By now, it’s no secret how much API documentation matters to the overall API development process. Given that an API lacks a very visual interface, it’s the API’s docs that serve that purpose.
They shouldn’t be treated as mere user manuals for the product they accompany. They’re a chance for the doc’s consumers to engage with the API and get a working idea of how it will behave.
That said, the process of creating API documentation is rarely a snooze. Those who want to release excellent docs have to overcome particular challenges first. Here’s a list of the six most common challenges in API documentation—plus some tips on how you can face them head-on as a developer.
1. Realizing Just How Important API Docs Are
This may seem like common knowledge, but the fact is that some developers still don’t give enough focus to API documentation. Perhaps it’s because they don’t see it as integral to the API development process in the same way that preliminary coding is.
But all the hard work spent on API design will be for naught if the docs don’t wholly reflect what the API can do.
So before anything, condition yourself to think of API docs as a priority—never an afterthought. This is the mindset that will drive the creation of great docs and, consequently, faster API adoption.
2. Adapting to New API Documentation Technologies
Current API technologies allow you to do so much more with your documentation than making a simple PDF. But that also means you have a bit of a learning curve to adjust to.
At first, you may encounter difficulty while integrating multiple web services and while handling the different programming languages used for designing APIs.
Creating hosted API documentation and using a flexible, thorough documentation toolset may be the answer to this. For sure, doing these will make the learning curve a little less steep.
3. Being Precise, Yet Thorough about the Workings of the API
Making your API’s documentation will be a constant balancing act on your part. On the one hand, you’ll want to be extensive in your coverage of the API. You’ll want to cover all the details, from the endpoint to endpoint. But on the other hand, you could turn off potential users of the docs if they get nothing but information overload.
Addressing this challenge will take collaboration, feedback, and constant editing from the API’s team. You’ll need to do this in tandem with your fellow developers, as well as the product’s technical writers. Your combined efforts will lead to streamlined documentation—the type that future doc users will appreciate.
4. Establishing a Readable, Navigable Flow for the API Docs
Another essential quality your docs need to have is good flow. They should be organized and easy for the doc users to navigate. But often, developers struggle to achieve this optimal flow for their docs.
That’s why it’s important to section your docs in a way that’s intuitive to the users. It shouldn’t be hard for them to move from section to section, and to find what they want without reading from top to bottom.
Partition the info according to API calls, requests, error messages, and the like. That should help your users in resolving any issues that come up when they’re using your API.
5. Keeping the API Docs Up to Date
API design is demanding work. Developers always have to move quickly, and they can implement a lot of changes at any given time. But they should always take the time to put these changes into writing.
Every critical update to the API should be easily trackable by the doc’s users. Otherwise, this may affect feature development on future versions, as well as clients’ trust in the API.
The solution is to be very conscientious about the API’s updates. Make it second nature to chronicle them in the API docs.
6. Appealing to Would-Be Adopters of the API
The last challenge to overcome is tailoring the docs to the target users of the API. Like any marketing tool, the API docs should be more than generic. There should be something in them that calls out to your dream API adopters.
There are several ways that you can spruce up your docs for your intended users. You can include sample code from the API that outside developers can try out for themselves.
You can link to a support forum that the API client’s IT specialists will find useful. What’s important is to acknowledge these doc users as part of your API’s journey.
Master these six challenges in the documentation, and you’ll be regarded as an ace in your API’s development. Here’s to launching superb API documentation along with a topnotch API product.