Developer Portals Need to Be Unique to Stand Out

Developer Portals Need to Be Unique to Stand Out

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APIs are becoming serious business drivers. Impressively, the economic impact of APIs is expected to account for 9.4% of US GDP by 2027, according to a new report from Kong. Simultaneously, AI is driven by APIs, meaning their importance has skyrocketed with the latest AI innovations. The doorway to these APIs is the developer portal, which is often a new user’s first impression of an API and its innerworkings.

According to Ron Huber, Founder at Apiboost and CEO of Achieve Internet, the major cloud providers and API managers only go so far with their integrated developer portals. The barebones developer portals they generate rarely provide enough information or customization capabilities. They’re also not often fine-tuned to individual user profiles out-of-the-box, either.

I recently chatted with Huber to explore the status quo around developer portals and the drawbacks of keeping them relatively uninviting. Below, we’ll highlight the developer experience benefits of creating more customized portals, what goes into doing so, and consider if this could improve customer adoption.

The Status Quo of API Developer Portals

Ron Huber, Founder of Apiboost and CEO of Achieve Internet.

Most API developer portals are pretty basic in design and feature sets. “The status quo is that they are very limited,” says Huber. Many developer portals are literally just document repositories, he says, lacking flexible enterprise features such as administrative oversight, focus on multiple audiences such as partners, and compliance and governance controls. “We find folks often want these abilities within the portal itself, as opposed to having internal developers get lost in the API management backend.”

Another area they tend to miss the mark on is traditional user experience design and style customization. A unique developer portal is just like any other website that requires the proper forethought around design and branding. “Developers still react very strongly to bad websites,” says Huber. “If your portal is too barebones, you’re throwing away all the lessons learned about how people ingest things online.”

What Is A Good DX For Developer Portals?

So, what do good developer portals look like? Well, developer portals are necessary for communicating pertinent API information. And if this information is not structured intuitively, it can harm onboarding and ongoing use.

Developer portals, says Huber, don’t always excel at seamlessly disseminating information, like through advanced search abilities. Other perks that make for great developer experiences include one-click try-it-now buttons and instant support for multiple programming languages. Developer portals, he says, often lack those sorts of niceties, which degrades the usability.

According to Huber, another aspect developer portals typically lack is the ability to segment capabilities for various user identities. He notices API providers often want to provide “multiple levels of access” to their developer portals for different roles, such as internal administrators, other internal teams, partners, or contractors, without requiring developers to log into the backend API management platform. The need to segment use is amplified as an API catalog grows.

The Benefits of Custom Developer Portals

To date, the idea of unique developer portals is a pretty nascent concept. Most software providers simply spin up your standard three-columned API reference layout without much additional personalization or additional context. “Most companies haven’t even come close to the thought of a custom developer portal,” says Huber. While there is something to be said for having familiar portals across the industry, creating more unique developer portals can reap a handful of benefits, says Huber.

Appeal to Different Consumer Types

There are many potential consumer types for APIs. Interestingly, 53% of the participants in Postman’s 2023 State of the API survey were non-developers, indicating that a wide array of roles are interested in using APIs.

“You need different paths for different consumer types,” says Huber. The majority of developers, for instance, will instantly require a path toward deep technical documentation. On the other hand, a product manager will likely want to sign up and read case studies before giving it a go. No-code developers are looking for quick and easy fixes, requiring different modes of interaction.

Custom portals could better appeal to these various consumers. “We need a robust API dev portal to attract a bigger audience and increase adoption,” says Huber. Without these elements, your portal could be myopic, catering only to high-end developers and leaving a good portion of the user base out of the loop.

Match The Company’s Style

It isn’t enough these days to throw an API online — it needs to be baked with great user experience, usability, and discoverability — just like any other online resource. “Not tying this into modern practices and ignoring what we’ve learned is a detriment to any program,” says Huber, speaking from his decades spent building custom websites.

A big part of this is having the developer portal match the look and feel of the corporate entity. If you look at the developer catalogs for big names like UPS, American Express, or Kroger, you’ll see that the font, colors, styling, buttons, and graphics are all consistent and unique to the corporate image. These corporations typically invest much into composing a style guide. “If you’ve spent millions perfecting the UX of your websites, so why wouldn’t you use those elements in your developer portal?” asks Huber.

The same user experience standards we have come to expect for frontend experiences are just as valid for developer portals. However, this historically hasn’t been the case for most developer-facing presences. “I’d estimate that less than 10% of developer portals involve their marketing departments,” says Huber. Instead of building out a developer portal and then showing marketing, he recommends involving them earlier on in the process.

AI Optimization

Another nascent area of developer portals and documentation that will require some custom development is positioning these resources for AI consumption. As of now, public large language models (LLMs) are actively ingesting all kinds of sources, from YouTube videos to Stack Overflow forums, old blog posts, and more, which often contain errors or outdated information. Finetuning your internal resources to ensure they are accurate and reflect the current state of your API will be critical to taking advantage of new innovations in AI, and the developer experience benefits they yield.

How Quality Developer Portals Benefit The Business

APIs are increasingly at the center of not only developer operations, but revenue generation. Impressively, 42.6% of organizations are already monetizing their APIs, according to a 2022 report from Rapid. Quality developer portals bring discoverability and efficiency benefits, which benefit overall API adoption. And here, the small wins pay out. “If you’re able to increase API adoption by 3%, it could be very significant,” says Huber.

Still, achieving tangible outcomes is impossible without impeccable developer portals that cater to individual subgroups, incorporate more user experience forethought, and fit the tone of the company. “If you’re going to get your senior people involved, you need to put way more thought into your portal,” says Huber. “Don’t treat it as an IT tool which is basically an operational expense.”
At the end of the day, APIs are products and should be treated as such, notes Huber. “If APIs are a revenue-generating function, then you need to get your senior managers and strategic folks involved in this whole process.” Interestingly, the tides seem to be turning as more top-down interest in API programs has emerged in recent years.

As part of this trend, savvy executives know improving developer portals is no longer just a competitive advantage — it’s becoming a pivotal activity for IT to meet its business goals. “Developer portals are a vital and growing part of any enterprise,” says Huber. “Not including them in strategic planning is not only a missed revenue opportunity but could be a competitive disaster in the long run.”