2.6 Returned Content

The returned content is the body of the message that the API returns in response to a request. This usually relates to the resource that was requested.

2.6.1 Resource Scope

The amount of data to return about a resource depends on several factors:

  • Business context - does all the resource information being returned have relevance to the business process or activity consumers will use it for?
  • Payload size and network efficiency - how much information does the resource contain, and is it so bulky it could impact network performance?
  • Usefulness - is the information in the returned content always useful to the consumer, or is it something they may need once but never again?

Analysis of the full resource data against these factors should help determine how much resource data is returned in the response.

2.6.2 Formats

REST responses should be of a format which is both human and machine readable. Even if your initial consumer is via B2B, the API should be designed, where possible, for all potential consumers. REST APIs should, by default, return content in JSON format. But it is good practice to support multiple message formats (e.g. XML, Multi-part MIME) and allow consuming applications to request the format they wish to consume (in line with the "Design for the Consumer" principle in Part A, section 4).

The response format required from a GET request must be indicated by the consumer in their request using the Accept header. For example:

#GET a resource and specify the response type

https://api.example.govt.nz/crown-property/0219c539-5885-4ab6-a55b-b0de7537c426

Accept: application/xml

 

#Response

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>

<CrownProperyResponseBody xmlns="https://api.example.com/CrownProperyResponse">

         <id>0219c539-5885-4ab6-a55b-b0de7537c426</id>

         <category>commercial</category>

         <location>

                 <streetName>Northbound Boulevard</streetName>

                 <town>Wellington</town>

                 <postalCode>6011</postalCode>

                 <countryCode>NZ</countryCode>

         </location>

         <pricing>

                 <rentFrequency>annual</rentFrequency>

                 <currencyCode>NZD</currencyCode>

                 <pricePerUnitArea>

                          <price>1000</price>

                          <units>squareMetre</units>

                 </pricePerUnitArea>

                 <transactionType>rent</transactionType>

         </pricing>

         <property_type>office</property_type>

         <areas>

                 <internal>

                          <minimum>

                                   <value>183</value>

                                   <units>squareMetre</units>

                          </minimum>

                          <maximum>

                                   <value>188</value>

                                   <units>squareMetre</units>

                          </maximum>

                 </internal>

         </areas>

         <detailedDescription>

                 <text>Free text describing the property in some way.</text>

         </detailedDescription>

         <tenancy>

                 <life_cycle_status>tennanted</life_cycle_status>

                 <nextReviewDate>2016-06-01</nextReviewDate>

         </tenancy>

</CrownProperyResponseBody>

The request format for a request containing a request body (POST, PUT, PATCH) must be supplied in the Content-Type request header. For example:

#PUT (update) a resource

https://api.example.govt.nz/crown-property

Content-Type: application/json

Accept: application/json

#Request BODY

{

  "id": "0219c539-5885-4ab6-a55b-b0de7537c426",

  "category": "commercial",

  "location": {

    "streetName": "Northbound Boulevard",

    "town": "Wellington",

    "postalCode": "6011",

    "countryCode": "NZ"

  },

  "pricing": {

    "rentFrequency": "annual",

    "currencyCode": "NZD",

    "pricePerUnitArea": {

      "price": 1000,

      "units": "squareMetre"

    },

    "transactionType": "rent"

  },

  "property_type": "office",

  "areas": {

    "internal": {

      "minimum": {

        "value": 183,

        "units": "squareMetre"

      },

      "maximum": {

        "value": 188,

        "units": "squareMetre"

      }

    }

  },

  "detailedDescription": [

    {

      "text": "Free text describing the property in some way."

    }

  ],

  "tennancy": {

    "life_cycle_status": "vacant",

    "nextReviewDate": "2016-07-01"

  }

}

For a good example of this in action, see the tabbed format options for presenting patient information on the FHIR site.

Where JSON format is used in responses, it must conform to the JSON Standard (RFC7159). In line with this standard, textual content should be UTF-8 encoded by default, and any deviations from this must be limited.

It in inadvisable to use APIs for returning binary data such as images in the response content; hyperlinks to images are the preferred returned response. But where images are returned, ensure that the image encoding is MIME, HTTP Multipart.

HTML is allowed, but is less flexible for consumer usage (e.g. how can it be consumed by a native mobile app?), ties content to presentation and loses its benefits when building a single page application. It also reduces the ability to filter the content in transit for consumers who have fine grained control on what they can access. However, it may be necessary for some forms of API e.g. APIs with geospatial content.

Avoid using bespoke formats in returned content.

RECOMMENDED

Returned content format should be JSON by default.

