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Top 5 Essentials For Good API Documentation

Every time you use a social media application or check the weather updates on your phone, you use an Application Programming Interface (API). We live in a multiplatform economy where APIs act as platform enablers, allowing users to improve and customize the services of existing products. Throughout these years, the term “API” has been used to refer to any communication interface used by an application. On the contrary, the modern API has acquired qualities that make it extremely important and useful. Moreover, good API documentation establishes trust, sets you apart from your competitors, and adds marketing value.


The image is about API Documentation


Why is API documentation important?


All technologies require documentation to thrive. The end-users can’t get the most out of any technology if they don’t have it. Regular content generation and maintenance tools, and text editors, have traditionally been used to document APIs. Modern APIs follow developer-friendly, easily accessible standards (usually HTTP and REST).


They cater to specific audiences (e.g., mobile developers), are documented, and are versioned so that users can assume some maintenance and lifecycle expectations. APIs have become so lucrative that they now account for a significant portion of revenues for many companies. Google, eBay, Amazon, and Expedia are just a handful of the major corporations that profit from their APIs.


The area of API that is likely to see the most growth is API documentation. It’s intriguing to see this trend because documentation has usually been overlooked by developers when releasing software. However, writing good documentation is harder than implementing it, because of its direct impact on its adoption and usage.


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Documentation is the foundation of a good developer’s experience. Even the most functional product in the world will be useless if no one knows how to use it. Documentation is critical when it comes to using your API. It not only improves customer satisfaction but also increases API adoption. Popular open-source description formats, such as OpenAPI Specification, and commercial platforms, such as SwaggerHub, enable us to automate and simplify the documentation process, providing a satisfactory overall API experience.


Good documentation reduces the time spent onboarding new users, whether internal developers or external partners, in addition to increasing API understanding and usage. If you want external organizations or internal developers to engage with the API, you need good documentation.


These documentations are an essential part of the API Management procedure, and good API document policies help with API governance. The three types of documentation are reference, instructional, and conceptual. The reference documentation details the structure, parameters, and return values for each function or method in an API.


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Tutorials demonstrate how to utilize APIs to complete particular tasks or workflows, including understanding how to use endpoints and parameters in each function or method call. Rather than just detailing what each function does, the conceptual documentation explains how to use APIs to construct applications and combine many APIs into a single application.


Here are the five essentials for good documentation, in addition to knowing your audience and remembering the purpose of documentation.


1.     Highlight Tutorials, FAQs, and Examples


Real-world examples shorten the time it takes them to learn about your product while also imparting subject knowledge. Referencing eye-tracking statistics, visual components such as sample code tend to draw the attention of developers by scanning the page rather than by reading it line by line. Most of them are likely to examine the code samples before beginning to read the descriptions provided.


The examples should include a detailed description of how each call request is made and what the call accomplishes. Using the correct instances is sure to improve your API documentation. Create simple project-type tutorials and link to them in your documentation. API tutorials should adhere to the best practices for authoring any form of step-by-step documentation covering specific features that developers can implement using your API, such as SMS notifications and account verification.


Steps should be given clear and simple, as clarity and brevity aid learning and are effective practices in all types of documentation. Consider breaking down a procedure into smaller segments if it’s too complicated. Ascertain that customers may receive the assistance they require without having to go through processes they don’t want to go through. Showcase some of your most innovative users to show developers what’s possible with your API.


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2.     Layout and Navigation


The presentation of the API documentation is just as important as the content. The layout and navigation of your API documents are other essential variables to consider when considering their effectiveness.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution for API documents. There are a few best practices that can help consumers interact with the resources.


Dynamic Layout: When searching for specific subjects in substantial documentation, most examples of API documents employ a dynamic layout because it is easier for users to navigate than static layouts. Starting with a Scalable Dynamic Layout ensures that your documents can expand as per your requirements.


Persistent Navigation: Ensure that the navigation is always displayed. Users don’t want to waste time scrolling in search of a navigation bar that has vanished.


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Syntax Highlighter: Syntax highlighting improves the readability of examples, making the code easier to comprehend.


Single Page Design: If your document isn’t too long, opt for a single-page design that allows users to see the main layout right away. From there, add in the specifics. Readers can also use the browser’s search capabilities when reading long, single-page documents.


Multi-Column Layout: Navigation is on the left, with information and examples on the right, in 2- or 3-column layouts. By placing endpoints and examples in context, they make comprehension easier.


Explore some free and open-source API document generators to experiment with the layout for your documents.


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3.     Universal Topics


Developers will need to understand a few major topics to implement your API. These basic elements are critical for improving your API’s readability and adoption. You can alter them to match your individual needs. The following sections are essential to any API documentation template.


·       Overview:


An overview section aids in quickly expressing what your API is all about. This section might be crucial for establishing the user onboarding process and outlining the API’s key features.


·       Authentication:


An API that requires authentication should include instructions on how to obtain access credentials and how to use keys to make requests. They could also use sample code to demonstrate how API keys function. Authentication (for example, OAuth) is a sophisticated and error-prone process that each type of API handles differently. Since one of the earliest and significant major barriers to API usage is authentication, you must get it right the first time.


