Why Documentation Matters for All Types of API Projects

Since the debut of the very first Application Programming Interface, or API, at the International Data Group’s (IDG) DEMO Conference in 2000, the ecosystem for these app-to-app software intermediaries has grown significantly wider. APIs are now designed in several programming languages and according to a variety of frameworks. In fact, they’re looked upon by many businesses as distinct products that can enhance both developer and user experiences in unique ways.

In the midst of this thriving market, one element of the API design process has come to the fore: API documentation, which is a set of processes involved in documenting, testing, and orienting would-be adopters about the ins and outs of an API. What follows below is a brief rundown of the different API types, how great API documentation enhances them all, and why it’s a good idea to invest in hosted API documentation for projects on topnotch API testing platforms like Stoplight.

The Expanding World of APIs

What often comes to mind when someone mentions APIs is the web API. This is the kind of API that you would see linking two web applications for in-sync performances with one another—a good example is a web API that allows you to view and share data from Instagram to Facebook.

Web APIs can be classified according to their function and accessibility in the following ways:

  • Open or public APIs – in which the code that constitutes the API is publicly available for everyone to use;
  • Partner APIs – in which one will need a particular right or license to use the API;
  • Internal or private APIs – APIs that are restricted to internal use by one company, usually between teams, for the betterment of the company’s exclusive products and services, and;
  • Composite APIs – a combination of different service and data APIs.

But APIs can also be classified according to their main frameworks and the programming languages they use, namely as the following:

  • Representational State Transfer Technology (REST) API – an API that uses HTTP methods for mapping Create, Retrieve, Update, Delete (CRUD) options;
  • Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) API – an API that uses an XML payload to help two disparate operating system programs be in sync with each other;
  • XML Remote Procedure Call (XML-RPC) API – an API that uses the XML markup language to encode calls, and then HTTP to transport them, and;
  • JavaScript Object Notation (JSON-RPC) – similar to XML-RPC above, an API that uses stateless remote procedure calls except that they are encoded in the JSON format.

Despite differences in composition, language, and purpose, these APIs all share one common thing: they rely on strong API documentation practices for them to be seen at their true value and to increase their chances of adoption by their intended users.

How Docs Drive the Success of the Different APIs

API documentation tools, or docs, are vital means of introducing what an API aims to do, how it works, and how compatible it will be for its intended tasks. In this sense, API docs can be seen as both a crash course into API design and a means of test-driving the API’s code.

API documentation mainly serves to improve developer experience, or DX. Working with new code, regardless of purpose or programming language, can be confusing and intimidating to a developer at first. It may also be hard for them to intuit how the API can work to their advantage. This is definitely the kind of gap that API docs can fill—they can help anyone working with the code to understand it better, visualize situations in which it applies, and use it to solve programming challenges of increasing complexity. There are immediate benefits to becoming more familiar and comfortable with the API design: more efficient problem solving, shorter delay between the development stage and the market stage.

Happily enough, API documentation itself need not be a boring one-off affair. Nowadays, companies like Stoplight have begun applying modern API testing techniques in order to improve core development processes like API documentation. And ultimately, this helps anyone in an API design team understand why docs matter for all types of API project—and that the docs themselves can be interactive, customizable, and a lot of fun to tinker with!

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