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The Tricks and Treats of Writing API Technical Documentation

There is nothing scarier than poorly constructed, rarely updated, and overly complicated API (application programming interface) documentation. This can be avoided by hiring 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 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 its current business offerings. The details of how the API works are also important. As the least technical audience, this information should be easily comprehensible. It also should be easily located and accessible at the beginning of the API documentation itself. 

For System Integration Engineers

Oftentimes, this audience implements and tests a new API. Then, they use the documentation to integrate new and old APIs in such a way as to minimize errors. A well-organized errors section within the API documentation has clear and concise explanations. Multiple executable code samples and references also need to be 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. Both the programmer and developer are responsible for writing code.  The developer has a more robust job role since they are project managers who can code and problem solve. The API documentation writer will need to be crafty and utilize all types of API documentation. Many coders loosely define categories such as: 

  1. The copy/paste coder – who wants to solve a small problem quickly and then move on to the next thing 
  1. The trial and error coder – will follow the given code verbatim and 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 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 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 the 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 treatment is thorough and easy-to-follow documentation leading to higher API adoption. This prevents your audiences from repeatedly experiencing frustration. While it can be tempting for an engineer or developer to simply use API technical documentation software, there is no substitute for human documentation. It is 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 at (800) 221-0093 or

Written by Latrice M. Sellers