APIs (Application Programming Integration) are everywhere, and everyone uses them – developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, even management. They bring together different systems, processes, and technologies to create a seamless user experience for users. With APIs, companies can connect their users to other users, to data or services in their ecosystem. They can also offer developers automated access to their documentation on GitHub or the developer portal so devs can skip the manual due diligence of researching these materials (and spend time on building instead).
Having an API opens doors for companies – it attracts and enriches development ecosystems around their product and delivers new products/services they wouldn’t have had otherwise, while boosting customer satisfaction and driving down costs (by shifting to self-service solutions, where possible). Given that most companies would like to invest only in small incremental changes as opposed to large infrastructural changes, using an API provides a cheaper update path with rapid iteration cycles thanks to quick incremental integrations and changes.
But APIs have a problem: documentation is almost always terrible. It ends up either being too long and overly technical or too short and lacks context. Most importantly, docs don’t teach a developer what they need to know.
Great API documentation and developer experience is a huge factor in determining how successful your API will be. Great developer experience is a key factor in the success of any application. As the product team, your job is to help developers achieve their goals and delight them with an amazing user experience.
Further, the best developer experience (DX) includes great documentation, easy onboarding, simple data formats, sample client libraries and a great overall developer experience. The worst DXs are complex APIs that don’t have great documentation causing developers to waste time debugging something that should be easily explained from the start. When you craft documentation that enhances user experience and gives developers what they need, they will put your API to work and build cool things with it.
Further, for customers, a great API means easy to follow tutorials, well-designed API reference documentation, and useful SDKs (Software Development Kit). This contributes to the overall ease of use of your API, which ultimately leads to higher customer satisfaction. It also means more efficient developer experience for your technical team.
There are four main reasons your API documentation could be having a negative impact on your business. Let us explore them together.
Not Using Simple Language Syntax: Even if you use documentation generation tools, they are not good at explaining the code in human language. Humans understand speech and text much better than they can comprehend some fancy diagrams and graphs. Even though the documentation text looks good in your eyes, a non-technical user of your projects will have a hard time understanding it. It’s incredibly important to create well-written documentation, which is always complete, informative, and genuine.
Not Adding Sufficient Code Samples: When writing API documentation, it’s important to remember that you’re trying to include detailed examples of how to work with your API. This is one of the mistakes that is made often when creating documentation. It’s easy to write paragraphs upon paragraphs of text explaining how to do something. But it is necessary to provide real-life examples and demos that help your users have a clear idea about how to use the API. These live examples will help add visual appeal to your documentation, giving visitors a more engaging experience.
Not Made Accessible To All Users: It’s simple. Don’t restrict access in the first place. The more people are allowed to use your API, the better it is for your company, and everyone involved. Place an emphasis on encouraging internal integration, instead of just external integration. When you make internal integrations a priority, your team becomes more likely to create valuable products with your API.
Not Maintained Properly: Your API documentation should be straightforward. Readers should be able to find information without any guess work. It should explain the concepts behind the APIs and help them understand how they work.
Bad documentation can mean bad reviews, which in turn leads to a slowdown in sales and lost revenue for your business. So, make sure you take care of it from day one, because well-composed docs contribute to developer success and happy customers.
Let’s talk about getting your API documentation right. We’ve seen a lot of APIs with great product experience and terrible documentation, which means they are going to struggle to attract great clients or even keep the ones they have. The right documentation can boost your API’s popularity and partnerships, improve user retention, and invite new clients.
Implement Spec-Driven Development: One of the biggest mistakes when developing an API is lack of specification. An API specification can be an invaluable tool for turning your idea into a well-thought-out application. By having a comprehensive set of specs for your API, you will save countless hours of rework and struggle in the future, allowing you to focus exclusively on delivering real value.
When it comes to building or improving your API, you have to make sure that you have a good API specification as part of your workflow. You have to take care of the tools that allow you to share your ideas and develop the language for others to use them.
Write for General User: The audience for API documentation is vast and it’s hard to please both – an avid developer who needs a reference and an average user, who wants to follow as little steps as possible and get the job done.
It’s probably not the best idea to have developers write the technical documentation. Their language tends to be confidential, and they aren’t professional writers after all. But even if there is a technical writer on board, it is important to keep these few tips in mind when creating an API documentation. Make your documentation more than just a set of instructions: communication with the audience is key, encourage them to get interested through interactive tips, create examples for all possible use cases and provide the necessary context, before getting into the nitty-gritty of the product.
If your documentation doesn’t catch attention, then the odds of it being read are very slim. That’s why you need to make sure that it speaks to your customers’ expectations and delivers exactly what they’re looking for.
Add Essential API Elements: It is a common mistake to underestimate the need for good documentation. For your API documentation to be useful to the end-users, it is necessary to add essential elements on top of a simple get started guide. This means adding code examples, authentication, status and errors, HTTP requests, parameters, tutorials, resources, SDKs, FAQs, glossary, etc.
Adding these elements to your API can improve the experience for your developers. For example, by adding code examples, you can improve understanding and make it easier for your developers to find the information they need when building their apps. You can even ask for feedback from your developers about what information they need in your documentation or if there are other elements that could make it more useful.
Documentation is a requirement for any API, open or otherwise. If your API is proprietary, like many enterprise APIs are — or if you want to make sure that outside developers can easily use it — then you owe it to yourself to get started on documentation today. You also should make sure that your documentation doesn’t get out of date with updates to your API. This can be a challenge because App Development teams don’t always test docs along with code, but it’s essential for being taken seriously as a developer platform — not just something that replaces developers.
Further, the documentation is the first thing your developers will see. And it will influence their opinions about your API, product, and team forever! So that means you should never underestimate it or be disappointed by what you create.
We help API teams craft and shape amazing API documentation that attracts more developers and makes the product look good. You focus on your product and we at XDuce take care of documentation & support, so you don’t have to.