5 questions businesses need to ask before developing an API

This is a technical article that explains some of the things we do at CloudWork.

There has been an evolution in the API industry this year. While investors are chasing the market potential of application programming interfaces – with API management platforms like 3scale attracting sizeable new investment – the real industry evolution that is occurring is the awakening realization amongst businesses that APIs provide an opportunity to create a powerful new range of products and services.

Amongst business innovators, APIs are being talked about on a daily basis. While presenting at the Enterprise Conference and Expo, Sanofi Executive Brian Katz’s rebuked the creation of “crapplications” and encouraged businesses to “Instead of sharing proprietary internal data willy-nilly, expose it through secure application programming interfaces (APIs)”.

The fastest-growing businesses today are those obsessed with customer experience, and APIs are seen as part of this new focus by allowing businesses to provide greater value to their end customers. Creating an API is not just about making data available to end customers: it is about generating value in a way that flows from the business to the customer.

To help businesses conceptualize the design of a customer-focused API, I presented the following model at the recent APIdays Mediterranea. This API hierarchy model is developer-centric and based on the five core characteristics that must be considered when designing an API that will benefit end users.

API Hierarchy of Needs

This hierarchy can be used in business planning discussions centered on creating an API. By starting at the top with discussions around how end users can create value with the API, discussion can become increasingly grounded around a strong foundation based on usability for each API product.

How will your API create value for end users?

Start with a brainstorming discussion focused on some of the ways that your business customers will use the data you are planning to provide through an API. Such a discussion may also raise some of the security concerns around what data must be kept protected. Discuss the balance between protecting what business data is available to end customers while also fostering enough innovation and creativity so that customers can create value in ways that you don’t expect.

Will your API increase developer skills?

A growing marketing tool for many businesses is the capacity to mobilize an evangelist developer community. Creating an API with clear documentation stored in a logical flow of libraries fosters proficiency and makes it easier to create new products based on your core business offering. You can also consider making your API available only to registered developers – as has been the case for Google Glass and for telco giant AT&T – or hold hackathons to encourage product development.

Will your API work flawlessly?

Rate throttling – that is, cloud server policies that determine the priority that should be given to the flow of data – is becoming a core issue in API development. Understand your usage policies and ensure that reliability of your API will not be affected by your uptime or rate limiting. Working with an existing API management platform will address many of these concerns.

Will it work as expected?

The above questions may be giving rise to multiple ideas as to the functionality of your API. Now is the time to start cataloging these ideas separately. See which ideas can be packaged together into a useful product. Consider the priorities for customers, and which end uses fit your usage policies and your capacity to create developer resources. Businesses can consider the opportunities to create multiple API products and services, each based on a specific functionality.

Is it easy to set up and use?

Unknown to me at the time, my key message at APIdays foreshadowed Katz’s presentation to be delivered three days later and 9,000 kilometers away. Katz argued that app development should be focused on what’s best for users. Usability should be at the center of making APIs available to end customers. Usability trumps functionality: we all know of complex products that offer multiple solutions yet lie dormant on shop shelves because they are just too complicated to use. You can create multiple APIs with different functionalities, as long as each one has an unfettered, usable design interface.

Conclusion

The API market is heating up as all businesses seek to provide new connections and business entry points. Business APIs will be the new wave of product and service development activity over the coming year and a half. Having a structured way for a business to think through what API services to offer – such as using the hierarchy of API development model – will help foster new customer growth and loyalty.