Documentation Driven Design

Nov 06, 2015 | Ellis Berner

When consumers first get acquainted with an API, they'll often turn to documentation. This is a natural starting point for most consumers, especially since APIs are so prominent in development. Why, then, do we start with writing tests for code? The short answer: we don’t.

At Doximity, we often write the documentation for our APIs before writing the first line of code. Tom Preston-Werner actually wrote about the benefits of this type of documentation in his blog post Readme Driven Development. Over time, we've found a way of streamlining this workflow to offer benefits for both developers and consumers alike.

The Workflow

First, we write a draft of the documentation, including an example request and response. After receiving edits from the consumer, our iOS team, we make the necessary revisions. This feedback loop assures all shareholders, project manager included, agree on a final product. (This is similar to the process that user interface design mocks go through before development.) After this loop is complete, we write the failing tests that support and drive the code as we normally would.


To help us with this process we use the Apiary service, which hosts our documentation. But to call them a mere host misses the point. Apiary champions a documentation format, API blueprint, which standardizes the way to write documentation. After comparing a few different products in this area, like Swagger and RAML, we decided on Apiary. The ease of learning API blueprint’s syntax, especially for less technical people, was too appealing to pass up.

Apiary also runs a web server for the defined endpoints themselves. The HTTP server responds with the JSON found in the example of the documentation. This is a powerful feature. It allows the iOS team to start developing against it as soon as we finish the documentation. There are two other tools built around the mock API that are logical derivatives. The first is the proxy API. This tool proxies requests through Apiary to any server, such as a staging server. When debugging a request or its response, it helps to match the expected with the actual. To that end, Apiary provides a diff. Finally, while consumers are reading an API's docs, they can send requests to a production server. By adding a header for authorization, the browser will send the request to the server.

Final Thoughts

There are many other natural benefits to this style of driving design. Our documentation serves as a transparent boundary for our teams as we grow as a company, And our development team can stub the responses from services. Apiary can help with that. The blame for what team owns a bug goes from fuzzy to clear. We can even write tests for the documentation itself. It's well worth the cost of the initial time spent writing documentation if we can continue to have a meeting of the minds later on.