Seeking An API Medium

What's the best way to document an API? It's a question that came up when we were documenting the Enterprise Library 5.0 project a while ago, and has resurfaced recently with another project I unexpectedly found myself attached to. It's also one of those annoying questions that typically offer three dozen wildly varying answers; none of which really appears to provide the optimum result. Yet good documentation of APIs is vital for developers to get the best from the code.

While I'm not actually a developer as such, I do write quite a lot of code. Most of it is examples for others to use and reuse, though sometimes I take my life in my hands and actually write stuff that I run in a production environment. And, inevitably, most of the samples I write are concerned with the newest, undocumented, and often beta technologies. So all I have to work with is Visual Studio Object Browser, IntelliSense, and (if I'm feeling particularly inquisitive) .NET Reflector.

Of course, tools such as Sandcastle and others can generate the HTML docs from the source code automatically, and these will (hopefully) contain meaningful summaries and parameter descriptions written by the original class developer within the source code. So all I need do is provide a brief explanation of any particular intricacies when using the class or class member, and add a short sample of code that shows how that class member works. Surely I can turn out all the required content in a few hours...?

But it's generally not that simple once you start to think about what developers might expect to find when they hit F1 in Visual Studio, or Bing for a class or member reference page. For example:

  • How real-world should the example be? Should it include full exception handling and all of the namespace declarations required to make it compile, or just the code that is directly relevant?
  • How complex should the example be? Should it show esoteric and alternative usages of the member, or just the most typical case?
  • What level of experience should I assume? Should it use fully optimized code, making it harder to understand for less experienced developers, or a simple syntax that is easier to read?
  • How much should it be commented? Should it include lots of comments, even for things that might be obvious to more advanced developers, or only the absolutely necessary comments?
  • How do most developers use the samples? Do they expect to find a chunk of code that they can simply copy and paste into Visual Studio, or do they want a sample that they can read through and will help them understand how to use the member? Or perhaps both?

In an ideal world I would write one or more examples for each member of each class in the API. But should I write samples that use several members of the class that I can reuse in more than one class member page? This sounds like a time-saver, but generally results in a sample that is over-complicated and may even make it harder to understand, or hide some members in the midst of a big block of code.

More to the point, do I actually have the resources available to write specific samples for every member of every class in an API that, when you include member overloads, might have many hundreds of individual pages. Years ago when I was documenting the API for Active Server Pages 1.0 (in the now almost forgotten pre-.NET era), it was easy enough to document the very few members of the five classes that made up ASP 1.0. But even a reasonably small framework such as Enterprise Library 5.0 has more than 1000 pages in the API reference section.

The path we took with Enterprise Library was to avoid writing samples in the API pages, and instead document the key scenarios (both the typical ones and some less common ones) in the main product documentation. This allows us to explain the scenario and show code and relevant details for the classes and class members that accomplish the required tasks. In fact, even getting this far only came about after some reconsideration of our documentation process (see Making a Use Case for Scenarios).

So, if I was documenting the file access classes in System.IO I could spend several months writing different and very short samples for each member of the File, FileInfo, Directory, DirectoryInfo, TextReader, FileStream, Path, and many more classes. Or I could try and write a few meaningful examples that use all the methods of a class and include them in several member pages, though it's hard to see how this would be either meaningful or easy to use as a learning aid. And it's certain to result in unrealistic examples that are very unlikely be "copy and paste ready".

Instead, perhaps the way forward is to make more use of scenarios? For example, I could decide what the ten main things are that people will do with the File class; and then write specific targeted examples for each one. These examples would, of necessity, make use of several of the members of the class and so I would put them in the main page for the class instead of in the individual class member pages. And each one of these scenario solutions could be a complete example that is "copy and paste ready", or a detailed explanation and smaller code examples if that better suits the scenario. Each class member page would then have a link "scenarios and code examples" that points to the parent class page.

The problem is that people tell me developers expect to see code in the class member page, and just go somewhere else if there isn't any. What they don't tell me is how often developers look at the code and then go somewhere else because the one simple code example (or the much repeated over-complex example) doesn't satisfy their particular scenario.

For example, if you want to find out how to get the size of a disk file where do you start looking? In the list of members of the File class, or the FileInfo class. Or search for a File.Length property? Or a File.GetLength method? If the File class had a scenario "Find the properties of a disk file" you would probably figure that it would be a good place to look. The example would show that you need to create a FileInfo instance; and that you can then query the Length property of that instance.

Or, when using the SmtpClient class to send an email, one of the scenarios would be "Provide credentials for routing email through an SMTP server". That way the majority of examples would just use the default credentials, simplifying them and reducing complexity for the most typical scenarios. If the developer needs to create and set credentials, the specific scenario would show how to create different kinds of NetworkCredential instances that implement ICredentialsByHost for use with the SmtpClient class, but wouldn't need to include all the gunk for adding attachments and other non-relevant procedures.

I know it would be impossible to always have the exact scenario and code example that would satisfy the needs of every developer each time they use the API reference pages, but it does seem like the scenarios approach could cover the most common tasks and requirements. It could also be easily extended over time if other scenarios become obvious, or in response to specific demands. OK, so it would mean a couple of extra mouse clicks to find the code, but that code should more closely resemble the code you need to use, and be easier to adapt and include in your project.

Why not tell me what you think? How do you use an API reference, and - more important - what do you actually want to see in it?