Amplify Platform

API First: How to Manage Digital Products

APIs are the foundation of any digital transformation. There can be no digital transformation without APIs. The concept of “API First” is a term that is becoming increasingly important in digital transformation initiatives.

There are 3 Components of digital transformation

  • business
  • teams
  • technology

API First plays into all of these areas. This is a great way ensure you are not missing a key factor that makes or breaks digital transformation initiatives.

Business. An API First approach fully embraces APIs at the core of the business. With API representing all the products that you create, manage, sell, measure, recombine and retire.

With an API First mindset, if a product does not have an API, it does not exist. APIs are the way to build value chains and thus allow your organization to create value and to adapt your value chain quickly in response to internal and external feedback.

Teams. All teams following  an API First approach embrace the fact that whatever they create has to be delivered through an API. They also acknowledge and accept that API quality is an important contributing factor for product quality. In other words, if you deliver an excellent service or product through a bad API, you’re chipping away at the overall quality of the product.

The organizational aspect of API First is to understand that as a result of digital transformation, organizations become easily reconfigurable chains of API-delivered services and anything that compromises this vision is problematic for long-term success.

Technology. According to API First, everything that gets created or consumed in the organization is represented by APIs. This means the quality of APIs matters in:

  • how easy it is to create and consume things;
  • how useful the choice of technologies is for the kinds of products delivered through APIs;
  • how much they are designed not into the void, but with specific consumers in mind.

The goal of digital transformation is to have chains of loosely coupled components that can be adapted quickly. So it’s essential to think how easy it is for APIs to change without creating expensive and time-consuming ripple effects through cascades of API dependencies – if you disrupt API chains, you disrupt value chains.

Principles of API First

Now that we have established how “API First” plays into all three components of digital transformation, let’s have a closer look at what it means in practice. Basically, everything produced and consumed in the organization is an API.

How can we put the principles of API First into practice? As a starting point, we can look at how this translates into three aspects where the API literally comes first:

API as first UI. Each product gets designed with its API in mind. The API is the first UI in the sense that it defines and limits the kinds of interactions that a product supports. Concrete UIs that are built later may only use parts of the API or they may combine various API products into one UX, but in terms of foundational product capabilities, the API is the single source of truth.

API before implementation. Designing and discussing APIs should be done before implementation starts. Early prototypes with possibly limited functionality should be produced as quickly as possible, but even before that sitting down with potential users and discussing design options and preferences is valuable.

With the right iterative approach, the API can grow in an evolutionary manner (adding more features over time as they are requested). As a general guideline, always discussing designs before implementing them helps with creating more user-friendly APIs. 

API Documentation. Since the API is one of the essential aspects of all products, documenting it is very important. The level of documentation depends on the intended audience size and how much the Developer Experience (DX) of the API is thought to be a deciding factor. Even so, documentation should be seen as an essential part of each API. Structured documentation can help to document APIs in a more systematic and unified way, so that growing and evolving API landscapes are easier to understand and manage.

This makes it easier to understand where investments are needed when moving towards API First. Teams have to embrace the fact that APIs become one of their main deliverables. Further, the organization should support them with platforms and tooling, as well as build discovery and automation around the growing landscape of API products.

In fact, APIs are the contract that teams promise they will fulfill. Developing the product then becomes contract-driven development, where the team’s goal is to fulfill the contract by delivering a product that behaves as the contract (the API) is documenting and promising.

All Products are APIs

Speaking of products, the fact that teams now are always producing APIs means that focusing on the API is always important. There are two ways to look at that, and while the first one (API as a Product) currently is a popular perspective, the second one (Product as API) is the one that better reflects the ultimate goal of digital transformation and API First.

API as a Product. This term is often used in contexts where the main thinking revolves around the monetization of APIs. This can be useful, but it’s worth noting that directly monetized APIs are a small fraction of the ones that organizations are using.

In the vast majority of cases, the value of APIs isn’t in direct monetization, but instead in the ability of an organization to create, test, deploy, adapt and retire value chains quicker than before. For this reason, while API as a Product is a legitimate worldview for a small slice of APIs in organizations, it is advisable to not focus primarily on direct API monetization.

Product as API. This term embodies the essence of digital transformation where each product (i.e., each capability produced by the organization) is represented by an API and is used through its API. This view highlights the fact that the utility and the value of products are directly related to their APIs. If they have no APIs, they cannot easily contribute to value chains, and if they have poor APIs, their utility may be diminished because of this design issue. In summary, “Product as API” makes it clear that every product in an organization must be conceived, designed, managed and delivered as an API.

In summary, “API First” is one of the essential concepts in digital transformation. As we have shown, it encompasses all three pillars of digital transformation. It can be seen as a useful blueprint for how teams approach their product journeys, and it also serves as a reminder that *each and every* product is represented by an API.

The API First message is an important one to establish in your organization. It anchors the sometimes-abstract concept of digital transformation in something more tangible and also results in a direct call to action for everybody in the line of business:

  • Always focus on creating a good API for each and every product.
  • APIs are the contracts between all product teams (and external partners).
  • Managing digital transformation means managing these interconnected chains of contract providers and contract producers.

What’s next?

Go back to the three pillars (business, teams, technology) and make sure that the API focus is established and embraced everywhere. That means making sure that product ownership and product management are enabled, coached and supported on their transition to an API-centric product view.

The first step in the API First journey is to establish this new model of API products and not just at the technology level. Most importantly, help everybody to understand what changes, how they can adjust, how they are supported and what new opportunities this enables.

Learn more about the differences between API first design and API First.