REQUIRED

Requests for a specific return format must be defined in the Accept header.

2.6.3 Layout

Responses should be a JSON object (not an array) by default. Using an array to return results limits the ability to include metadata about results, and limits the API's ability to add additional top-level properties in the future. Don't use unpredictable properties. Parsing a JSON response where properties are unpredictable (e.g. derived from data) is difficult, and adds friction for clients.

Example of good layout

{

  "response_meatadata": {

    "item1": "value1",

    "item2": "value2"

  },

  "responseArray": [

    {

      "name": "entity1",

      "type": "good"

    },

    {

      "name": "entity2",

      "type": "good"

    }

  ]

}

Example of bad layout

[

  {

    "name": "entity1",

    "type": "bad"

  },

  {

    "name": "entity2",

    "type": "bad"

  }

]

 

2.6.4 JSON Property Names

Within content, property names should conform to the following guidelines:

  • Property names should be meaningful names with defined semantics
  • Property names must be camel-case ASCII strings
  • The first character must be a letter or underscore (_)
  • Subsequent characters can be a letter, a digit, or underscore
  • Reserved JavaScript keywords should be avoided

2.6.5 Consistency

Preserve backwards compatibility with existing consumers of the API by returning expected fields and employing sensible default values for missing fields. Keep consistency of terminology throughout, so that the consumer is not misled. Avoid modifying the semantics of content to new meanings, e.g. don’t change a 'title' field from meaning the title of the page, to meaning the prefix for a name to the person’s job title.

2.6.6 Singletons vs. Collections

Some API GET calls will return a single resource item (e.g. GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/12345) whereas some calls will return a collection of resource items (e.g. GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers), and the handling and error treatment can be different.

A single item will generally consist of all the pertinent fundamental details about the resource, and the GET will return these fundamental details.

Example

#GET a single passenger resource by ID

GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/12345

Accept: application/json,version=1.*

{

  “id”: 12345,

  “names”: {

    “firstName”: “John”,

    “middleName”: “Howard”,

    “lastName”: “Doe”,

    “salutation”: “Mr John Doe”,

    “title”: “Mr”

  },

  “addresses”: [

    {

      “type”: “home”,

      “address1”: “1 Some Street”,

      “address2”: “Some Suburb”,

      “address3”: “Some City”,

      “address4”: null,

      “country”: “New Zealand”,

      “postcode”: 1111

    },

    {

      “type”: “business”,

      “address1”: “2 Work Street”,

      “address2”: “Work Suburb”,

      “address3”: “Work City”,

      “address4”: null,

      “country”: “New Zealand”,

      “postcode”: 2222

    }

  ]

}

If passenger 12345 did not exist, the HTTP return code would be 404.

If a requested sub resource did not exist e.g. addresses for passenger 54321: GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/54321/addresses an HTTP 404 response would not be valid. The correct response would contain an empty array:

#GET a single passenger address resource by ID

GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/54321/addresses

Accept: application/json,version=1.*

{

  “id”: 54321,

  “addresses”: [

    {

      “type”: null,

      “address1”: null,

      “address2”: null,

      “address3”: null,

      “address4”: null,

      “country”: null,

      “postcode”: null

    }

  ]

}

A collection will take the form of an array of the given resources, including any related metadata. The collection returned should be the complete set, leaving it to the consumer to reduce the quantity of information returned by sending filters in the resource request (see section 2.4.6, Query Arguments). The only reason the collection should be filtered by the API provider is based on the security context; the API consumer should only gain access to what that consumer is allowed to see. It is advisable to aim for consistent naming of collection resource fields, as this enables application developers to create generic handling of the data from across various resource collections offered by the API. Collection resources should not contain binary attachments or other content that will lead to large response payloads.

Note that the example below is contrived and it would be rare to expose a resource collection as large as passengers.

Example

#GET a collection of passenger resources

GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers

Accept: application/json,version=1.*

{

  “passengers”: [

    {

      “id”: 12345,

      “names”: {

        “firstName”: “John”,

        “middleName”: “Howard”,

        “lastName”: “Doe”,

        “salutation”: “Mr John Doe”,

        “title”: “Mr”

      }

    },

    {

      “id”: 98765,

      “names”: {

        “firstName”: “Mary”,

        “middleName”: “Pauline”,

        “lastName”: “Smith”,

        “salutation”: “Ms Mary Smith”,

        “title”: “Ms”

      }

    },

    {

      “…..lots more passengers here…..”: “…”

    }

  ],

  “_links”: [

    {

      “rel”: “12345”,

      “href”: “https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/12345”

    },

    {

      “rel”: “98765”,

      “href”: “https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/98765”

    },

    {

      “…..lots more links here…..”: “…”

    }

  ]

}

If there were no results from a query against a filter, e.g. passengers booked on a specific flight (GET https://api.example.govt.nz/passengers/flights/1234), the return value would be a 200 response code, because the query is not invalid and there may be such data in the future.

