What Are “Irresistible” APIs and Why Does Akamai's Kirsten Hunter Love Them?
A bad API can cost a company customers. API evangelist Kirsten Hunter wants businesses to avoid that fate by using "irresistible" design principles.
Usability. Consistency. Stickiness. These are words Kirsten Hunter repeats like a mantra when she gets talking about APIs (application programming interfaces), the coding platforms that have become the connective tissue in an increasingly connected, app-centric world.
As an API evangelist for content delivery network provider Akamai Technologies, Hunter works to spread the word both inside and outside the Cambridge, MA-based company's walls: APIs need to be "irresistible" if organizations want developers to tie them into their products and win loyal customers.
“One of the things about the APIs out there is that most of them are very resistible," she says. “It's very easy to create APIs that may be functionally complete, but completely unusable."
It's unfortunate that it is as easy as it is to create APIs because it means that it's very easy to create bad APIs.
— Kirsten Hunter, API Evangelist, Akamai
Hunter has put a lot of thought into what makes some APIs irresistible, qualities she details in her book "Irresistible APIs: Designing Web Apps that Developers Will Love." By way of example, she points to several brand-name companies whose APIs drive incalculable value to their business, largely because they make using them appealing and stress-free for developers to use.
“Amazon and Google have a huge number of APIs, which are consistent across business functions," she says. “Consistency is so important, in authentication, name spacing and data structures. If you're Amazon, you may have 200 different groups all making APIs. Developers don't want to see those as different things. Once you figure out how to use one API from a company, you expect that how it's going to work for all of them."
An API Evangelist Spreads the Word
At Akamai, Hunter's evangelical duties include creating and delivering curricula to customers for events and workshops, as well as developing tools to help them interact with the company’s platform. She also participates in customer calls and fields questions about their products for developers, advises on documentation projects, writes blog posts on practical API design topics and speaks at industry conferences.
It's an important role in the world of APIs, says Tim McElligott, senior industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
“Evangelists put APIs in the language of business and product development," McElligott says. “Each large enterprise IT organization should have one of their own. The API evangelist will not be easy to find, but should prove worth the investment.
Fighting API Fatigue
Increasingly, executives grasp the importance of APIs in a world of mobile apps, the cloud and the Internet of Things. In a recent Frost & Sullivan study conducted for CA Technologies, 80 percent of business leaders said APIs help them get apps to market more quickly, and 81 percent said they help connect apps and data to get more insights.
The problem today is that while many APIs are functional, most are difficult to use. Developers who want to hook into another company's product may have to make as many as 15 to 20 API calls, and often APIs from the same company have different naming conventions or authentication schemes. Such inconsistencies can consume huge amounts of developers' time, Hunter says.
“If a developer has to jump through the same 20 hoops every time they want to do something with the API, they're going to get fatigued and consider going to a different vendor whose API may be easier to use," she says.
Hunter hopes to turn this around by helping engineers understand how to create APIs so that developers have a great experience using them.
Don't Underestimate an API's Value
Too often, a company's executives don't see APIs as revenue producers, so they allocate fewer resources for them, Hunter says. “APIs tend to be third-class citizens, and [engineers] don't pay that much attention to detail during the imagination phase, the design phase, the development phase," Hunter says. “Make it an actual first-class member of the product line."
Even when companies do make it a priority to produce quality APIs, no one at the executive level defines what a "good" API is, so they end up being functional, but difficult to use and at times unworkable.
"It's unfortunate that it is as easy as it is to create APIs because it means that it's very easy to create bad APIs," she sighs.
To avoid this, Hunter advises that companies provide developers with the resources and training to learn how to make APIs that others will want to use.
"In many cases, we have architects that are thinking about feasibility and reliability and not usability, so you need to teach them that having someone interface with your system is a valid data point and something to strive for," she says.
As companies like Amazon and Twitter create more and better APIs, developers should look to their examples as templates and inspiration to improve their own APIs. Most important, developers should use their own APIs to judge whether or not they are truly irresistible.
“When APIs are created well, it means different systems can interface gracefully with each other and developers can create amazing things from that," Hunter says. “As APIs get better, developers are going to create more incredible systems that behave the way people want them to."