How Design-First Strategy Affects Your APIs — and Brand

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These days, every company is an eCommerce company. Even if you don't have an eCommerce platform, every digital transaction of information or revenue needs to occur seamlessly. This offers a world of opportunities to roll out new innovations and optimize transactions, but it's also an all-out scramble. As you work to build your company's digital presence, you'll discover that APIs are the connective glue that holds your brand together.

If you choose a design-first strategy, developers can consume your APIs more easily, lowering barriers to entry and extending your brand's reach. A design-first approach for APIs is the same basic concept as drawing the blueprint for a house before starting construction. You begin by creating the API design and spec and making them available before your developers write a line of code.

Companies that adopt this process do things significantly better than those competitors who code first without thinking about design. They achieve more standardization across their development and drive a higher level of efficiency as they build their APIs. This is important, because when you start the development process, the design allows you to kick off multiple pieces at once, rather than operating in a more serial manner. When you have the design, you can either create a mock or virtualize the service, so people can test against it rather than having to wait for something to be code-complete or QA-ready.

The Extra Step for Success

Many companies also use design-first strategies to start a cultural shift in how they approach development. It presents benefits in terms of thinking about how APIs are being consumed and illustrates the importance of standardization. It also means companies are thinking about APIs not only in terms of the developers who will build them, but also the developers who will consume them.

A key piece of doing design-first well is pulling together what the bones of an API should look like and deciding how you should standardize that across your team. Key elements to think about when standardizing your APIs can include industry standards like Open Banking in financial services or interoperability standards like FHIR in healthcare. Beyond those, teams should determine a consistent framework that focuses on how they want API consumers to interact with their digital brand, and how they can ensure their audience has a good experience with their APIs.

It's also important to accelerate that process through the editor and the easy creation of an OpenAPI file if you're using REST or another specification or protocol. From there, you can focus on making workflows that give developers and teams quick feedback, whether that's a syntax challenge or an error created from the generator. By building to a design developers can quickly see, they can reference that design and reinforce those standards in real-time.

While someone is building the API, they're able to pull up the design created by the team-lead developer or architect, and then they can reference that design as they're making it. They can get feedback when they do something that violates the design or the standard design is dictating.

Upfront Planning Also Means Better Teamwork

Another key to design-first, one that's critical as teams think about how to manage this at scale, is the ability to collaborate on an API and on an API design. APIs can be spun up easily from a developer team, but there's a risk of doing this without giving much thought to the extended use cases.

The design-first methodology allows you to bring in a more comprehensive requirements phase, where you're doing some coordination and planning, thinking about how the API is going to be consumed and who the consumers will be. Many different use cases will split off: Will the API be strictly for internal processes and development inside your own development teams, or will this API be exposed to your partners or publicly to the market? You'll be deriving value from that API in many ways, and that makes it an essential product.

The design-first methodology lets you determine the right requirements for your given use case for that API and allows you to design around those requirements. That informs a lot of how you build out the experience around the API.

The Power of Consumption

Development dollars are highly sought after right now, and the opportunity cost is incredible. APIs are critical to that. When your APIs are easier to consume, that makes you easier to partner with and easier for people to consume your brand, extend it, and build it into theirs.

If you have a more consumable experience and you're easier to integrate with, you lower your barrier to entry. Thus, you're able to create a more popular brand for yourself and more easily extend yourself through that. For companies whose APIs are their product, ultimately, that API becomes a huge part of their user experience. If you're selling your product and an API is one of the primary methods for accessing it, you must think about how people can consume it as that will dictate the success or failure of your adoption.

APIs Standards Can Only Help the Brand

So much of the world today is transacted digitally. There are often significant dependencies across a partnership network with different resell channels, resulting in diverse go-to-market motions. The thought process around how APIs are part of your digital brand will significantly impact how your digital frontend is consumed.

Your digital brand is not just defined by your website but by how people interact with it. Both as, "I'm a user that showed up to your website through a UI," and as, "I'm looking to consume your products via the API or a more programmatic method." As a company, you're forced to think on both sides of that equation because that's how your overall digital experience will be perceived.

Especially today, where software is eating the world, and inside of software APIs are eating the world, even companies focused on clothing or non-traditional technical items are thinking about how people can interface directly with their digital brand. It helps them extend their reach and become more pervasive to the ecosystem they're trying to talk to. It also affects how people think of them as a reliable partner or source of truth.

Standardize Now

As we think about design-first, companies must get on board with the cultural shift toward acknowledging that design-first is a practice they want to pursue. By doing so, they can gain the benefits of standardization.

Ultimately, governance around APIs is worth the effort of shifting the existing culture inside of the engineering and development organization.