Terence Bennett - June 22, 2023
Man using DreamFactory as one of his API Documentation tools

Creating API documentation from scratch can be a complex and time-consuming task, forcing many organizations to rely on specialized API documentation tools. These tools help simplify and automate the documentation process, enabling users to format and display information in a way that is clear and easily comprehensible – even for non-technical users. By leveraging these tools, businesses can save time and resources while ensuring that their API documentation is accessible, comprehensive, and of high quality.

But which tool is right for your business? In this article, we explore why API documentation is necessary and consider five of the best options currently available and how they might suit your business.

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Table of Contents

What is API Documentation

Why API Documentation Matters

5 Best API Documentation Tools

Manage APIs Better With DreamFactory

What is API Documentation

API documentation plays a crucial role in facilitating the understanding, adoption, and successful implementation of APIs. It serves as a comprehensive guide that communicates the functionalities, capabilities, and proper usage of an API to developers, partners, and users.

API documentation serves multiple purposes. It provides developers with essential information about the API endpoints, request/response formats, authentication methods, and available parameters. This documentation helps developers understand how to interact with the API, enabling them to integrate it into their applications.

API documentation also often includes code examples and sample requests, making it easier for developers to grasp the required syntax and structure for API calls. Clear and concise documentation promotes faster development cycles and reduces the learning curve.

Effective API documentation goes beyond technical specifications. It provides valuable contextual information such as use cases, best practices, and guidelines. This information assists developers in leveraging the API’s features to their fullest potential and encourages them to adopt recommended practices for performance and reliability.

API documentation can take different formats, ranging from traditional text-based documentation to interactive platforms and developer portals. The choice of format depends on the complexity of the API, target audience, and desired level of interactivity. Some documentation tools even offer automatic generation of documentation from the API code, ensuring accuracy and reducing manual effort.

Why API Documentation Matters

API documentation serves as both a technical reference and a user guide, providing detailed explanations of how an API functions and what it can achieve. The content is designed to be both human-readable and machine-readable, ensuring that both developers and machines can easily interpret and understand the information presented. 

The primary goal of API documentation is to provide accurate and comprehensive descriptions of how the API works, including any dependencies, limitations, and requirements. Additionally, API documentation can act as a teaching tool that helps users quickly get started and effectively use the API, improving the overall user experience and enhancing the value of the software product. By creating thorough and well-structured API documentation, software development teams can improve collaboration, reduce errors, and build trust with customers and partners.

Done correctly, API documentation acts as the one true source of information for how an API works. It should contain details on functions, arguments, classes, and more in a structured format that is easy for both developers and non-technical users to understand. Often, it will include tutorials and examples, which will help the user better understand how the different parts work together.

Investing time and resources into creating high quality API documentation leads to many benefits:

  • Reduced Onboarding Time – Customers and internal users can access the information they need to start using and benefiting from your API immediately. 
  • Reduced Reliance on Support – Good documentation reduces the strain on your API experts and helps other users find their own answers. This applies regardless of whether your API is internal-only or used by thousands of customers,
  • Encourage Non-Engineering Users – By increasing the understanding of non-coding colleagues, your API documentation enables better discussions around how your APIs and data can be used to achieve your business goals.
  • Increased Adoption Rate – Easy-to-use API documentation will increase the rate with which new users can start using your API. By providing a better user experience, businesses will benefit from increased word-of-mouth marketing, which leads to faster adoption.
  • Improved User Satisfaction – Happy customers and colleagues improve your business’s reputation.

Are you struggling to create and manage your APIs effectively? The DreamFactory Platform enables businesses to automatically generate enterprise-grade APIs (and their documentation) without any coding necessary. Start your free 14-day hosted trial today.

What Makes a Great API Documentation?

Creating great API documentation is a delicate balancing act between providing detailed technical information and displaying it in a way that is easy to consume. The best way to see how it should be done is to look at examples of businesses that are doing well – thankfully, they’re not hard to find. 

