The Importance of API Documentation and Why You Need It

APIs govern our everyday habits in ways that we rarely even think about anymore. An action as simple as sending an instant message, uploading a photo to social media, or checking the weather forecast on our smartphone involves tapping into an API, which is short for Application Programming Interface.

APIs are a class of software intermediaries that allow two applications to “talk to each other” on a platform, using necessary packets of data before translating them into an action for the end user. But what most end users don’t stop to think about is that APIs are crafted as unique products. In fact, there is an entire “API economy” which exists to drive the profits of various businesses—think of how companies like Amazon and eBay, for example, earn money by using APIs that are specially designed for e-commerce.

A number of tangible products that arrive to us in boxes come with instruction manuals, and the same principle applies to APIs. An API will come with technical content called API documentation, which is a reference of all the knowledge needed to operate the program. If one wants to know the API’s gathered functions, classes, return types, arguments, or related info, it’s all there in the product manual. And, just like the API products themselves, API documentation is undergoing a renaissance of evolution—from plain, static, and boring paper documents to dynamic and interactive tools that developers can test out on a secure server.

This feature covers a brief survey of the stakeholders who use API documentation, the benefits of keeping good API docs, and why several businesses are looking to hosted API documentation as their next step toward big earnings. If you’re curious about the big difference API documentation makes, then read on below.

The Players Involved in Surveying Your API: You, Your Developers, and Your Audience

To fully understand the value of API documentation, one must recognize all the stakeholders who need the instrument: the company itself, the API’s developers, and the end users.

The API is designed to fit your company’s purposes and cater to the consumption habits of your audience. Thus, the docs are structured and versioned in a way that gives you the clearest info about the API’s maintenance, its life cycle, and the mechanisms that fulfill your expectations of it.

API documentation is equally important to your developer, as the docs are what they will use to understand and effectively integrate their code with your API. The measure of a well-structured API documentation is how easily the developer understands its value and its usage. The API docs contribute to what is called “developer experience,” or DX (i.e. the aggregate experience when the developer finally learns to use and integrates with your API).

Efficient, appealing, and easy-to-use API documentation serves as the turning point for successful DX. With clear-cut and testable information to work around, developers will be more at ease in their decision making and more equipped to increase the chances of user adoption. Good DX, in turn, may translate into good UX (user experience), offering your customers the positive API interactions that they bargained for—with less reliance on your tech support, less trouble with maintenance, and less difficulty in weathering through system updates.

In summary, the benefits of a well-kept API documentation structure trickle down from your company, to your hired developers, to your audience. As it is with many other products, tangible or otherwise, no one will want to engage with even the most painstakingly crafted item if they don’t know how it works; such is the case for an API and its accompanying documentation.

API Documentation: Now Entering Its Renaissance

It is also important to note that the mediums involved in API documentation now go beyond their ho-hum counterparts of the past years. On a minimum level, API documentation can be completed using regular content creation tools such as text editors—but many more now opt to invest in API documentation practices that are automated, are more functional, and have more creative flair to them.

Documentation once took a backseat to coding, but now there is an entire ecosystem of tools available to animate the process. On hosted servers, for example, developers can try out your API, move easily from the documentation to their own code in dozens of languages, and customize the documentation environment.

A static approach to your API documentation may help you achieve the bare minimum. But if you’d like a better success rate on your program—be it among your developers or your end users—it may be high time to upgrade to more dynamic solutions in your API’s docs!

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