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26 October 2022

Software Development

API-First design—what is it and how to use it?

11 minutes reading

API-First design—what is it and how to use it?

There are many approaches to creating software. All of them aim for a useful and successful product, but they achieve it in different ways. One of the strategies is API-First design. Its goal is to increase time and money efficiency, increase user satisfaction and leverage work speed. Find out what exactly API-First design is, its benefits and how to implement it successfully to help gain a competitive advantage and satisfy customers.

What is an API?

To understand what API-First design is, we need to know the role of an API. API stands for Application Programming Interface. It is a software intermediary that allows two or more computer programs or applications to communicate with each other. 

API consists of definitions and protocols that allow for building and integrating software. This type of interface offers services to other pieces of software. 

The role of an API is to provide communication between products or services without having to know how the other product or service is implemented. For example, APIs are useful when one application needs data from another server to bring information to the user. So APIs provide developers flexibility and allow them to use ready components, saving them time and effort. 

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How does API-First design work?

As the name suggests, API-first design is an approach that puts APIs first in the whole development project. They are treated as the most important part of the product - they are the VIPs of your software. This means that developers focus not only on the APIs, but that the whole architecture is built in a way that ensures their efficiency. 

In this strategy, APIs are the most important way to access and interact with the product. Therefore, this approach relies on APIs being the primary interface of your application and, as a result, keeping end-users at the center of the development process.

API-First vs traditional design

The API-First approach is a relatively new concept. Before it, the design process looked quite different. The traditional approach focuses on the customer experience first, and the team then proceeds to fit APIs into the initial design. In API-First, we do it the other way around. API architecture is the core of the design process. The focus here is on how the data is transferred and manipulated to provide end-users with the information they need. 

Benefits of an API-First design

This approach provides development teams with more flexibility and allows them to create more complex and better applications. Development teams from companies like Uber, Twitter and Netflix used this approach to build some of the most successful apps ever. Let’s take a look at all the benefits this strategy brings to the development process. 

Time efficiency

API-First approach saves time. APIs are reusable components, so developers can use code from libraries. There are many good practices and solutions available. Using them allows development teams to avoid reinventing the wheel - that way, they have more time for more complex parts of the project and, as a result, provide a better, more innovative product.

Increases the speed to market

Once the API design is finished, developers can work on the next parts of the project. Unlike in the traditional approach, there is no need to wait for other components to be ready - developers can just plug into the same API. This increases the speed of the whole development process and prepares it for the market sooner. In addition, it gives a competitive advantage, and with a lot of competition on the market, apps need to be created fast and well. API-First approach provides just that. 

Developers can work simultaneously

The API-First approach focuses on creating a clear contract between services that is meant to be followed by development teams in the organization. Thanks to this, different development teams can work on multiple APIs parallel to each other. It makes the whole process quicker and more efficient because developers can do multiple tasks at the same time. 

Lower risk of failure

The API-First approach helps prevent a lot of dangers that come with developing an app. This concept is based on keeping everything together and having a consistent and reliable design. It reduces risks of failure because it is fairly easy for developers to use, and it is solid and stable. Moreover, API-First design puts focus on creating a positive developer experience (DX) by being consistent, well-designed and well-documented. Developers interact with APIs all the time, so it is highly important that their experience is pleasant and there are no issues that could potentially slow down the process. 

API-First design challenges 

Like any other approach to design, API-First has its challenges. Knowing them and taking them into consideration when implementing this strategy makes it easier to avoid them. Take a look at what you should be wary of when making the switch to API-First design.

Culture change

Adopting an API-First approach needs a mindset change - the team has to be able to treat APIs as their own products. This can be challenging for some. Here, executive-level support is essential and has to provide necessary assistance while making those changes. It is crucial that this approach is not only theoretical but that actual changes are made in the process, and with that, the culture and staffing might need to transform as well.

Diverse technology 

All APIs are independent products meaning each of them can choose their own technology stack. This can be a benefit as well as a challenge. It is definitely an advantage to be able to differentiate between technologies because it helps solve problems faster. But on the other hand, it can create a technological divergence between APIs. To prevent any risks, it is crucial that the developers have a broad set of skills and are supported. It is the company’s decision to choose the right staff and resources as that will highly affect the final product. 

Security

APIs are created to facilitate integration, so they have to be accessible via a network. This accessibility automatically puts them in danger of any sort of cyberattack. Moreover, the risks increase with the amount of APIs involved. This danger is certainly a challenge that one should keep in mind. To prevent any security flaws, it's good to include security protocols from the earliest stages of the design process. 

How to do it?

How to create a successful API that will provide developers with a positive experience and satisfy customers? Here are a few important points to remember that can help you adopt an API-First approach, grow your business, and gain a competitive advantage. 

  • The API is the first interface of your product.

That means that every available functionality of the product should be described by an API. This interface will be approached by users, so it’s important to keep in mind how they will interact with the APIs. 

  • Design APIs first, then the implementation.

This rule is the core of the API-First approach. You should treat the API infrastructure as the baseline of the product and build everything else around it. 

  • The API is properly described and reusable.

The point of spending time and effort on APIs is to be able to use them in the future. That’s why they should be deliberately described or even self-descriptive. In addition, there should be thorough documentation and an API contract that will allow future developers to use them efficiently.

Following these rules can help you in implementing the API-First design approach. 

Conclusion

The API-First approach is a highly beneficial strategy that can help boost your business and gain a competitive advantage. Having developers working in parallel on different things speeds up the whole development process and results in saving money and time. Additionally, API-First helps reduce the risk of failures, and its strong foundation keeps the design process efficient and effective, which is what everyone wants.    

If you want to learn more about APIs, check out our related articles:

Edyta

Edyta Kałka

Senior Project Manager