API stands for Application Programming Interface. This is a set of functions and procedures that permit the creation of applications employing the features or information from an operating system or any other interface. Majorly used to build application software, API presents a set of clearly specified methods of communication between various interacting components.
Let us now move on to what an API documentation is all about.
Also known as Programmers’ Documentation, API Documentation is a technical document that is penned by a technical writer and has instructions about how best a particular software, hardware or website can be used.
The Ten Commandments of a Good API Documentation
Everything that concerns the way in which you can implement your API becomes a part of the repository called the API Documentation. This is a technical material that has a strong influence on the “developer experience”. Since, it is all about describing the benefits of your application programming software, it is this documentation that will either make or mar your product.
Following are the 10 most important facets that should be taken into consideration to churn out an effective API Documentation Manual.
1. Identify your target audience
First and foremost, it is very important for you to know about the target audience that will benefit by this document. It is only after you have identified your audience pool that you will be in a better position to support their requirements. You will be able to fine-tune your document accordingly, on the parameters concerning design, language and structure of your technical documents. Hence, it is a significant step to know beforehand, as to who will be referring to your API documentation and why.
Here are the different users of your API Documentation:
It takes all sorts of developers with different proficiency levels to make a diverse pool of software developers. Putting aside their technical expertise with a particular coding language, there will be developers linked to various roles in companies. This diversity in knowledge and responsibilities will bring to the fore the concept of using your API documentation in multiple ways.
Many software companies are attracted to fresh talent. Software enterprises employing newcomers and freshers will benefit a great deal if their API documentation comes with a host of quick-start guides. These manuals will handhold amateurs to understand a topic in the most lucid manner. Concise step-by-step training modules can come as add-ons to important topics that will be referred to by these newbies. API documentation which includes sample codes and examples can be helpful to newcomers when they will understand how this information can be applied to live projects.
iii) Internal Software Development Team
It is very important for API providers to meet the requirements of their internal software development team. This is the team of software professionals that will refer to your API document at regular intervals.
iv) External Developers
In addition to only your company developers that refer to your API documentation, there are many instances when external developers will need support from your manuals which become their technical reference material. It is through your API manual that they will be able to gain a quick idea on the multiple functionalities that your software offers. If your API is well structured, it will become an easy-to-find-and-implement manual for live projects of external developers.
v) Testers and Debuggers
Software testers and debuggers can also make the most of your well-documented API. Time and again, they will encounter errors and it is during such instances that your API will help them wriggle out of the troubled situation with a feasible solution.
vi) The Influential Class
Every organization has decision makers in the form of CTOs and Product Managers. These are the influential people who are ordained to rate your API; whether it can benefit their project or not. Hence it is very crucial that your API meets the strategic needs of these bigwigs holding C-level designations in software development companies.
2. Keep in Mind the Purpose of Documentation
What is the main aim of your API documentation? This is an introspective question that should be answered by API developers so as to come up with a clear description of every call and parameter.
Hence your API document should clarify:
a) The purpose of every call that your API is subjected to
b) Explain in detail each and every parameter along with the long list of possible values that can be assigned to them. Here, you should also lay emphasis on the various types of parameters, their rules of application and their formats. Last but not the least, your API documentation should clearly indicate why a particular variable is essential and whether it is actually essential or not.
To meet the above mentioned requirements, it is very important to document your API with a contextual reference to every piece of information. You should keep in mind that readers would not refer to your API document in a chronological sequence. It is only when you author your API according to a contextual reference that you will be able to take into account every bit of information that will explain each and every call.
3. Inclusion of Real-World Examples
A picture is worth a thousand words. In line with this famous maxim, if you attach a description to your API content in the form of real-world examples, this method will help readers get acclimatized to your product in a short span of time. Along with this, your example-driven API documentation will also provide a means to the readers to assimilate domain knowledge.
Hence, an API document which describes every call should involve:
a) An example of how a call should be performed
b) A detailed explanation about the request
c) Sample responses that will clearly explain the outcome of a call
4. Error Messages – A Guiding Light to Troubled Situations
Developers who cannot lay hands on detailed error-rectification information will have a tough time fixing problems within the software. It is for this reason that your API manual should include error messages as part of the content. These error messages come in as a guiding light when they can simplify and reduce the time taken to rectify a software bug.
These error messages come handy in explaining:
a) What the issue is;
b) Whether the error is linked to the code or is it emerging from the use of the API instructions;
c) What should be done to fix the issue
A comprehensive error message list is one that includes every possible error along with a listing of edge cases; supported by error codes. Going further, it is important that an error message highlights all the information that is linked to a specific call along with a detailed description of common errors that arise out of HTTP or authentication requests. Lastly, a good API document should also enlist all the other faulty situations that are not influenced by the API; for e.g. “unknown server error” or the “request timeout” situation.