Many popular tools publish their API documentation online so that 3rd-party developers can get easy access to them. Stripe and Twilio are two great examples of documentation done right. Although their solutions are developed in-house, the best practice they display is still useful for businesses looking to create their own API documentation. Here are a few of the reasons why these sets of documentation are so effective:

  • They provide example code in the documentation so that users can see how it works in practice.
  • They make it easy to find solutions to common problems so that busy developers can get what they need quickly.
  • They don’t provide unnecessary information that isn’t required to understand the API and how it works. When users are busy working and hit a problem, they want usable documentation, not extraneous information.
  • They don’t assume a certain level of knowledge – the simplest concepts are as fully-explained as the most difficult ones.
  • They are well-formatted. The content is organized and consistent and easy to read. This reduces friction for users who are looking to learn or solve a problem.

Which Specification is Best?

There is more than one way to write API documentation, and different software uses different specifications. These specifications each provide a different standard and style in which an API is described. Three of the most popular are:

  • OpenAPI (formerly Swagger) – The most popular specification. Open-source, and backed by companies such as Microsoft and Google. Uses JSON objects with a specific schema to describe API elements.
  • RAML – YAML-based, RAML (or RESTful API Modeling Language) takes a top-down approach to create documentation that is clear, consistent, and precise.
  • API Blueprint – Another open-source specification, API Blueprint is designed to be highly accessible. It uses a description language that is similar to Markdown and excels in situations where a design-first philosophy is followed during API creation.

While all of these options work well, it is the OpenAPI format that has achieved the most momentum in the last few years. With big brands behind it, it has quickly grown a large community and subsequently has the largest range of tools available. This makes it a good choice for businesses who aren’t sure which specification to go with because there’s a broader choice and a better chance of getting community support if you get stuck.

5 Best API Documentation Tools

There’s no shortage of API documentation tools on the market. The following five are our pick of the best options:

1. Swagger UI

Swagger UI Screenshot

Swagger UI is a popular tool for creating interactive API documentation. Users input an OpenAPI Specification (OAS) document, and Swagger UI formats it using HTML, JavaScript, and CSS to create great looking documentation.

Swagger UI is part of the Swagger ecosystem, which includes a wide range of tools, many of which are open-source (including Swagger UI), as well as a premium version (SwaggerHub – see later). 

It’s benefits include:

  • Fully customizable – Users have access to the full source code and can tweak Swagger UI to suit their use, or take advantage of the tweaks made by other users.
  • Supports OAS 3.0 – Works with OpenAPI Specification Version 3.0, as well as the older Swagger 2.0
  • Very popular – It’s easy to get support from other users if you run into problems.
  • Swagger also offers other open-source tools that complement Swagger UI by helping create the OpenAPI Specification (OAS) document that it uses. Swagger Editor enables users to create their own OAS definition which they can then visualize with Swagger UI, while Swagger Inspector enables users to auto-generate OAS definitions from an API endpoint.

Swagger UI is a valuable tool for API documentation that offers a range of benefits for developers, project managers, and end-users. Its user-friendly interface, interactive features, and powerful customization options make it an effective way to create clear and comprehensive documentation that can help streamline development processes, improve collaboration, and enhance the user experience.

2. SwaggerHub

Swagger Hub Screenshot

SwaggerHub is a premium platform that combines features from Swagger UI, Swagger Editor, and many other parts of the Swagger ecosystem. It is aimed at business and enterprise users and contains many additional features that are designed to optimize the documentation workflow.

It’s benefits include:

  • One package – Unlike Swagger UI, SwaggerHub offers a complete API documentation toolset without the need to find additional software.
  • Automatically generate documentation – SwaggerHub enables users to automatically generate interactive API documentation during design.
  • Improved collaboration tools – Permissions & user roles, real-time commenting, issue tracking, and team management tools.

Unlike Swagger UI and many of the other options on this list, SwaggerHub is a paid solution. However, for larger businesses with a heavy reliance on APIs, this is a worthwhile investment that will allow for your team to adopt and create APIs much easier.

DreamFactory is a REST API management platform. In addition to providing all the tools businesses need to create and manage multiple REST APIs, DreamFactory will also automatically create Swagger documentation for every API it generates. Start your trial today or contact the team for more information.

