Making API Decisions: Are You Connecting Business and Technical Interests?

Welcome to the series on Maximizing the ROI on Your API.

When a business or enterprise commences its API journey, it has a number of key decisions that need to be made. Not surprisingly, at each decision point, multiple options branch out and those employees new to API strategy and design can become confused and cautious quickly. How do you make the decisions to embark on a successful API journey?

Increasingly, businesses of all sizes are recognizing the API opportunity. The need to move quickly and create new products, to connect disparate data and service systems, to capitalize dormant assets and datasets, and to strengthen (and extend) customer relationships makes APIs the go-to solution for businesses, enterprise, governments, not-for-profits, and startups on a growth trajectory.

However, APIs are more than a technical solution; they're borne out of a business need, and as an API strategy is implemented, it needs to align with a company's overall business plan and be leveraged by individual business units, partners, suppliers, and customers.

Externally, a growing demand for integration and faster digital product development means your API strategy must build on this drive. Internally, employees may be resistant to change, they may be confused about the project's purpose, or they may simply dismiss APIs as a technical solution that the dev team should use. While at some point, decisions around an API strategy do become technical concerns, the process starts with business leadership, enters a collaborative stage, moves to technical departments for the completion of foundational systems, and then returns to being a business concern focused on how best to leverage the API strategy.

How APIs move through waves of predominantly business to technical discussions and back again, and some of the decisions a company needs to make along the way, does reflect a typical development process:

Technical and Business Discussions chart

The API Decision Series Flowchart

The Modular Enterprise

To compete in today's digital, agile marketplace, businesses need to reimagine themselves as a series of re-organizable modular pieces that are connectable in ways that can respond in real time, allow for the movement of data and services along a workflow (and often automate it), and create reusable internal assets in new product and service design. Once that's done, businesses can consider a platform and ecosystem model that assists consumers and partners in creating their own value as business partners.

James Higginbotham

James Higginbotham

James Higginbotham, author of A Practical Approach to API Design and founder of API consultancy LaunchAny, says that becoming API-centric is the first step towards reorienting a business as a modular enterprise.

An API strategy is not just about building an API and publishing it, according to Higginbotham. "As technical managers and product managers, it's great to focus on the technology but don't forget the people behind the technology," Higginbotham told an audience of API business and tech leads at the 2016 API Strategy and Practice Conference in November 2016. "Look at the business and technical capabilities and map them into API capabilities. You then turn them into API products and release them to customer segments." Once that's done, he says, an organization can take further steps to decompose those capabilities into microservices.

Throughout the API strategy development journey, businesses should need to organize their teams as product teams that create value. "When you think about project-based approaches, you think about one-off, fixed-end-date, date-driven development," cautions Higginbotham. Instead, he says, API strategy teams should include technical and product leads as well as technical writers, QA, scrum masters and others.

"When you think about product-based approaches, you think repeatable and reusable systems with a results focus, and you can introduce metrics and evangelize what has been done," says Higginbotham.

Higginbotham advocates a lean startup mindset, regardless of the organization's size, which means building an API strategy with a minimum viable product (MVP) trajectory. For example, when Walgreens started its API strategy the company chose to create the QuickPrints APITrack this API for its photo printing service first, because this area needed a new business model to reach customers' digital needs. Once they proved success with that API product line, they could build organizational support for more sensitive areas such as the Walgreens Pharmacy Prescription Refill APITrack this API.

But Higginbotham makes clear that an MVP still speaks to all necessary components, meaning it must be based on a functional, reliable, usable, and emotional design. To illustrate, he references the work of Melbourne-based design and innovation expert, Jussi Pasanen:

APIStrat 2016: Moving Toward a Modular Enterprise: Minimum Vable Product chart

From "APIStrat 2016: Moving Toward a Modular Enterprise," a presentation made by James Higginbotham (Slide #25).

Key to this mindset is starting with a clear understanding of your customers, in this case, the API consumers: developers who will be using your APIs. The first decision in an API strategy is to identify the various developer customer segments that will make use of your API. Create customer journey maps for how they'll find your API, test it, integrate with it, and build new products, services, and workflows using your APIs. Eventually, you'll want to add more developer segments, and you may be surprised to discover new customer segments are using your API that you hadn't thought to approach. But having a shortlist of who you expect to use your API and how they will use it is an essential starting point to building an effective API strategy.

As we make decisions about the development of an API strategy, we must constantly ask, who benefits from this? What value are we unlocking?

Make sure to view the Dixon Carphone case study, which showcases how a company can use APIs to take control of its sales process, revolutionizing how it works with its customers by more closely tying the shopping experience with customer service and support.
 

In this series on API Decisions, we explore some of the key considerations you need to account for when answering these two questions and making API strategy decisions. You'll learn about resource lists, discover additional tools, and receive expert advice from leaders in the field during each stage.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.
 

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