Guide to Writing API Documentation for DevOps Teams
Documentation can make a pretty strong first impression of a brand on a user. If it’s out of date, that can be pretty off-putting for even the most experienced programmers and developers. If it’s too opaque, that can be quite confusing. The better the documentation is written, the better it is for the user and the software company. It can be a real pain point for consumers when the documentation isn’t clear and well-written or lacks the information needed, so it’s important to get it right.
When writing API documentation, it’s pretty important to remember who your target audience is. It should consist of DevOps teams, but also non-techie people looking to integrate things like multi-line phone system for businesses with other systems, for example, who don’t have as much technical knowledge as developers.
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You want something that everyone can use and understand easily, regardless of technical background. The simpler and more straightforward the writing is, the easier it will be to translate into different languages as well. It should be accessible to people of different educational and cultural backgrounds and compel people to want to learn more.
Anybody can end up having to read API documentation, from project managers to the new temp, but your DevOps teams will find it easier if it’s been written in a way that caters to as many people as possible. Your documents should be easy to read and understand, so it should avoid any overly technical language, and should also include the option for people to experiment and offer blueprints for folks to use as a jumping off point. The How-To info is just as important as the more technical specs.
What is API?
An API, or application programming interface, is a system used for two or more computer programs so that they can “talk” with each other. It allows organizations to share their OEM software and other applications’ data and functions internally with other departments in the organization, with third-party developers, and also any business partners as required.
Products and services can thus communicate together and enjoy the use of the other’s data and functions through a documented interface. Developers use the interface to communicate with other services and products.
What is API documentation?
API documentation is a concise technical content instruction manual which developers can refer to about how to integrate with and use an API. All of the information needed to work with the API such as return types, functions and classes are usually included, with examples and tutorials alongside. At the heart of API documentation is a great DX (developer experience), as well as non-developer experience.
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Tips on how to write API documentation
So now that we’ve covered what API and API documentation are, let’s delve into some tips for writing your own.
1. Learn all about the API in question
You can’t really write documentation about a software that you don’t know the ins and outs of, so one of the first things you should do is get very well acquainted with the application programming interface in question. Gather any existing documentation about it, speak to the people who made it or even just experts in the field, including developers, to get the lay of the land.
You will want to find out what the API’s functions are, like whether they are compatible with legacy software modernization features, how to use the API, and how to use it with other product features. Once you have all of your notes and information around you, you can then start to plot out your documentation.
2. User-friendly language devoid of jargon
Jargon might make it sound like you know what you’re talking about, but it won’t help anybody else understand what you’re talking about, which is all that matters with documentation. So when you’re writing documentation, make sure it’s clear, to the point, includes helpful examples, and doesn’t confuse and befuddle even the most knowledgeable developer.
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Instead of “obtain a unique telephony code which alerts you of incoming communications for your professional enterprise… forthwith!”, opt for “get a business phone number”, for example.
If your non-technologically-gifted coworkers can understand it easily enough, then you know you’re on the right track. If you have a choice between a complicated word and a simple word that basically means the same thing, opt for the simpler word. If you can take a sixty-word sentence (ouch) and condense it into a thirty-word sentence that is much easier to read, please, we beg of you, do so. For the love of all that is good, this life is hard enough. Write the more concise sentence.
You should also be careful to avoid any kind of discriminatory language, such as the overabundant use of the words “he” or “she” which could imply that the documentation is aimed more at one particular gender over all others. Instead, opt for the gender-neutral “you” which also feels more direct.
3. Nice formatting
As well as good use of language, you also want to use a user-friendly layout, with spaced out paragraphs, short sentences, clear headings, a contents page and nice, dyslexia-friendly font. It should be no struggle to navigate and read your documentation.
This means using fonts that are easy to read, in a standard color, with spacing that makes it easy to scan the document and find the parts you’re looking for with ease. This will also make it easier for non-native English speakers (or whatever language your document will be in) to understand it. Creating a style guide, or else using an existing style guide for your company, will help you to create a consistent and pleasant format throughout your documentation.
4. Aim for consistency throughout
If you use a specific selection of terminology at the start of your documentation, you should stick to those same words throughout rather than using lots of different synonyms which might just confuse people who are not as well-versed in the lingo as others. Switching between synonyms might lead them to believe that you’re talking about two different things. So make sure that your writing team, if there’s multiple people on the job, has a list of pre-decided terminology for things like “web automation testing”.
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Your tone should also be consistent throughout. You don’t want to start off sounding like an Elizabethan ghost, only for your voice to turn into Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls by the end. Keep it simple and consistent throughout. Maybe try not to confuse people with a very niche tone of voice, even if that does make it more fun to read.
Consistency should also apply to formatting, as we mentioned above. Keep it the same from start to finish. If boredom kicks in and you start goofing off with some retro fonts halfway through, that’s fine, let your inner child express themself, just tidy it all up afterwards.
5. Include some FAQs for non-developers
You will inevitably need to use some technical language, this is API documentation we’re talking about after all. However, you can make everyone’s lives easier by including a little FAQ section to cover the most likely questions people will have, including a list of technical words (“What are orchestration tools”) and their definitions.
A terminology guide will help developers and IT operations professionals get on the same page and literally give them a common language to discuss their work in, as well as helping out non-techie folks to understand what’s going on.
6. Use multiple tools
API documentation doesn’t just have to be a written text. It can also include sample apps, videos about real-world examples, and interactive sections. Video tutorials are all the rage for good reason - you can pause and rewind them as many times as you like. They can also be easier to absorb than pages and pages of text.
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There are so many tools at your disposal to make your documentation as easy to digest as possible, and appeal to as many different learning styles as possible.
7. Write for every use case
You should mention all of the frequent use cases of your API in your documentation, to help DevOps teams find the use case which is relevant to their needs, such as integration with business hosted VoIP. Researching the software solutions your prospective users might be hoping to create and showing the relevant APIs and functionalities will help DevOps find all the information they need.
Each use case should include sample apps and relevant endpoints, as well as case studies. This would allow new users to get ideas about the different options around the API.
8. Perform regular document maintenance
An essential part of your documentation process should include regular updates as the API gets updated. Outdated technical documentation is a huge drag.
Some tips for good maintenance of your API documentation:
- Synchronize documentation with API updates. Don’t make it an afterthought.
- Prep docs beforehand in order to be able to publish updates on time.
- Regularly review your API documents (don’t just wait for updates)
- Pour most of your attention onto frequently used end points.
- Use documentation tools to streamline the work
The bottom line
When writing API documentation for DevOps Teams, a good technical writer will assemble it as simply as possible, so that it can be understood by as many people as possible, regardless of educational or cultural background. Make it easy to navigate, include case studies and terminologies, and first and foremost, get to know the API in question super well.
Need more help? Check out the Zentao blog. They have more articles on project management tools, software management, building cross-functional teams, and so much more.
Author bio :
Tanhaz Kamaly is a Partnership Executive at Dialpad, the best PBX phone system for small business that turns conversations into the best opportunities, both for businesses and clients. He is well-versed and passionate about helping companies work in constantly evolving contexts, anywhere, anytime.