Will Your API Design Process Scale?

  May 03, 2017

There was a time when good API design was thought of as a “nice to have” for API teams. But in today’s API economy — where APIs are a driving force for business strategies, and API usability is empowering organizations to better transition from monolithic to microservice architecture — good design has never been more important. 

Understanding API Design

API design means providing an effective interface that helps your API’s consumers (internal and external) better understand, use, and integrate with them while helping you maintain it effectively.  In general, a well-designed API should be:

  • Easy to read and work with: A well designed API will be easy to work with, and its resources and associated operations can easily understood by end consumers.
  • Hard to misuse: Implementing and integrating with an API with good design will be a straightforward process, and writing incorrect code will be a less likely outcome.
  • Complete and concise: A complete API will make it possible for developers to make full-fledged applications against the data you expose.

The goal of good API design should be to make the end consumer as successful as possible when working with your API. For internal APIs, that improved usability will result in increased productivity for developers consuming services via your API. It also makes for a better workflow when developing the APIs back end, and creating its supporting documentation. For external-facing APIs, good API design will result in increased user adoption, and an easier time for end consumers to understand the value your API delivers.

The Role of OAS in API Design

The increased focus on API design has led to a surge in adoption around API description formats — the standard format for RESTful APIs being the OpenAPI (Swagger) specification. The OAS provides a language agnostic format for describing your API in a way that’s both human and machine readable. The machine-readable component of OAS allows tools to implement and expand on the API’s capabilities. This could be using tools like SwaggerHub to automatically build beautiful, interactive API documentation, while building code on top of this design using as well as generate server and client libraries for your API. And when you’re ready, this description can also be leveraged to start building test cases for your API. The benefits of providing a human-readable format for designing your APIs are more straightforward —  your entire team (developers and non-developers), as well as end consumers can easily understand what the API is supposed to do, and how to best work with the API.It  opens the design process by providing a single point of focus for your team to collaborate on the design of the API before you begin coding.

Setting up a design process

Today, thousands of API teams use OAS and the Swagger tooling to design APIs. The processes teams follow to implement and maintain API design, will vary based on several factors, including: end consumers, number of APIs, as well as the strategic and business goals for their API program. For teams that are early on in their API design journey, setting up a scalable API design process won’t be a major consideration. But as your API program evolves, there are challenges that can arise. Some of the most common design challenges we hear from teams, include:

  • Hosting and maintaining API design files: Many teams will rely on internal solutions, or source control tools like GitHub which are built for storing code; not design files.
  • Handling versioning of API designs: Teams need a solution for handling multiple API versions, and ensuring the most up-to-date versions are available and in-use.
  • Iterating on API design across teams: Handling design changes for existing APIs is crucial when different teams are handling the development and documentation of existing APIs.
  • Setting and enforcing style guidelines: How do you ensure your team is following the design standards you have set for your internal and external APIs?

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