3. ReDoc

Redoc Screenshot

ReDoc is a free and open-source documentation tool that supports OAS 2.0 and OAS 3.0. Using ReDoc, businesses can quickly publish great-looking interactive API documentation online.

Benefits include:

  • Flexible – ReDoc can run in your browser, but it’s also available as a Docker image, as a React component, or as a command-line tool.
  • Stylish & responsive – The good-looking theme is fully-responsive, and it will work well on any screen size or browser. Additionally, you can customize fonts, change colors, and easily add a logo.
  • Easy navigation – The customizable navigation bar and search box enable users to quickly find the information they need.

Its user-friendly interface and customizable design make it easy to create and manage documentation that is clear, concise, and visually appealing. With its interactive features and intuitive navigation, ReDoc can help streamline the development process, reduce errors, and improve collaboration among team members. ReDoc also supports a variety of programming languages and frameworks, making it a versatile tool that can be used in a wide range of software development projects.

4. DapperDox

DapperDox Screenshot

DapperDox is an open-source OpenAPI renderer that works with both OAS 2.0 and OAS 3.0.

Benefits include:

  • Integrate Markdown content –  DapperDox enables users to combine their OpenAPI Specification with diagrams created using GFM (GitHub Flavored Markdown).
  • Good documentation – The DapperDox documentation is clearly-written and helpful for new users.
  • API explorer – DapperDox’s API explorer enables users to experiment from within the API documentation.

5. Theneo

Theneo Screenshot

Theneo is an easy-to-use tool for generating documentation. It allows developers to eliminate manual documentation efforts with our AI-generated descriptions and summaries. It boasts a Notion like user interface which makes it easy to adopt if you are familiar with Notion. It also automatically converts your request into multiple programming languages which can come in handy when you need to create a central hub for your APIs.

Theneo also integrates with: 

  • Swagger
  • Postman
  • Github

One of the best features of Theneo is its focus on its ease of use for both developers and non-developers alike. It makes it easy to

  • Import API collections
  • Analyze how the API Documentation is being used
  • Receive feedback from readers or API consumers

Why Use an API Documentation Tool?

Using an API documentation tool can streamline and potentially5 automate some aspects of developing and maintaining API documentation, resulting in documentation that is more user-friendly, dynamic, and visually consistent across multiple APIs – all accomplished in a shorter amount of time.

Having comprehensive documentation can also help you save on support costs, especially as new developers join and existing ones leave your team. The documentation makes it easier for new team members to understand how the API is built and how to keep it working effectively as changes and updates are made over time.
Furthermore, API documentation can also help to improve collaboration among team members. By providing a clear and consistent framework for how the API should be used, documentation can promote better communication and understanding between developers, as well as between developers and other stakeholders, such as project managers or business analysts. This can help to ensure that everyone involved in the project is working towards the same goals and objectives, leading to greater efficiency, productivity, and success.

Dreamfactory graphic

Generate a full-featured, documented, and secure REST API in minutes.

Generate a full-featured, documented, and secure REST API in minutes.

Generate your No Code REST API now

Manage APIs Better With DreamFactory

Need another option? You might want to consider DreamFactory:

DreamFactory uses Swagger to generate live API documentation for every single API you create. Using DreamFactory for your API docs has several benefits:

  • Automatic – Your team can have confidence that your documentation is up-to-date and correct at all times. No need to wait for a busy developer to update your documentation.
  • Importing – Working with 3rd Party APIs? No problem. You can import their OAS documents into DreamFactory so that your users can access and view them as if they were your own.
  • Administrative Privileges – DreamFactory prevents your documentation by ensuring that only developers with DreamFactory admin privileges can modify them. Other users can only view it.
  • Fully Interactive – Your team can access a live and interactive document within seconds of launching an API.

Documentation is just one of many enterprise-grade features that makes DreamFactory the ultimate API-as-a-Service platform. With DreamFactory, it is easy to create, manage, and document tens or even hundreds of REST APIs. 

DreamFactory enables businesses to create professional fully-featured REST APIs in seconds, is highly secure, and enables central management of every API from one platform.

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