5 tips for writing better API documentation

ByErma F. Brown

Jul 6, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


When software program moved on line, so did the documentation. Nowadays, hosted documentation is the norm. But though the formats and supply approaches for documentation have changed, the fundamental goal of describing program has not. 

If nearly anything, composing great documentation has become a lot more complicated in the latest many years. The complexity of the information wanted to help application products and solutions has greater considerably. At the exact time, the audience for documentation has developed larger and additional varied. 

For several customers of our software, the documentation will build their initial impact of our solutions, our folks, and our brand name. And no person likes badly written documentation. I consider we can all recount at least 1 working experience the place insufficient documentation turned us absent from a products, and we in no way looked back. 

That hurdle is even greater for your end users who arrive from varied cultural, geographic, and educational backgrounds. Producing a documentation working experience that caters to all is far better for inclusivity, far better for your non-technical enterprise counterparts, and improved for the developer experience. The readers of software program documentation today can be any person.  

Ensuring a very good documentation encounter usually means producing an natural environment exactly where everyone can very easily digest your docs. That means your documentation really should be devoid of jargon and ought to include “try it” abilities that permit persons experiment, offer samples that folks can use as a commencing stage, and incorporate how-to facts along with the true API specs. Persuasive, instructional, and inclusive documentation, in change, generates a sound developer experience that invitations technologists from all backgrounds. 

Here are five recommendations for increasing your API documentation for each and every person, but specifically to aid users from non-traditional backgrounds. 

Try for consistency

Consistency of terminology, type, and corporation are hallmarks of all superior conversation. It should really be a principal foundation of your total API software and the documentation approach. To set up good regularity all over your documentation, make certain that the producing style and tactic are the exact same through your crew of writers. 

Enable regularity throughout your full API plan stage by employing a characteristic this sort of as API style guides to assistance you govern and preserve consistency throughout the group. Target on simple, predictable firm and regular choices during your documentation to build a greater developer working experience and deliver extra comfort for all forms of developers encountering your docs, irrespective of their history.  

Subsequent market benchmarks for your documentation, this kind of as OpenAPI, can also assistance new people orient them selves speedily to a common sample and establish additional standardization. Obvious navigation alternatives and a reliable type boost discoverability for each options and your docs. 

Use basic language and a welcoming tone

Everyone hates jargon, and let’s encounter it—there is a entire large amount of jargon in the tech field. Jargon not only receives in the way of distinct interaction but can make readers sense unwelcome. That’s the last point you want. When producing your docs, retain the language plain and approachable, recognizing that jargon, slang, inside of jokes, sophisticated acronyms, and the like have no area in your documentation. 

When the subject is complex, that’s when you really should make your writing even less difficult. It is vital to notice that some buyers might be coming to your merchandise with reasonably minimal formal instruction. Your creating have to be obtainable to the whole spectrum of probable end users, from self-taught builders, non-native English speakers, and developers fresh new out of school to experienced professionals with very little time to get the job completed. Make their lives much easier by furnishing documentation that is quick to realize. 

Listed here are a several other items to look out for when striving for an inclusive tone and basic language in your documentation: 

  • Be inform to discriminatory language. Microsoft’s Design and style Guidebook has a concise part on bias-free of charge interaction that is a fantastic useful resource.
  • Use clear variable names and operate names in code samples. Steer clear of phrases that have to have individual familiarity to have an understanding of.
  • Under no circumstances believe. You do not want to include a thorough discussion of every single notion in each document. Connection to another resource with a definition or in-depth discussion when you really do not have the time or house to clarify it in context. Don’t believe that readers of your documentation know everything. 
  • Use gender-neutral conditions. This ought to be a provided. Applying the second individual (you, your, yours) is a great way to foster a perception of relationship with your audience.
  • Insert alternate text to visuals. Keep in mind, you want your docs to be accessible for all people. Include alt text for all graphics and captions on movie to make them obvious to display readers and other accessibility tools. 

Deliver essential details for the non-technical 

Not all who look at your docs will have a developer history. Products professionals, small business leaders, and even colleagues from the promoting workforce may perhaps pretty very well have to have to use your documentation at some position. 

Utilizing straightforward-to-realize, actual-globe illustrations can enable make specialized facts more quickly understandable for non-specialized audience. This is wherever “try it” or mocking capabilities (like all those in Stoplight documentation) can make your documentation more beneficial. They can even make your API a lot more compelling to likely customers.

For instance, let’s think about the needs of a corporation that wants to put into practice a payment method for its web shop. A products operator will have a typical thought of the prerequisites. Consumers need a straightforward, protected way to enter payment facts. The small business requirements a way to system and track people payments. Then, payments have to have to flip into orders that will have to be fulfilled.

The solution owner may well be the initially man or woman to seem at the API documentation for the payment process. They might want to assess various APIs at a significant amount prior to asking a developer to do an in-depth examination of those that would best satisfy the company’s demands. In this case, the API with the best documentation will stand a greater opportunity of coming out ahead. Just bear in mind, the human being consuming your documentation won’t always come from a developer background. 

Take a style and design-initial strategy

At Stoplight, we take a design and style-1st approach to all that we do. This means focusing on creating APIs for the humans powering them and looking at all stakeholders who may possibly interact with, build, or take in the API. This identical tactic can be applied to building your documentation. Your API documentation requirements to meet up with customers where they are and talk to their wants. It desires to be a lot more than a checklist of endpoints and procedures. 

Contemplating about your probable consumers as a assorted group with various aims can assistance you organize your documentation to encourage creativity and replicate the genuine world. When composing your docs, write for each and every use circumstance. As you draft your docs, the common developer, the non-standard developer, the organization counterpart, feasible companions, and the conclusion client views should really all be retained in intellect.

Get innovative with multimedia

If you goal to make your docs additional participating and inclusive, normally try to uncover techniques to showcase arms-on guides to implementation. Get creative, spotlight use cases from numerous corporations and builders, and deliver sample apps and complex manuals based on authentic-globe scenarios. Take edge of multimedia like films, graphics, or gifs to make your docs extra attractive and cater to these who may well take in information and facts more conveniently in a format other than strictly textual content. 

That aged indicating of “treat some others how you want to be treated” applies to the viewers of your documentation. Publish how you would want anyone to clarify some thing to you, taking into account the variety of people and backgrounds that may perhaps appear throughout your documentation. Empathy for the developer and person is the primary way to perform towards a much better close-to-close developer and consumer knowledge. 

As a last assumed, producing for all is not about reducing anticipations but about broadening them. Producing extra obtainable documentation will outcome in more persons screening out your item and coming back again for additional. Evidently published and broadly obtainable documentation results in extra effective developers, for a longer time-term users, further integrations, and stronger brand name affinity. 

For a lot more methods on how to publish fantastic documentation, check out out this ideal procedures guideline.

Pam Goodrich is a specialized writer and documentation strategist at Stoplight.

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