Developer Accessible APIs

Many providers get users started off on their API by pointing them to an extensive set of documents, designed to help build a conceptual model for those users to leverage later when they start to build something with it. Because asking users to consume significant documentation upfront is a lot to ask these days, a common pattern is to include a set of examples and tutorials to help get users up and running as quickly possible. These are effective and time-proven techniques, but there’s still room for improvement. Consider these problems:

  • API behavior must be documented exhaustively as developers have no easy way of checking particular cases for themselves. This documentation is expensive to create and maintain, and without a rigid process to keep it updated, will inevitably fall into disrepair.
  • Documentation will never be able to cover every possible case. At the end of the day, the best way to be sure of the API’s behavior in some corner case is to try the API itself.
  • Tutorials and examples must often make assumptions based on what languages and tools users are expected to use. Users left without relevant documents will often have to project one of the available documents onto their own toolset, for example a developer coding in Clojure and following a Ruby tutorial.

It’s possible to solve some of these problems by ensuring that APIs are developer accessible, meaning that rather than only optimizing for the case of those applications that will be consuming them over the long run, they also cater to those developers that are learning the API in order to build new products with it. Developers using the API this way will be coming in and making manual one-off calls with their tools of choice, before transcribing those calls to the more permanent medium of whatever applications they build.

This kind of accessibility isn’t just good for jumpstarting new developers either. As the existing API economy becomes ever more prominent, we have to consider that over a long enough period of time, changes in either clients or the APIs themselves will inexorably lead to breakages. In such situations, we should aim to make it as easy as possible for a developer to jump in with their toolkit and quickly figure out what’s going on so that the problem can be remedied.

Developer accessibility is more of an idea than any particular method, and as such there’s no definite way of implementing it, but a number of patterns that we see in the wild can help to illustrate the concept.

Much of the added complexity around OAuth 1 stems from the extra layer of security that was built on top of it. OAuth 2 simply relies on HTTPS to take care of this, and the result is a much more usable protocol. While OAuth 1 APIs often need to be called through specialized consumer libraries, calls to OAuth 2 APIs can generally be made with any generic client, including plain old Curl, which significantly lowers the barrier of entry to an API.

Even Twitter, well known for its restrictive APIs has an easy way of procuring an OAuth 2 access token.

A very simple pattern for use with OAuth 2 is allowing users to authorize with a bearer token via the Authorization header. This ensures that any client that can send an HTTP header has an easy way in without needing to do base64-encoding.

curl -H "Authorization: Bearer 01234567-89ab-cdef-0123-456789abcdef" ...

A consistent theme across many patterns is simply that an API should be accessible to any generic HTTP client, with Curl occupying the place of that baseline tool in many of our kits due to its relative ubiquity. Good Curl accessibility is useful for both new developers who can start experimenting with an API immediately, and for the API owners themselves, who can take advantage of it during the development of new API features as well.

A very simple pattern of immediately improving an API’s Curlabiliity is to prettify JSON output for Curl clients as I’ve previously described.

It can be quite helpful to return metadata about the current request and the current endpoint for a developer to digest while they’re testing calls against an API.

For example, a fairly general problem with APIs being consumed by OAuth-enabled apps is that apps will often request scopes with more liberal permissions than the app actually needs, which isn’t ideal from a security perspective. By returning a header like OAuth-Scope-Accepted below, we give developers an easy way to determine what permissisions are needed on the endpoints they’re accessing, allowing them to lock down their scope before releasing an app.

Oauth-Scope: global
Oauth-Scope-Accepted: global identity

For our V3 platform API at Heroku, list ordering is accomplished by specifying that order through a Range header, but ordering can only be carried out on particular fields. Those fields can either be looked up in the reference documentation, or a developer can easily check which ones are supported by inspecting the Accept-Ranges header that comes back with list responses:

Accept-Ranges: id, name
Range: id ..

I’ve previously talked about how Rack service stubs can be used to improve the development and testing experience of apps that are heavily dependent on external APIs. An API can also ship its own service stub, which allows developers to try API calls that might otherwise mutate data when done in a production environment. See the Heroku API stub for an example of this technique.

An interesting Hypermedia-related technique that’s gaining some traction is to provide a set of links at an API’s root that point to other available endpoints. Coupled with strong RESTful conventions, this might allow a developer to skip the reference documentation completely by learning the API by navigating around it with Curl.

Try GitHub’s root to see this in the real world:


  "current_user_url": "",
  "authorizations_url": "",
  "emails_url": "",
  "emojis_url": "",
  "events_url": "",
  "feeds_url": "",
  "following_url": "{/target}",
  "gists_url": "{/gist_id}",
  "hub_url": "",
  "issue_search_url": "{owner}/{repo}/{state}/{keyword}",
  "issues_url": "",
  "keys_url": "",
  "notifications_url": "",
  "organization_repositories_url": "{org}/repos/{?type,page,per_page,sort}",
  "organization_url": "{org}",
  "public_gists_url": "",
  "rate_limit_url": "",
  "repository_url": "{owner}/{repo}",
  "repository_search_url": "{keyword}{?language,start_page}",
  "current_user_repositories_url": "{?type,page,per_page,sort}",
  "starred_url": "{/owner}{/repo}",
  "starred_gists_url": "",
  "team_url": "",
  "user_url": "{user}",
  "user_organizations_url": "",
  "user_repositories_url": "{user}/repos{?type,page,per_page,sort}",
  "user_search_url": "{keyword}"

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.