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The Tricks and Treats of Writing API Technical Documentation

    a person drawing a ghost on a piece of paper in front of a computer, representing the tricks and treats of writing API technical documentation

    There is nothing scarier than poorly constructed, rarely updated, and overly complicated API documentation. This can be avoided by using a technical writer who understands how to use an API and can code. Having well written API technical documentation is as important as the Application Programming Interface (API) itself and should be written in such a way that even the least experienced user can comprehend it. The overall trick is to know your audiences and tell them what they want to know, but let’s walk a bit deeper into the mysterious world of API documentation and expound on the concepts above. 

    The Opening Magic Trick: Know Your Audience

    The most common readers of API technical documentation are: 

    • Executives and product managers – The people who will purchase the API based on the documentation
    • System integration engineers- The people who review the documentation and make recommendations on its usage
    • Developers and programmers – The people who will implement your API based on the documentation

    The Show Stopping Magic Trick: Tell Your Audience What They Want to Know 

    For Executives and Product Managers

    This audience will mostly be concerned with how much value a particular API can bring to their current business offerings and the details of how the API works. As the least technical audience, this information should be easily accessible, easily understood, and preferably located at the beginning of the API documentation itself. 

    For System Integration Engineers

    This audience will oftentimes be tasked with implementing and testing a new API and using the documentation to integrate new and old APIs in such a way to minimize errors. Because this group is likely to run into errors when integrating the APIs, the errors section within the API documentation should be well organized and have clear and concise explanations. There should also be multiple executable code samples and references being kept up to date for ease of implementation and client satisfaction.  

    For Developers and Programmers

    This audience is the most diverse of all API technical documentation users. While both the programmer and developer are responsible for writing code, the developer has a more robust job role since they are basically project managers who can code and problem solve. The API documentation writer will need to be crafty and utilize all types of API documentation to keep this crowd spellbound. Many coders can be loosely defined in categories such as: 

    1. The copy/paste coder – who wants to solve a small problem quickly then move on to the next thing 
    • Solution: Make sure documentation includes snippets of code the developers can easily copy/paste with examples in context 
    1. The trial and error coder – who will follow the given code verbatim then use the reference material only when they have issues 
    • Solution: Make sure the documentation includes details of possible error responses, what triggers them, where they most often occur, and how to resolve them. 
    1. The Reader- who reads the entire API technical documentation manual in its entirety (not just the photos and diagrams) before taking any type of action
    • Solution: Include interactive demos that developers can actually test out
    1. The Quick Start Guide coder- While you may have composed a visually stunning 100 page literary masterpiece of API documentation, it is very unlikely this group will want to read it. With a twirl of your wand, you should be able to condense that literary masterpiece down to only the chills and thrills, focusing on the main services of the API needed to begin. 
    • Solution: Make sure the “Quick Start Guide” has easy, actionable steps to allow for instant familiarity of a product. Be sure to include numerous screenshots and illustrations for clarity and overall customer experience. 

    The Treats of the API Technical Documentation Trade

    The overall treat is thorough and easy to follow documentation leading to higher API adoption and prevents your audiences from becoming werewolves in frustration. While it can be tempting for an engineer or developer to simply use API technical documentation software, there is no substitute human documentation. It is actually quite common for API documentation writers to use the same software to enhance their technical writing and provide the best API documentation experience possible.

    Whether you need a team of consultants to produce a complete line of documentation or a single technical writer for a brief project, Essential Data’s Engagement Manager will lead the project from start to finish. At Essential Data Corporation, the quality of our work is guaranteed. Contact us today to get started. (800) 221-0093 or sales@edc.us

    Written by Latrice M. Sillers

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