expanded tip


Be careful when collapsing sections that include code cellsIf you collapse a section that includes code cells, the code cells will be hidden and will not run until you expand the section. For this reason, you may need to be careful when nesting your sections to make sure the code isn't collapsed.

Check the following example

This collapsed section includes code that won't run unless you first expand the section.


Note: The section automatically expands if you run the top Markdown cell (the one in the screenshot above). This means that if you use the "Run all" commands, the hidden cells will run:

2. Include a documentation reference key

Format consistently and include a reference key to help users navigate your notebook. Using consistent formatting for code, additional information, tips, etc. will help your notebooks work well together, and make it easier to maintain good documentation across all work.

Example documentation reference key


3. Document with code cell comments

Best Practices is to include comments directly in the code cell (use "# comment here" formatting) written in plain language to describe what the code in the cell does.

Example code comments


4. Use codefolding to hide long code blocks

Not everyone running your notebook will need to know the coding details of each cell. What's a beautiful thing about a well-documented notebook? Anyone can go through the analysis and understand the results without having to know how to program. To focus on results without getting bogged down in coding details, use codefolding to hide the full commands.  People who want to know the exact syntax can easily unfold the code. To use codefolding, click on the downward-facing gray arrow at the left of the code cell to fold the code. Saving the notebook will save the state of your folded cells.    

Folded version


Unfolded version


Best practices example

For an example of a workspace that follows these Best Practices (in notebooks as well as in dashboard documentation!), check out the Intro to Terra (Azure ) Quickstart.

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