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·       Error Handling:


Fixing an issue without adequate documentation can be an arduous and time-consuming task if something goes wrong during development. As error handling is not standardized yet, you’ll need to explain to developers how your API gives error information, why an issue occurs, and how to resolve it.


·       HTTP Requests:


HTTP-related information, such as content types, status codes, and caching, may need to be documented as well.


·       Terms of service:


This part serves as a legal agreement that specifies how users should use your services in the best possible way.


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4.     Editing


Editing is to be done on every piece of writing that you publish. For, articles and other publications, this is common sense, but it’s also essential for technical documentation. The Technical Writers of your API documentation should strive to be clear and concise, ensuring that all-important information is inclusive, the structure is logical, and avoid themes getting diverged with irrelevant materials.


The technical documentation should be proofread by Editors to avoid any grammar faults and identify areas that are difficult to read or understand. They should also double-check the documents for technical documentation against your style guide and make any necessary modifications.


It’s a good idea to present a portion of the documentation to people in your target audience, particularly any developers who haven’t worked on the documentation themselves, once it’s ready to be published. They can spot irregularities and provide information about what’s lacking. Although the editing process can feel arduous when you have so many other parts of your API to focus on, a few iterations can have a significant impact on the final copy.


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5.     Keep-it-up-to-date


Users will become disappointed if they come across features that are no longer available or new ones that lack documentation of the API documents that are out of date. This situation can erode the confidence you built up in the first place by spending so much effort on your documentation. Keep an eye on these details when updating your API documentation.


Your best resource for understanding the most common use cases for your API is analytics by tracking which endpoints are being accessed by API users to ensure that the most critical portions of your documentation are prioritized and built out. Instead of assuming that your customers already know what they want, research what they want and create user-centric materials.


Remove deprecated features in the documentation and explain why they were deprecated. Before launching new features, make sure you document them and allow enough time for the new content to go through the editorial process. You can also change the API document’s version to reflect the new functionality.


Your documents should reflect any useful feedback you receive from support or analytics. You won’t be able to make your documents perfect on the first try, but you can always improve them based on user input. To solve these difficulties, your team will need to rely on solutions that may streamline operations and save time, alongside checking for dependencies that cause your team to lag.


Avoid lowering the quality of your documentation by working with the OpenAPI specification. Technologies like ServiceV Pro and VirtServer make it simple to turn your API design into a virtual service that can be shared across several teams. The virtual service allows your documentation, development, and testing teams to collaborate in real-time. Make documentation updates a part of your deployment process, and take them just as seriously as the launch.


Examples of good API documentation


What’s your narrative, and what part does API play? Marvel, for example, has public API documentation that allows developers to query the comic book giant. “Create Awesome Stuff using the World’s Greatest Comic API” is what the portal says as soon as someone enters the portal.


Although your APIs may not rely on superpowers, there is almost certainly a narrative out there that speaks to your capabilities and entices developers to use your API. The Medium API documents, for example, don’t necessarily follow all of the standards we’ve stated but are ideal for the limited functionality this API offers – posting and looking for Medium publications.


Their documentation on GitHub contains a short but clear text with a lot of examples. Each finishing with a transcript of all the parameters mentioned in the code. It’s astonishingly basic, but it’s dependable: any recommendations can be made directly on GitHub, and the documentation is updated regularly.


Although Spotify’s web API document is very standard, a wealth of supplementary information on the company is available on the Spotify for Developers platform. Basic function demos, mock apps, live examples created using Spotify APIs and widgets, wrappers for various programming languages, and, of course, the console are all available.


The console is essentially an interactive page where you may enter (or sample) data and investigate endpoints in real-time. Spotify is a dependable partner that developers enjoy working with because of its powerful products and extensive knowledge base.


Twilio is also known for its excellent documentation. Although the documentation is just the tip of the iceberg, Twilio also provides SDKs (Software Development Kits) in different languages as well as sample apps for iOS, Android, and the web.


First and foremost, they use three-column logic, with the code located directly to the right side of the guide. Even the most basic activities are thoroughly explained, with numerous connections to other resources and screenshots. A “Rate this page” button, as well as links to the support team and a StackOverflow tag, encourage users to provide feedback.


Final Thoughts


APIs are what drive the technological world forward. In the API market, having an excellent developer’s experience is crucial. APIs that help developers succeed and are enjoyable to use will attract users and help them outperform the competition.


It all begins when they first open the documentation. Technical writers are usually assigned to this task, but quality documentation can be maintained even if you don’t have one on staff. API management solutions like Swagger UI, Spotlight, document specification tools, offer various features to help you create developer-friendly documentation.


It’s not easy to learn how to write an API document. It takes a lot of time and effort to make quality API reference documents. The goal of API documentation is to improve the user experience. As a result, developing a great API is critical for all technologies to succeed. If you can put adequate time and effort, you can create good documentation that will help your APIs develop and easier to adapt in real-time.

  • small correction in the “Final thought” section. In API management solutions, tool is Stoplight not spotlight.

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