API productization: The three essential elements
The world has become a very different place. As consumers, we’re shaping our digital ecosystems to meet the needs of the moment. We no longer need to wait for new release features or the latest integrations to bring our connected devices to life or make work from home more efficient.
The democratization of software is empowering us to innovate for ourselves. Amazon Alexa skills, Apple Shortcuts, Samsung Smart Things, IFTTT, and a wide range of other systems have allowed us to build our own personal ecosystem of services, connected things, and then choose how they interact without ever asking any of the companies behind these services for help.
Do you want to play your Spotify account on your fridge? What about dimming your living room lights when your Nest thermostat is set to away? Maybe use Alexa to dictate your next presentation?
Now imagine creating that same dynamic inside your organization and having these newfound capabilities filter out to your customers and partners through the innovative solutions you develop.
This is the power of API productization. Yet many organizations still view APIs solely through the lens of integration, which will only result in companies missing out on this new economy. To create effective products, you need dedicated product owners that focus on these three elements.
API productization isn’t just about making software available through a developer portal. Your APIs need to be consumable in a fully independent manner, just like how you connect your smart doorbell to your phone with a touch of a button. To democratize a service and create a great product, it needs to be easy to use.
To lower the bar for adoption and acquisition, APIs need to be discoverable. Developers need to be able to easily understand how APIs function in a language that is natural to them. Common usage scenarios that often require combinations of APIs should be clearly expressed. Their first successful request/response should be achievable in less than 30 minutes.
API documentation must be clear and concise, meaning that it needs to be what we call “just enough.” With just enough info, just enough guardrails, and just enough direction, your developers can color within the lines of established API protocols. All APIs in a single developer portal should adopt the same API design and documentation standards so that your API products have some semblance of consistency, like any great product line.
The creation of safe environments (or sandboxes) for consumer development is an essential aspect of productization. Dedicated testing environments (separate from the teams that built the API products) directly enable consuming developers to operate independently. This is in stark contrast to the way in which most organizations behave, where consumers and producers must rely on deep collaboration to achieve predefined “integration.” This collaboration both stifles innovation and the rate of change while dramatically increasing costs. Alternatively, API productization unlocks independent creativity leading to rapid and unexpected innovation and the creation of value.
A product that lasts the test of time has the appeal of elegant design. Whether that’s the ever-popular Herman Miller desk chair, the clean lines of an iPhone, or an elegant API, the designs must use simple, unambiguous language that’s familiar to the consumer. There are several precepts of elegant design:
- Affordance: The design must clearly exhibit intuitive use.
- Simplicity: A minimalist approach affords the widest acceptance.
- Flexibility: While an API should not be all things to everybody, it needs to be able to be adapted to the needs of the end-consumer within certain constraints.
- Forgiving: Consumers should be able to drop it, step on it, or throw it around without breaking it. In more concrete terms, APIs need to be forgiving of mistakes in requests while being predictable and consistent in both behavior and responses.
While you can democratize a really bad API, to create difference and value, your API products need to be useful, intuitive, and independently consumable. That is elegant design.
Singularity of design
Singularity of design is critical. In other words, each capability should only be expressed as a single API. If variants are necessary, make it exceptionally clear how they differ.
Each API should serve a singular purpose. Consumers of APIs need to be able to understand why they vary, what the variance is, and how to choose the correct API for their needs. Just as in consumer goods, when a customer needs a pair of running shoes and is presented with hundreds of options for different terrain, foot shape, and materials, she quickly loses the ability to choose for herself and instead needs guidance from an expert. This directly and negatively impacts self-service and destroys consumer autonomy.
Multivariance is a barrier to independent consumption when it comes to APIs.
Self-service, elegance, and singularity should be the driving elements of API productization. They contribute not only to democratization but also to team autonomy. Teams that build experiences need to operate independently of the teams that create core capabilities expressed as APIs. The teams that build services and the teams that consume them should never need to interact, except for in the case of the mutual design of a new product.
By instilling these elements into an API strategy that gives direction and structure to your development teams, organizations can benefit from new markets that didn’t exist even a few years ago. That means generating more revenue, but even more importantly, staying relevant through innovation.
About the Authors
Pete Clare serves as vice president of Digital and API Strategy Practice at PK. He brings an uncommon mix of both business and technology acumen cultivated over his 20+ year career. His diverse experience includes extensive software development leadership, deep enterprise, and business architecture, and several years establishing and running an API practice for a multi-billion dollar multi-national corporation.
Lou Powell brings a steadfast drive for innovation to his role as partner at PK, a Google Apigee agency that was awarded a 2019 Apigee Partner of the Year distinction. At PK, he works closely with businesses to create pioneering experiences and accelerate outcomes, unlocking greater value and market leadership. He worked in advertising and digital marketing before launching his own business, Vanick Digital, which he led for 19 years before acquisition by PK. Lou is a lifelong student of technology pattern adoption and the practices of tech natives, and he brings a design-thinking approach to technology in all of his work. His thought leadership has appeared in the Forbes Technology Council community.Tags: API productization