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New topic in API course: Research on documenting code

by Tom Johnson on Jul 29, 2019 •
categories: academics-and-practitionersapi-doc

I added another topic to the Documenting Code section in my API documentation course. This new topic is called Research on documenting code and summarizes/discusses two academic articles on documenting code.

Here’s a summary of the content:

Before diving in to how to document code, let’s first explore some research that has been done on best practices for documenting code, as this can inform our direction and approach. A couple of academic articles stand out as noteworthy for this effort:

  • “When Not to Comment: Questions and Tradeoffs with API Documentation for C++ Projects” by Head et al. This article explores how developers at Google find and use documentation for code. The researchers found that for simple code, sometimes developers prefer to examine the code directly. However, for more complex code, developers consult the code’s documentation, often by looking in the formal class declarations for information they need; other times they look at comments in the implementation code. Besides providing guidance on the best location for documentation, the researchers also identify what type of answers and guidance developers want for the content of the documentation.

  • “How Developers Use API Documentation: An Observation Study” by Meng et al. In this article, the researchers look at how developers interact with API documentation and found a mix of both systematic (read-first, explore-later) and opportunistic (explore-first, read-later) learning styles. While we often write with systematic developers in mind, focusing on opportunistic behaviors might be more beneficial, and will cause us to look more closely at improving search, navigation, interactive components, troubleshooting, error messages, and other action-oriented features.

Read more here: Research on documenting code.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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