7 Essential Elements Needed to Make API Documentation Work

7 Essential Elements Needed to Make API Documentation Work

It’s been often said that the true indicator of an API’s worth lies in the quality of its documentation. API docs have been credited with improving an API’s market value, granting the API company a competitive edge, and increasing client trust in the product. It’s no wonder that this once-neglected aspect of API development is coming onto its own, and both open-source and proprietary API documentation tools are upscaling.

But when can one consider their API’s docs to be of great caliber? At what point will it be evident that the API docs are functional, appealing, and—above all—sure to add value to the API product? If you’re in charge of writing hosted API documentation for your company’s API product, then be sure to keep these things in mind. Paying close attention to these elements will put you on the right track to creating API docs that work.

The API Documentation Must Be Comprehensive

The very first thing that a set of API docs will be judged for is its completeness. Whichever form it takes, the documentation should contain a full list of the API’s calls, endpoints, parameters, and error messages. The target user should be able to examine the API docs and get the sense that all the ground has been covered.

The API Documentation Must Be Written Well Enough for Its Audience 

A good reference document for any product will make the reader feel as if they understood the product better. The same definitely applies for API documentation, and those writing API docs have the added challenge of addressing a composite audience. The audience may include not only developers, but also debuggers, decision-makers for client companies (product managers, CTOs, and the like), and API support staff.  However, once your API team strikes the right balance between the words, numbers, and symbols in the docs, you’ll have leveled them up significantly.

The API Documentation Must Be Properly Divided into Sections 

The ideal API docs should also consist of several sections. Among these are quick start guides, tutorials, universal topics, context-based examples, and code samples. Though some users of the API documentation will read it from top to bottom, it’s more common that they’ll browse it by section. Make sure that it’s easy for them to find, verify, and test out what they are looking for at any given time.

The API Documentation Must Be Laid out Properly

Great API docs follow a dynamic and modern layout. Anything that looks too outdated may give the users a bad impression of the API. Have some smart layouting strategies in order, such as multi-columned sections that mirror endpoints with in-context examples.

The API Documentation Should Be Easy to Use

Your API docs are successful if your user can intuit how to use them and navigate them without any trouble. Some things that users look for in API docs are copy-pastability, compatibility for different programming languages, and navigability. Consider adding features like a language selector and a sticky menu that helps users navigate from section to section. 

The API Documentation Should Be Up to Date

The docs should always contain the details on the API’s versions, new or upgraded features, and removed features. This is what demonstrates to users that the docs are neither obsolete nor inaccurate. Luckily, there are a number of software tools that quicken API versioning, and version-related updates are just as simple to add to the API docs.

The API Documentation Should Provide Something Extra

One things that can add value to your API docs, and to the API itself, is the presence of something extra. A popular example is the copy-pastable “code recipe” or code sample. The docs can include such samples, related to real-life situations involving your API, that developers can test and customize for themselves. The better the range of examples—and the more relevant those examples are to would-be users—the more appealing your API will be to them. This is just one instance in which an added perk in the API docs could increase the marketability of the API.

If your current set of API docs meets these conditions, then your API has great chances of being adopted. Don’t underestimate the power of API documentation to boost the overall value and performance of the product.

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