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The Effect of Visual Design and Information Content on Readers’ Assessments of API Reference Topics

I have seen a number of research projects looking at API documentation, but this is the most detailed study into how people are seeing, or not seeing the API documentation and other resources we are providing. It is a dissertation for Robert Bennett Watson out of the University of Washington on the Effect of Visual Design and Information Content on Readers’ Assessments of API Reference Topics.

I gave the research paper a read through and it is some lofty academic stuff, but it touches on a number of the things I write about on API Evangelist when it comes to the cognitive load associated with understanding what an API does. I found the resulting conversation from the research to be the most interesting part, discussing how we can improve the flow with our API documentation and reduce interruption time, or as I often call it, “friction”. There are a wealth of ideas in there for helping us think more critically about our API documentation, which has been repeatedly identified as the number one problem area for our developers.

If you are in the business of creating any new API documentation startup your team should be digesting Mr. Watson’s work. This is the first official academic work I’ve seen on the subject of API documentation and is something I’ll be revisiting regularly, attempting to distil down any words of wisdom for my readers. I feel like this work is a sign of larger movements towards the API space beginning to get more coherent in how we approach our API operations. I’m hoping it is something that will lay the groundwork for some more useful API documentation services and tooling.