Building an API — Using API Documentation to Overcome 4 Key Challenges

Sep 20, 2017 · 4 min read

By Andrew Turner

You might not realize it, but APIs (application program interfaces) are at the core of modern software development and architecture. The era of digital transformation has made every company a technology company — and APIs are the glue that hold your systems together as you develop products with customer experience in mind.

While external APIs enable companies to allow developers to build products on top of their platforms (for example, Vinli’s external APIs help developers create connected car apps), internal APIs are consumed by your own products for seamless communication between systems. Well-built APIs are the difference between a product that can scale and be easily maintained and one that can not.

However, many companies are at a loss when it comes to building better APIs. The key to overcoming the 4 common challenges when building APIs is putting documentation first.


Many developers might want to just dive right into coding a new API for your new products. However, improper planning leads to the 4 common challenges when building APIs:

  • No Documentation: The reality is that an API is only as good as its documentation. If you don’t have any, it will be difficult for developers to integrate the API for new products or new iterations.
  • Disparate Documentation and Functionality: Simply having API documentation isn’t enough. If the documentation doesn’t match how your API functions, developers will be frustrated when presented with the challenge of integrating it into new products.
  • Undocumented Changes: If developers are moving so quickly that they don’t document when changes have been made to the API, feature development on other products will either slow down or break and can diminish the customer experience in the long run.
  • Development Blocked by API: When developing the frontend and backend concurrently, there’s a high chance that the development of one system will become blocked by unfinished API functionality.

The quality of your API’s documentation dictates the developer experience. Building an API hindered by these challenges will make it difficult for developers to interact with your product. Taking a documentation-first approach to building APIs can eliminate these challenges and improve the developer experience.


Because APIs are the lifeblood of modern software architecture, they deserve more thoughtful planning than many developers currently give them. Rather than diving right into the code, better APIs start with a detailed plan and documentation to match.

A documentation-first approach to building APIs means creating a detailed explanation of what the API is meant to do and how systems will integrate with your product. Think of the API documentation as a contract between your product and these systems.

By standardizing the communications both within systems and between frontend and backend developers, you solidify a plan that grounds your API for long-standing quality. Only after you’ve crafted this detailed contract should your developers actually start to build the API.

You can rely on the following 3 tools to define this contract and ensure what your developers are building matches the documentation and planning (avoiding the 4 challenges of building APIs in the process):

  • API Blueprint: This program offers a robust syntax for documenting your APIs. With an API Blueprint you can create APIs with collaboration and open dialogue between frontend and backend developers in mind.
  • Dredd: This program offers a testing framework that helps you ensure there’s parity between API functionality and the documentation you created in API Blueprint.
  • Apiary: With Apiary, developers gain hosted documentation as the program reads API Blueprint syntax and creates a website for collaboration and visibility. Apiary also acts a mock server, giving developers mocks of the API so their processes are uninterrupted while the API is being completed.

When you embrace a documentation-first mentality and use API Blueprint, Dredd and Apiary to support that documentation, you can overcome the common challenges to building better APIs.


While APIs are essential to any modern software architecture, they are just one part of a long product development process. Once you overcome the barriers to building better APIs, there are many responsibilities to address to build a product that maximizes your ROI.

If you want to learn more about what to do after you’ve built better APIs, download our free End-to-End Product Development Guide and discover how we combine business and innovation consulting, user experience design, software engineering and hardware engineering to create products that users love.

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We design and engineer award-winning technology products that users love, across mobile, web and Internet of Things platforms.

back to the napkin

Perspectives from a group of entrepreneurs who want to get back to basics with ideas, trends and insights Interested in writing for 'back to the napkin'? Contact us here:

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