Many giants in the computing world like Amazon, Github, Google, Twitter and Netflix use REST(ful) APIs, which allows users to write and read data. REST is an extremely compatible and flexible platform especially because it plays well with HTTP which is the primary protocol for the internet. It provides developers with a great deal of freedom to use various design best practices. While using REST(ful) APIs is great, what is equally important is documentation. In this article, we will examine REST API documentation best practices.
Plan the Documentation Ahead of Time
When planning an API, a big part of it is knowing how to maintain its documentation. It is an area you shouldn’t overlook as it has been proven by many businesses to be the crux of its usability. Though documentation may come across as an easy task, the fact is that it is a challenge for most companies and maintaining it as the API evolves is an even bigger chore.
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Documentation is a huge factor when it comes to determining if your API will be successful. After all, people need to understand how to use it before implementing it. It is overly complex and unwelcoming most people will rather not bother with it.
Consistent in Its Appearance
The big challenge isn’t only that your documentation should be consistent in the way it looks, but also in the way it functions and syncs with all the latest updates to the API. Ideally, the documentation needs to be written by developers and usually by a team that’s experienced in this type of documentation. There are many third-party documentation solutions which use CMSs based on opensource systems like Drupal and WordPress. Though expensive documentation solutions will help to ensure consistency in appearance, it’s much harder to maintain. It requires a manual effort on behalf of the developer or the team to keep it updated.
The expansion of open source specs like RAML and communities that surround them has made documentation a tad bit easier. So instead of having to parse code comments and use inline decryptions written by developers, the team is still capable of providing descriptive documentation in API specs. Also, the increasing use of API documentation software and its evolution have led SaaS businesses to continue expanding and utilize these specs to create useful portals and documentation that’s less expensive to maintain.
How to Write Excellent API Documentation?
In our years of experience, the one thing that we’ve figured is that good API documentation needs to work as both an educator and referencing material. It should allow developers to quickly look up information they need while also understanding how everything works.
Proper API documentation needs to be clear and concise yet visually appealing while ensuring the following:
- It needs to clearly explain what the resource/method is capable of doing
- Have a list of call-outs to share all relevant information with the developers including errors and warnings
- A complete list of all the parameters used in this method/resource, their types, special formatting guidelines, etc.
- Sample Call with some correlating media type of body
- A sample response
- Instances of code in the most popular languages like PHP, Curl, .net, Java, Ruby, etc.
- Instances of SDK if you provide an SDK to show how resources or methods can be accessed using the SDK
- An interactive experience to test or try the API calls, e. API Notebook and API Console
- FAQs with example code
- Comments section where users can share and discuss their code
- Other resources for support like contact forms, forums, etc.
- Links to your blog and other forms of documentation
Designing and developing an API is a complicated process but so is implementing an API. It is your job as the development company to make sure that the documentation is easy to understand for any level of developer. Granted that complex ideas are hard to explain but using examples are an excellent way of getting ideas across. Plus, by planning your documentation ahead of time and outlining a process for updating it, it is possible to save a great deal of time and effort in the long term.
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