As your applications grow and their requirements change, your API collection becomes more complex. It may even begin to feature different versions. This is when creating API documentation becomes an essential part of maintaining the API.
Fortunately, documentation frameworks and tools can help you abstract low-level processes and manage your API endpoints properly. Tools like Swagger, Postman, RAML, Apiary, and Readme provide an out-of-the-box documentation framework that enables larger teams to document their API changes and facilitate consistency.
Alternatively, teams can explore the docs-as-code approach. The idea is to write documentation using the same tools you use to write code, and to make changes to code and documentation side by side. When you add a new feature to the code, the corresponding documentation is also added. The downside of this method is that the documentation writer must be somewhat technical.
Documentation Frameworks and Tools
Documentation frameworks and tools enable continuous updates to documentation that are easy to manage for the builders and readable for the users. Some common documentation tools are:
- Swagger: Swagger uses the OpenAPI Specification to help you design and manage REST APIs. Developers implementing your APIs can view descriptions, test the APIs, and even check their requirements (parameters, headers, body).
- Postman: Similar to Swagger, Postman helps manage API documentation by allowing users to view and test REST API endpoints in real time. Its focus on readability and categorization supports growing API collections.
- RAML: RAML’s documentation service allows you to segment and interact directly with your APIs. RAML also offers categories for growing APIs and a self-hosting option.
- Apiary: Apiary allows you to quickly spin up external-facing documentation, integrate your APIs, and push it to the public. As your API collection grows, it handles versioning and the inclusion of more endpoints.
- Readme: Readme offers interactive features to handle the display and test of your APIs. Its logger allows you to track API errors in real time. Readme also offers standard features such as live requests and versioning.
Practically speaking, Swagger and Postman are most appropriate for internal documentation, while Apiary and Readme have unique features that help you better communicate with external developers.
Docs-as-code is a documentation management method that uses version control to manage the docs directly, following the same development process as your code. This is usually done via markdown files in static site generators like Eleventy or Hugo. The docs are passed through a regular CI/CD pipeline, undergo code review, and then are deployed to the documentation site.
Advantages of the docs-as-code method include:
- Ability to update code and documentation side by side. When you update the code, you can also update the documentation directly in your codebase. Consequently, your documentation always includes the latest feature changes.
- Opportunity to catch stuff in code review. Code reviews for every documentation change allow you to catch errors and put additional eyes on the docs.
- Automation with CI/CD. Adding automation to your documentation allows you to enforce style guides, check formatting, and maintain consistency as you make changes.
Maintaining API documentation is an important part of any organization’s change management strategy. As you add more features to your API, updating your documentation becomes a necessity. Fortunately, documentation frameworks and tools can help you keep your documentation aligned with API changes while making sure it remains consistent and technically correct. If your documentation management isn’t up to scratch, taking advantage of these tools could be the next step to firing up your developer experience.