It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that APIs are the cornerstone of modern technology. If you’ve ever taken a computer science class, you’ll know that programming can get pretty boring when there’s nothing to link your application to.
Enter the “Application Programming Interface,” or “API,” and all of a sudden you have the tools needed to pull data from all around the world, using services that others have already built to make the most of physical data sensors, internet, and mobile technology. APIs are how you’re able to log into Spotify using Facebook or order an Uber through Google Maps!
There are dozens of short ‘n’ sweet ways to describe what an API is, and our editor Bill Doerrfeld reached out to get your suggestions. We’ll feature some of our favorites throughout this article…
“[APIs are] secure, flexible data pipes that let you program computers to talk to each other when you’re not around.” – Dan Dilamarter on LinkedIn
So if these APIs are so important and that easy to explain, how come half of the population has never heard of them? For starters, we’re not telling anyone about APIs; what’s more, the techy abbreviation is putting people off; and finally, nobody really gets how important they are — but more fundamentally, does the public even need to know?
Why Awareness Matters
APIs play a super important role in modern tech; however, does the general public really need to know how they work, or even that they exist?
Truth be told, the answer is probably not. In the same way we don’t need to understand the inner-workings of a car to make the most of it, we don’t need to know anything about APIs to interact with contemporary electronics.
With that said, promoting awareness for APIs is definitely not a lost-cause. It’s always fascinating to understand how things work, but more importantly, a basic understanding of API technology gives users a huge insight into both the privacy and security aspects of the tech they’re using. This can’t be overstated given the recent movement towards improved consumer data protection.
“APIs are contracts that define what data a software application will send you; they are a promise, that says if you send me this input, I will send you that output.” – Eyal Sivan on LinkedIn
And that’s just the general public. API cases have recently travelled to the supreme court, and other government involvement has grappled the API topic, underlining a need for wider visibility on the subject in politics.
Also, plenty of executive decision makers need to understand the importance of APIs, regardless of whether they touch the code. That’s because, at the end of the day, they’re often the ones allocating funding to various projects, and if they can’t understand what an API is (let alone what a particular product is built for) then it might never see the light of day.
“What’s an API?”
The first and most obvious reason why the public isn’t familiar with the concept of an “API” is because as API owners and developers, we’re not telling anyone about them.
Think about it: 20 years ago, would anyone have known what a “cookie” is? Perhaps 0.01% of the population. Fast-forward to 2018 and anyone who uses the internet is completely familiar with the concept of the cookie — a tidbit of information that’s stored on the user’s computer to remember their browsing session.
And the reason for that is that in 2012, a European law came into effect stipulating that any website using cookies would have to let users know about it, and offer them the option to accept or decline their use. The result was a daily bombardment of dozens of cookie notifications (often intrusive ones, as well) which quickly got the public up to speed.
Pit that against the API, which the end-user probably hears about once every month (and that would be a good month!). The public has never heard of APIs simply because we’re not telling them, and this is something completely in our power to change.
And remember, it’s not like APIs are an incredibly tough topic to explain:
A user interface is how a person uses software. An application programming interface is how software uses software.
— Not Fake Adam Kalsey (@akalsey) July 10, 2018
The next cause of an almost-embarrassing lack of awareness for APIs is the complicated initialism that is “API.”
Acronyms and initialisms have a tendency to put people off. They’re not self-explanatory and alienate those that don’t understand the reference. However, it gets worse when you decode the initialism and get “Application Programming Interface”.
For starters, interface isn’t exactly the most approachable word. While you can mostly extrapolate the technical meaning of the word from the everyday one, it’s still a little off-putting. To add to that, we’ve got application and programming thrown into the mix, as if the public wasn’t already scared enough. It doesn’t sound quite as cute and tasty as “cookie”, right?
The thing is, the concept itself isn’t actually that complicated if all you need is a basic understanding. It’s a mechanism by which two programs talk to each other — voila!
The intimidating name makes us think otherwise, and while it doesn’t make much sense to start calling APIs something else, we’ll always have a slightly harder job explaining the idea as the initialism inevitably gets muddled up and forgotten.
For best results, try comparing APIs to everyone’s favorite building blocks:
“You can combine APIs like Lego bricks to create a value chain. You integrate APIs into your application rather than inventing the wheel again, which makes you faster and better.” – Amancio Bouza on LinkedIn
“Why do I care?”
A final reason for the general population’s lack of API-savviness is that the importance of APIs simply isn’t stressed. As mentioned earlier, there would be an extremely limited number of possibilities for software if not for some kind of communication between them.
As API owners and developers, we tend not to make it clear just how important our work is. Instead of spending time breaking down the initialism that is API or explaining the technical premises at play (which we can’t expect everyone to understand), we should focus on promoting some base level of awareness.
The easiest way to promote just that little bit of awareness is by explaining the everyday important of APIs — and giving examples. That way the concept is a lot more likely to stick around.
I’m almost always describing APIs in relation to my job, so I say “APIs are how websites talk to each other. Have you ever used the ‘Log in with Facebook’ feature on a website? Well once you log in, an API is how that website accesses your Facebook information.”
— Aaron Hedges (@Dashron) July 10, 2018
How to Increase Public Awareness Around APIs
It’s all good speculating about the reasons for a lack of API knowledge among the public, but — since we’ve seen why that knowledge would come in handy — what can we do to improve it?
Changing the name — API — isn’t the most feasible option, which leaves us with promoting APIs more and further stressing their importance.
Promotion is exactly what you’d expect. Where possible, let end users understand that the product they’re using is powered by an API. Take that same opportunity to briefly explain what an API is and how it works.
“You ask the butler for something and the butler does the task, returns you back whatever you’re expecting.” – Sanath Kumar on LinkedIn
This can be as explicit as you like. Whether it’s a small caption that says “This feature is powered by Yahoo’s Weather API, which tells us tomorrow’s forecast” or a YouTube video that explains the product, it’s still something.
As for reinforcing the importance of APIs, it’s as easy as it sounds. When explaining API technology to others — whether its face-to-face or through web — be sure to give concrete examples (preferably relatable ones) of just how integral they are. Some suggestions include social media sharing and login functions, mobile email clients, and price comparison websites.
Technology competence is on the rise, and APIs are the one big thing that’s shaping how modern gadgets develop — so why has nobody heard of them? It’s thanks to a number of reasons, starting with the fact that we’re simply not telling people.
Of course there is still the argument that most users do not need this information. However, if you’d like to see people fascinated by the ingenuity of APIs (and not just raising an eyebrow when you mention those dreaded three letters), it’s time to start informing end users about this clever concept and just how important it is.