7 min read

Utilizing API-First Design

Aug 23, 2021 8:00:00 AM

The idea that APIs are a major driving force in the digital economy is not new. Gartner went as far as saying we were living in an API economy back in 2016. In just five short years, the world has become ever more driven by data and cloud-based systems.  

And APIs remain its beating heart. 

The role of APIs has been defined several times in our blog – in essence, our definition of APIs is: 

"API stands for Application Programming Interface. At DiCentral, we define API as the bridge connecting and integrating all of the data, applications, and devices used by a company's employees, partners, and customers." 

As our dependency on data increases, companies are turning to APIs to help process and refine the sheer volume of data so it can be used. This can be seen in the fact that one leading development platform alone handled 4.7 billion API requests in 2019.  

It is clear that APIs are no longer simply extensions of programs and processes but the central component of company operations. These developments have led businesses to pursue an API-first design when undergoing digital transformation or significant system upgrades. 

Defining API-First Design 

API-first design is a simple concept: companies develop the API tools and network first and then build their systems. The idea is to take advantage of APIs' ability to work with multiple programs using different data formats and create fully integrated systems. 

Some examples could include: 

  • Creating an API before building a website: The developer can prepare an API network for the different functions the website will be designed to serve. Once that network is established, the website can be built on the foundations, enabling a smooth flow and management of data. 
  • Setting up APIs before integrating two systems: As companies go through the digital transformation process, there will inevitably be a need to integrate data from old, on-prem legacy systems to new cloud-based software. Developers have the opportunity to set up the APIs before the integration takes place - leading to a more efficient process. 

This may represent a departure from the development norms, which can be "code-first," focusing on the functions of applications. However, given that APIs play an essential role in communication between multiple platforms, many companies choose the API-first route. 

Why Pursue API-First Design? 

The primary purpose of API-first design is to establish a network for applications to slot into and synergize with company operations straightaway. Taking that wider picture view enables companies to prepare for future functionality because APIs are designed to work with and connect different applications.  

Instead of merely focusing on the functionality of individual applications, API-first design leads to greater functionality across the whole business. 

In the cloud era, integration is both more accessible and critical than ever before. By building an integration-friendly network first, companies will be able to take full advantage of cloud-based systems. A key benefit of open networks is product development and projects can happen simultaneously, as Ben Christensen - former Senior Engineer at Netflix - once explained: 

"A single team should not become a bottleneck nor need to have expertise on every client application to create optimized endpoints. Rapid innovation through fast, decoupled development cycles across a wide variety of device types and distributed ownership and expertise across teams should be enabled." 

As companies undergo digital transformation, innovation and integration are vital to continued success. In the next decade, the businesses that have handled that transformation process and reached digital maturity ahead of others will succeed. To further reinforce this point, let's take a look at some of the benefits of API-first design. 

Benefits of API-First Design 

One way of looking at API-first design is to view it as building an API architecture which a business can develop and expand on. Measuring the difference in such an approach can be difficult because it has such a broad impact. However, there are some clear benefits: 

  • Faster time to market: This works in both the initial setup and in future operations. By building a robust API network first, developers will reuse APIs to develop products quickly and efficiently. This directly reduces the time it takes for products to start helping businesses to increase their revenue and fuel growth. 
  • Improved user experience: Whether it's the company's employees or customers, APIs can significantly improve the user experience by removing any source of friction in processes. A good example can be seen in a Stripe integration with the checkout process, which eases the payment for the customer. Any solution that can remove steps for customers to make purchases will be an asset to the business. 
  • Innovation and future-proofing: As technology continues to develop at pace, it is crucial for companies to have an infrastructure in place to innovate and adopt new products. A key advantage of API-first design is that it leaves companies well-placed to take full advantage of emerging technologies, including ones that don't exist yet. 
  • Streamlined data: As we've pointed out before, data is the fuel of the digital economy. The core function of APIs is to help filter and process the vast volumes of data that come into an average business. By capturing all the data and making them trackable and usable, APIs ensure companies maximize their potential. 

These benefits combined present a powerful case for API-first design. In a nutshell, it leads to a more efficient, streamlined, and more profitable business. 

Designing for the Future 

The key with API-first design is to look not only in the present but also the future - as far as the next decade. The digital era is just beginning and will continue to evolve in the next 10-20 years. Whatever happens, APIs will likely play an integral role as data processors and communication points for applications.  

Therefore, it makes sense to start utilizing an API-first design now and build for an exciting decade of innovation. 

Peter Edlund

Written by Peter Edlund