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7 Best Practices when Writing API Documentation

As far an Application Programming Interface or APIis concerned, people seem to think that code is the only element that rules. While it is true that what distinguishes one API product from another is its unique makeup of code—namely, what allows two software applications to communicate with each other—clean, crisp, and functional code isn’t the only marker of a good API. In numerous cases, what can make or break the rate of API adoption is the quality of the API documentation,or the technical deliverable that contains all references for how to use the API.

Of course, anyone can see the innate value of having a blueprint containing the API’s detailed information. When you buy any product, digital or otherwise, you’ll want the assurance that everything you need to know is in the manual. But just how big a difference does API documentation make in increasing rates of adoption? As this feature can attest, a big difference can be seen if the API documentation can accomplish two goals: (1) to demonstrate clear working knowledge of how the API works, and (2) to argue the value of integrating with the API.

Potential users consider API only as good as its documentation—and that’s why it’s worth putting extra efforts into your docs. Brainstorm your documentation process with a designated member of your IT team, and apply the following “best practices” for writing your docs – consider using this API documentation guide for more information.

  1. Determine the scope of your API documentation, and remember who you’re crafting the docs for. Prepare to write out the basic sections that will take your readers through authentication, error messages, resources, and terms of use. Resolve to cover these aspects as thoroughly as you can, as they’ll work in the service of both the API’s users (i.e. the front and back-end developers) and the decision makers who’ll advocate for its adoption (i.e. evaluating tech officers and product managers).

  2. Start with a tutorial. As it is with a product that comes out of the box, your API’s users will want you to open with a “Getting Started” section. Use this section as the hook of your docs, walking the users through the unique fixtures on your API and arguing for their adoption.
  3. Walk developers through your API’s most common use cases, then guide them through more possibilities. What other opportunities in the API’s documentation do you have to sway developers to your side?  Your proof should come in the detailing of your API’s most common use cases, as well as others that could apply to your potential adopter.
  4. Help developers visualize by providing sample code and instructions. Whoever comes across your API would want a means to test it out in a relevant scenario. As such, it would be good to find a documentation medium that can demonstrate basic usage of the API—and that can be enacted in the simple downloading  of the code, replacing the API’s key, and running it to see if it works.

  5. Include perspectives from multiple industries. API docs are also a great avenue to show how wide-reaching the API is in terms of industry application. Integrate perspectives from fields like marketing, engineering, tech support, and the like. This may catch the interest of a point person in the API’s acquisition, like a product manager, and see them aligning the use of the API with their future operations.

  6. Write it out in language that is simple and easy to understand. The team behind your API’s documentation might be tempted to get very technical—after all, these are details about code. But it’s actually in your best interest to keep the instructions as free from unnecessary jargon as possible; remember that the primary users of your docs are humans and not computers.
  7. Seek constant improvement. Things in the digital world can go stale pretty fast—make sure that maintenance of your API and its documentation aren’t among those casualties. Be conscientious about updating sections when changes have been made, incorporate automation of processes where it’s appropriate, and make the best use of your documentation platform. This is the best approach in countering obsoleteness, and keeping the use of your API fresh and exciting to your users.

API documentation may require a lot of work, but finishing the task nowadays is less trouble than it used to be. With several specialized API documentation tools out there, it’s possible to lay out all the particulars in a way that’s fast, reliable, and open to everyone in need of it. If that gets you looking forward to the process, then get to it today.