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January 28, 2023

What is API-first? | A Beginner's Guide to API-First Development

Author imaage
Azeem Hussain
Senior NLP Engineer
API-first approach

In recent years, a new wave of companies has embraced what’s called an “API-first” strategy. This means that these companies are building their entire businesses around APIs – using them to power their mobile apps, third-party integrations, and even their own internal tools.

An API-first approach is one where an organization or individual designs and builds APIs before creating the applications that consume them. The thought behind this approach is that if you start with the underlying API, you can more easily create dependent APIs, applications, and other integrations that all use the same data and functionality. 

Let’s take a closer look at the API-first approach and explore some of the advantages and challenges that come with it. We’ll also provide some recommendations for companies that are considering adopting an API-first strategy.

What is an API? 

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of protocols that allows software programs to communicate with each other. In the context of an API-first strategy, an API exposes the functionality of an application so that it can be used by other applications or third-party services.  

Have you ever used Apple Pay or Google Pay to buy something? That’s an API! When you click on a “pay with Apple Pay” button, the application logs a request with the Apple Pay API. After the purchase is confirmed, the API sends a confirmation back to the application.

What about Google Maps? Have you ever used the driving directions feature on your phone or computer and seen the little blue dot move around as it tracks your location in real-time? That’s another example of an API! The Google Maps API allows developers to embed Google Maps into their own applications and websites.

Lots of modern platforms now adopt an API-first approach in everything from search to payment management, e-commerce, and more.

Should you adopt an API-first approach for development?

Adopting an API-first strategy can be a great way to move quickly, build partnerships, and control your data. Any industry can use such an approach  – an API-first strategy for search platforms allows them to integrate easily with applications or websites, for content management, it enables you to manage all your digital content in one place and deliver it anywhere.

However, it's not suitable for every organization – before deciding if it’s the right move for your company, be sure to carefully consider the pros and cons.

Advantages of an API-first approach

1. Improved developer experience

A well-designed API can make life much easier for developers. According to survey research from Postman, more than 75% of developers and API professionals think that developers at API-first companies are “more productive, integrate with partners faster, and are happier”. An API-first approach will also help developers better understand how to use the API, identify and prevent problems when using it, find alternative solutions quickly, and create applications that integrate better with the API. 

Additionally,  By providing clear documentation and easy-to-use tools, you can help them get up to speed quickly and avoid frustrating roadblocks.

2. Enhanced flexibility

When you build an API before creating applications, you have more freedom to change your mind about how the data should be structured. This can be a huge advantage when you’re building something new and are uncertain about the best way to do it.

An API-first approach will allow you to move faster and be more agile rather than relying on traditional, monolithic applications.

3. Speed to market

An API-first strategy can help you move quickly and get your product to market faster. By building the API first, you can start working on applications while the backend is still in development.

From the 2022 State of API report, 80% of API professionals said they launch new products significantly faster.

Not only do you produce APIs faster, you deploy more frequently as well. You can deploy an API in minutes, and an application in hours. 

4. Enhanced partner integrations

An API-first strategy makes it easy for other companies to integrate with your platform or build on top of your data. This can help you expand your reach, and partner with other companies to build a strong ecosystem around products.

The Postman State of API report also states that 89% of API developers and professionals think that an API-first approach allows faster partner integration.

Greater integration also opens up new opportunities for monetization. If you make your API available to third-party developers, they can build applications that use your data and functionality. You can then charge them for access to your API, or take a cut of their revenue.

5. Reduces failure risk

When you build an API before creating applications, you can catch errors early and avoid the costly process of reworking a bad design. So you suffer fewer failures, and can recover faster when you do face issues.

Additionally, when you expose your data and functionality through an API, you have greater control over how it’s used. For example, if you want to prevent a particular application from accessing your data, you can simply block its API key.

Of course, no strategy is perfect – the API-first approach also has some potential drawbacks

Things to consider before adopting an API-first strategy

1. Adapting to change

An API-first approach can make it difficult to adapt to changing requirements. Once you’ve designed and built your API, it can be hard to make changes without breaking existing applications.

2. Governance

It can be challenging to govern an API-first strategy, especially if you allow third-party developers to build on top of your data. You’ll need to carefully consider who has access to your API and what they can do with it.

It can be difficult to maintain control over your data when it’s spread out across multiple APIs. And if your APIs are not well-designed, they will be difficult and expensive to maintain.

3. Security issues

When you expose your data and functionality through an API, you also open up potential security risks. You’ll need to be extra careful to design and implement your API in a way that protects your data.

4. Increased complexity

An API-first strategy can make your architecture more complex. You’ll need to design and build not only the API, but also the applications that use it. And if you expose your API to third-party developers, you’ll need to support them as well.

Adopting an API-first strategy

1. Define your API strategy

What do you want to achieve with an API-first approach? Be specific about what you hope to accomplish and why you think this is the right strategy for your organization.

2. Establish stakeholders

You’ll need buy-in from all of the stakeholders in your organization – from the C-suite to the developers who will be building the API. Make sure everyone is on board with the plan and understands their role in making it a success.

3. Align your organization

An API-first strategy will require changes to the way your organization works. Make sure everyone is aligned on the new process, the organizational goals and understands their role in making them a success.

4. Manage your API program

A successful API program requires careful planning and management. Establish clear policies and procedures for designing, building, deploying, and maintaining your API.

Wrapping Up

The API-first approach has a number of advantages, but it’s not without its challenges. Be sure to carefully consider the pros and cons before deciding if it’s the right strategy for your company. The beauty of API-first design is its malleability. No matter what the future holds, your company will be able to adapt and change with it.

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