2.6.7 HATEOAS

HATEOAS, or Hypermedia as the Engine of Application State, is the principle of not just returning a response to a request, but also returning links to other useful capabilities. So if a POST has just been used to create an item, the response could return links to options to update the item, delete the item and view other items of the same type. This makes it possible for UIs which utilise an API to be automatically generated (in terms of hyperlinks) and adaptable to change (response content links). 

If a web page effectively captures a single state in time, then hyperlinks are transitions to other states. The HATEOAS principle suggests that REST should return not only response content (current state) but also links to transitions to other states. This could result in thinner clients and fatter APIs, and means UIs need to be built to adapt to potential new transitions, but makes it possible to update all UIs no matter what platform they sit on (mobile app, web application etc.).

For example, consider the following representation of a person and sequence of requests:

This example assumes that an address is a unique resource in its own right and that people are associated with addresses. (This may not always be a practical application and the example is used just to illustrate the hypermedia concept.)

1.         User submits a request for a person record:

# Request person details:

GET https://api.example.govt.nz/people/c70d37cf-3314-4a24-a2c3-0fca7ec0943f

Host: www.example.com

Accept: application/json;q=1.0

 

# Response with person details:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK

Content-Location: https://api.example.govt.nz/people/c70d37cf-3314-4a24-a2c3-0fca7ec0943f

Content-Type: application/json;charset=UTF-8

Cache-control: max-age=3600,must-revalidate

{

  "personId": "d9e1a2f6-6bc9-46af-9dbb-50de7f6eacd5",

  "name": "Joe Bloggs",

  "email": "joe.bloggs@example.com",

  "addresses": [

    {

      "id": "5046b8f2-e8aa-4ec9-a597-34d01af0fd32",

      "streetNumber": "12",

      "streetName": "Somewhere Street",

      "City": "Springfield",

      "type": "home"

    },

    {

      "id": "18a1a85c-3b1e-41b9-909c-668f2a803b69",

      "streetNumber": "1",

      "streetName": "Some Other Street",

      "City": "Springfield",

      "type": "business"

    }

  ],

  "_links": [

    {

      "rel": "self",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/people/d9e1a2f6-6bc9-46af-9dbb-50de7f6eacd5"

    },

    {

      "rel": "address1",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/046b8f2-e8aa-4ec9-a597-34d01af0fd32"

    },

    {

     
"rel": "address2",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/18a1a85c-3b1e-41b9-909c-668f2a803b69"

    }

  ]

}

Assume an intermediate proxy were to cache that response as directed by the cache control header.

2.         The user then updates the address details changing the street number:

# Request to update the address details:

PUT https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/d9e1a2f6-6bc9-46af-9dbb-50de7f6eacd5 HTTP/1.1

Host: api.example.govt.nz

Content-Type: application/json

{

    "streetNumber": "12a",

    "streetName": "Somewhere Street",

    "City": "Springfield"

}

# Response that the update was successful:

HTTP/1.1 204 No Content

Location: https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/046b8f2-e8aa-4ec9-a597-34d01af0fd32

 

If the user were now to re-fetch the person details again as per step 1, the representation would contain a stale version of the address (street number 12 instead of 12a) because the address representation had been cached. This caching could occur anywhere along the network path (including public internet) between the server and client.

Using hypermedia links for related resources improves the visibility of the API, and avoids these types of problems. Consider the revised person representation below:

{

  "personId": "d9e1a2f6-6bc9-46af-9dbb-50de7f6eacd5",

  "name": "JoeBloggs",

  "email": "joe.bloggs@example.com",

  "addresses": [

    {

      "rel": "self",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/5046b8f2-e8aa-4ec9-a597-34d01af0fd32"

    },

    {

      "rel": "self",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/addresses/18a1a85c-3b1e-41b9-909c-668f2a803b69"

    }

  ],

  "_links": [

    {

      "rel": "self",

      "href": "https://api.example.govt.nz/people/d9e1a2f6-6bc9-46af-9dbb-50de7f6eacd5"

    }

  ]

}

Using this approach, the embedded object is replaced with a link to the “real” object. Although this approach requires a larger number of network requests, it avoids the stale data problems and reduces payload size, which is an important consideration for APIs being used by mobile devices or over high latency networks.

Page last updated: 18/12/2016