To an average person, the question “What is an API?” might seem pretty straightforward. However, this is not exactly a simple question. If you don’t have any experience with code whatsoever, APIs may confuse you a bit.
In order to help you understand what an API really is, we’re going to cover the basic definition of APIs, try to explain why they are so important, and even tell you how to design one.
And don’t worry, the language we used is specifically geared toward people with little to no coding knowledge. However, some of the more experienced readers might find something useful here. Without further ado, let’s dive right into the subject…
What are APIs in the First Place?
For starters, we need to explain what the phrase “API” even means. It’s an abbreviation for “Application Programming Interface.” Basically, they give both individuals and organizations the power to add more functionalities to their site/platform/app without writing a single line of code.
You can do this by simply integrating the code of a certain API into your existing code.
And while you’re not aware of it, you encounter APIs on a daily basis. For instance, if you bought something today from an online retailer, you’ve definitely interacted with an API along the way. A vast majority of online stores use PayPal and Stripe APIs.
Another API you probably encounter every day is the Facebook API that allows you to log into a site using your Facebook login information.
Unlike the ones we mentioned above, some APIs are not outward-facing. Some are used as internal business tools. For instance, an organization can use an API to fill out paperwork, schedule meetings, and even print labels automatically.
Why are APIs so Important?
Now that you understand the basic concept of APIs, the next logical question is – why are they so important? In short, APIs have changed the way individuals and organizations alike build their platforms and products by giving them the ability to add more functionalities without much effort.
That ability is especially liberating for small and micro companies that don’t have the same resources as their large counterparts do. A small company can even use an API as the foundation for its service or product.
Just take a look at Lyft, the on-demand transportation company uses Twilio’s API to send messages to their drivers. The Twilio API is practically stitched into the fabric of the platform. On the other hand, some companies use APIs to boost the value of their product/service/platform.
Here are some of the other reasons to use an API include:
· Saving time and money
The biggest reason to use an API is to save time and money. Programming takes time and in some cases, it takes months to build a certain functionality from scratch. By using an API, you can take advantage of a function you need without spending months and thousands of dollars developing it.
· Continual Innovation
In most cases, an API is created by an entire team of developers, who make constant improvements to it. This results in an ever-improving user experience for people who use the API. Some APIs can even be customized to resemble any company’s look and feel.
· Data security
An API that deals with sensitive data – think how Stripe deals with payment processing, for example – are usually equipped with compliances to protect the data in question. If your organization needs safe money transactions, an API can solve all the security problems for you.
· Specialization and focus
Lastly, by using an API, members of any organizations are able to shift their focus on other aspects of their operation. An API allows them to leave the non-core, technical operations of their business to companies that were actually build to focus on those operations.
How to Design an API?
As we said before, designing an API is definitely not an easy job. In a best-case scenario, an experienced team of programmers can build an API in six months or so. However, some APIs take years to see the light of day. You have to understand that numerous stages of an API’s lifecycle.
That’s why most experienced teams use platforms such as Stoplight to closely observe every step of the way, test the API, and make tweaks along the way. And as with any other product, there are good and bad APIs out there. Here are a couple of things that separate the good ones from the bad.
Although the term “documentation” doesn’t mean much to your average person, it really means something to an average developer. In essence, documentation is sort of like a manual for an API. Without proper documentation, an organization wouldn’t know how to implement an API into their platform/app/site. Documentation needs to be easy to digest, straightforward, and needs to have great examples of code.
· Multilingual SDKs
Since you’re probably not familiar with this term either, SDK stands for “Software Development Kit.” The more these kits your API has, the more programmers will use it – simple as that. In turn, that will make it faster and easier to get a working integration. Some of the most widely-used programming languages include PHP, C++, and Python, just to name a few.
· Testing opportunities
No one buys a car without test-driving it first, right? The same goes for an API. If you want to have a fully-functional API, you – or your developers – need to have the right tools for testing. The testing tools allow the developers to get a feel for the API and maybe even experiment a little. Most testing tools have a testing sandbox environment, test mode, and an intuitive API dashboard.
· Developer support
Every now and then, a developer will have a question about the API he’s using. And if he doesn’t have access to developer support that could answer his questions, he’ll probably just become frustrated at a certain point, and stop drop the API. And that’s why access to developer support makes a big difference in the world APIs.
The Bottom Line on APIs
And there you have it – we hope this article answered some of your questions about APIs. Now that you know what an API is, how it works, and what’s needed to design one, you can start digging deeper. The Internet is filled with resources, and if you want to know more about APIs, just start browsing around.
If you have any additional questions or if you feel that we left out something crucial, feel free to tell us all about it by leaving a comment in the section below.