When it comes to developing your programs and applications, one of the most powerful tools at your disposal is the API (Application Programming Interface). An API is essentially a piece of software that allows two distinct applications to communicate and exchange information with each other.
By building an API, as well as basing it off of other publically-released API from other developers, you can easily create your program without having to code it from scratch. It is, in a nutshell, the “building block” of any program or application.
What is the documentation for?
With that said, an API must have thorough documentation to be able to take full advantage of it. This documentation teaches users and other developers all about the API—how to use it, what its function is, and how to integrate it with another program. Without it, an API is essentially just lines of indecipherable code that’s useless to everyone except the author.
This is the same with REST APIs, the specific type of API that uses HTTP requests to obtain, create, and delete data. REST APIs are usually utilized for web-related applications.
The unfortunate reality is that writing good API documentation is a challenging prospect, one that takes up a lot of time and resources. This is because API documentation needs to explain all the ins and outs of an API. The complexity of API documentation depends on how extensive the API features are.
Moreover, API documentation also requires adherence to certain best practices to be effective. To assist you in this regard, both as a user and a developer, here is a list of the five best practices you can utilize when creating API documentation, specifically of the REST variety.
Ensure that your REST API documentation has a reliable host
With how complicated APIs can be at times, you can be sure that your users will be heavily relying on hosted API documentation to learn how to utilize and implement them effectively into their projects. Therefore, you should take care to make your own API’s documentation as accessible as possible by picking a reliable API documentation hosting service. This ensures that your documentation is always available for reference at all times.
Be consistent with standard terminology and naming conventions
One of the best practices when it comes to designing and coding APIs is to be consistent with universally-accepted terminologies and naming conventions. While you are certainly free to dictate whatever goes in your code, being too creative with verbs, item names, status codes, and so on will inevitably create a lot of confusion. This is especially true for those reading your documentation, as you will have to keep explaining your new terminologies and verbs rather than simply having to explain them once or even not at all.
Knowing this, it’s best to stick to well-established conventions. A 404 code, for example, should always mean ‘Not Found’. The HTTP verb ‘POST’ should always be used to create. Adhering to such conventions not only makes your REST API that much easier to understand and use, but also makes it easier for you to create compelling documentation.
Write your document with user experience in mind
Another best practice to keep in mind when writing API documentation is to do so with the user’s convenience in mind. This means that you should structure your document in a logical manner that is built around the purpose of your API and how it’s used.
For example, if your API is involved in payment processing, a user would then be normally drawn to the following subjects: refunds, credit cards, payment methods, charges, chargebacks, and so on. By writing your API documentation in such a way that these subjects are grouped and categorized together, you make it easier to comprehend and understand.
Always provide useful examples and sample code
Finally, you should always seek to include useful and easy-to-use examples and sample code in your API documentation. This allows users of every experience and knowledge level to gain more understanding of your API’s potential in a practical manner.
Providing examples also give developers an easy point of reference from which they can build their code on. Either way, you’ll be inspiring more people to use your REST API, something that great API documentation should be able to do as a baseline.
The good API documentation is crucial to an API’s success and usability
Writing API documentation may seem like a relatively unimportant chore when compared to other critical tasks, such as coding and bug-hunting. However, that doesn’t mean it should be neglected. The API documentation is critical in teaching users and developers on how to use the API in question, as well as how to integrate it in projects. Keep the above best practices in mind, and you’ll have a much easier time writing effective, interactive, and beginner-friendly documentation.