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Best Practices for API Documentation

Posted by
Anastasia in Technical Writing on 2/8/20193 min read

API is on top of its game now. The market is growing, the products are being developed and improved. This means that API documentation will be in the center of attention in the years to come, as well.

API documentation stands out as a pretty unique product due to specifics of the field. Therefore, we can deduce some major principles to follow to improve user guides for this specific area. With proper documentation comes better product adoption, technical support doesn’t get flooded with customer messages; the overall influence on business is strictly positive.

Further on, you will find pieces of advice that are meant to help you create high-quality API documentation. This post says more about how to organize the tech writing process for API docs, if you are looking for guidelines on what should be included in API user manuals, refer to this blog post.

Let the Writers Write

We’ve been over this. Professional tech writers create the best user manuals because this is their job and they have the right tools for it, and, also, more profound understanding of the help authoring process. However, API is a complex topic to describe. It comes with a whole range of terms you should know, like endpoints, methods, requests, JSON, Git... So, developers find it easier to write the docs themselves as technical writers may seem underqualified or not fully aware of the topic.

Letting developers create API documentation seems like the lesser evil, but it is going to take its toll in the future. It doesn’t matter how good a product is if users experience problems understanding how to work with it. So, it is clear that technical writers should create API docs, but how do we arrange this considering the complexity?

Two-Way Collaboration

Some technical writers have a pretty vast knowledge of API and creating technical documentation won’t be a problem for them. In most cases, however, technical writers get to know the basics of API, and that’s it.

It is clear that in the second case all technical documentation should be double-checked to avoid inconsistencies or errors. Collaboration between technical writers and devs is as important as ever here.

Technical writers can be allowed to participate in the earliest stages of product development. This way, they get access to all names and descriptions and have time and resources to see for themselves how things work.

Sometimes, this is still not enough to be sure that no mistakes occur in technical documents. So, another thing that can be done: developers, in their turn, can review the written material. They should look for technical inaccuracies and inconsistency.

Pick the Right Tools

API documentation contains a lot of code examples, and they need to be readable. So, plain text won’t work. Syntax highlighter is an excellent choice for API docs - code snippets instantly become easier to read.

Another thing that can drastically improve the look and feel of such documentation is separating code from the text by using a different background color. Such blocks help focus on one thing at a time which is crucial in case of such a complex topic as API.

And, here is the way to have these features in one place - creating API user manuals in a help authoring tool.

ClickHelp designers created a special documentation template exclusively for API. Besides the things we’ve mentioned above, ClickHelp can boost your doc team efficiency with such useful functionality as single-sourcing techniques, teamwork features (user roles and permission, topic auto-locking, topic statuses, email notification), a powerful WYSIWYG editor, and more.

All these features combined can help you produce great API docs.

Conclusion

API technology is evolving and developing. Now, people are talking more and more about conversational APIs that could ensure interaction between users and machines that would be perceived as ideas exchange, closer to natural human communication. The technology is getting more complex, and this creates more challenge not only for developers but for technical writers, as well. We’ve shared our thoughts on how to improve the API technical writing process, and we will be happy to hear how you feel about working with API docs: what is the biggest challenge and how do you overcome it? Share your experience with all of us in the comment section below.

Good luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

 

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