5. A Ready-to-Use Manual for Newbies
More often than not, it is the newcomers that employ your API face certain hurdles as they are still at the lowest ebb of their steep learning curve. Newbies take time to acclimatize themselves with the structure of your API. They do not gain domain knowledge immediately and often miss out on the fundamental ideas behind your API document. To sum it all, the group of fresh talent in an organization finds it difficult to make the first beginning with your API. Hence, it is important for API developers to simplify the learning process of these newcomers by chalking out a quick start guide that will handhold them at all stages of application software development.
Your quick start API guide should be simple and concise, enlisting a minimum number of steps that need to be followed to complete a task. API developers should hence strive to include all the pertinent information concerning domain-specifics along with a detailed introduction about domain-related scenarios. Going by the fact that a newcomer does not have any prior experience with your API, this notion will assist newcomers get accustomed to your organization’s technical document.
6. Step-by-Step Tutorials
If you are an API developer ordained to author a step-by-step API tutorial, you should keep your writing style in line with all the best practices of authoring technical documents. While you should strive to provide every bit of useful information to readers, you should also abstain from quoting unnecessary content. This way, you will able to help developers to focus on the topic at hand without bombarding them with redundant stuff.
The best practices of authoring technical documents include the description of steps in an easy and concise manner. Clarity breeds mastery. Going by this maxim, if your API document is clear and easy to understand, you will be in a position to master the information that is included in the manual. It is also best to avoid jargon while laying emphasis on writing simple statements; as much as possible.
Speaking of the one-step-at-a-time learning process, it is of significance to break down a huge task into smaller chunks. This will help developers refer to your API at every step, while they are inching towards the final product. They will be able to move on to the next step with the successful completion of the preceding phase without any effort.
7. The Addition of Universal Topics
The successful implementation of an API calls for the inclusion of bigger and universal topics that the developers should be informed about.
a) Error Handling and Fixing: – Since there are no error handling standards, it is best that you speak about the manner in which your API passes back error information. Your document should also clearly indicate the reason behind an error and the corrective measures that need to be taken to fix it.
b) HTTP Requests: – It is a best practice to speak about HTTP-related information, focusing on status codes, caching and content types; as part of your API manual.
c) Authentication Issues: – It is important to note that every API handles authentication differently. Tagged as a process which leads to multiple errors, authentication is complicated too. Hence, it is the need of the hour to explain the procedure to get credentials. Your API should also delve into the details as to how these credentials reach the server. Last but not the least, you as an API developer should clearly explain the interaction between the API keys and the sample code through your descriptive narrations.
A simple yet effective means would be to allocate a separate section which explains all these topics and then link it to every API call. This method can do the trick of letting the developers know the discreteness of every API call.
8. Different Layout and Navigation Options
You will agree with the fact that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for all API documents concerning layout and navigation. These are the characteristics linked to the User Experience. Nevertheless, you can include certain best practices that can engage API readers better through navigation and designing.
a) The Benefits of a Dynamic Layout
Many of the best API documents predominantly employ a dynamic layout. It is for the simple reason that a dynamic layout is easier to navigate. This design helps users to zero in on a topic of their interest while they are browsing through the exhaustive material. Hence it is best to employ a scalable dynamic layout with a provision to expand your documents as and when required.
b) Tread the “Single Page Design” Path
It is an easy job to come up with a single page design for an API that is not lengthy. This design will help readers get the hang of the content at first sight. Additionally, you can incorporate this design to present elaborate single page documents which can be viewed through the search option available on your browser.
c) An Omnipresent Navigation Bar
It is equally important to ensure that readers find the navigation bar at all times. They should not be left looking for a missing bar by compelling them to scroll down to the end of the page.
d) A Multi-Column Presentation
You can follow a double or triple column layout with a navigation option to the left. You can present the information and examples to the right. If this layout is adhered to, you will be presenting an easy-to-understand manual through the representation of endpoints and examples which are related to the topic.
e) Let Your Syntax Attract the Attention of Readers
All in an attempt to enhance the readability of your API samples, you can highlight the syntax so that you can draw the attention of your readers to the code. This way, your readers will find it easier to understand the code.
9. Edit and Proof Read Your API Document
It goes without saying that every bit of published information should go through a stringent editing process. More so, since this is a technical manual which will be read and implemented by many user groups, you should edit your document so as to present a clear and concise technical repository.
Proofreading helps to reveal grammatical errors and those sections that rank low on understandability. The document should be checked against the style guide that comes with technical documentation and should be vetted by the target audience.
It is best to present this manual to a group of developers who were not involved in the API documentation development. This group will look at your manual in a different light and will help you rectify inconsistencies that did not come up when you reviewed your manual.
10. Present the Latest Information
The last commandment to be followed is a consistent effort to keep your API up-to-date. While you should discard outdated features, it is your prime responsibility as an API developer to include a detailed documentation to new and emerging features. Lastly, it is a novel move to include feedback in your documents; the nuances that you get from your support and analytics team. By doing this, you will be able to lend an ear to what the users need while treading the path of continuous improvisations.
Closing Thoughts: –
All for the sake of releasing an easy-to-understand-and-implement technical manual, it is essential that you work towards building a workflow for your documentation. This flow of information will lay a strong foundation of delivering a concise and precise document that will benefit different user groups.