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How To Take an API-first Approach To Building Software Products

January 11, 2024

Mile Zivkovic

Building a product with an API-first approach has many benefits for SaaS businesses. Here is what an API-first approach is and why you should embrace it.

An Italian and a German walk into a bar… And they have no idea what the other one wants to say. Until they switch to English.

An API is like the English language of the software world - it is a standardized set of rules and protocols that allows apps to communicate with each other. This makes developers’ lives easier and allows them to mix and match features to get the kind of tool that solves their pain points.

For SaaS businesses, adopting an API-first approach when building their product is a path to happier customers, a better user experience and more revenue.

Let’s discuss what API-first design is and why SaaS businesses should care.

What is an API-first approach?

An API-first approach refers to designing and building software around the concept of APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces.

An API is a set of protocols and rules that allows apps to communicate and exchange information between each other. For example, if you’re building a CRM with an API-first approach, you can use that API to connect with a sales dialer.

how an api works

If a developer needs to build a native integration between two apps, and they don’t have API access, the entire operation is doomed to fail. They can use APIs as a form of automation and create that integration within a matter of days, instead of weeks or months. The only alternative is using a connector such as Zapier and hoping that both apps are supported.

By taking an API-first approach, companies put APIs at the center stage when building applications, rather than treating them as an afterthought. 

The best way to get started with this approach is to think of APIs before writing any front-end or back-end code. The end result is a product that has considerably more functions than it may appear by the user interface.

Benefits of API-first development

An API-first strategy benefits everybody: your own product, the developers working on it as well as the end-users who interact with your product. The following are some of the main benefits of an API-first approach.

A better developer experience

Want to build a product with a code-first approach? APIs are your friend and your developers will thank you for it.

By using APIs as building blocks, you allow your developers to simultaneously work on different features. Instead of forcing everyone to work on the same task at once, they can branch out and work on different parts of your product at once. There are fewer dependencies, and one team does not have to work for someone else to finish in order to get started.

By enforcing proper API documentation, you enable developers to understand how the various product components work together. The end results are less confusion, faster iteration and an easier way to onboard new developers in your team.

Solves architecture and collaboration problems

Given the way they function, APIs practically force your development teams to collaborate. When the dev teams work together, problems get solved faster and it’s easier to innovate.

APIs also facilitate horizontal and vertical scaling. Designing APIs allows you to scale components or microservices independently. For example, if demand grows for a specific feature in your product, you can work on it independently from the main product functionality.

Last but not least, one of the main principles of API is the reusability. Once you finished a functional API for a portion of your project, other stakeholders can reuse it later on. For example, you can share it with external developers which saves time and money.

Faster time to market

Depending on the complexity of a feature and the availability of resources, launching a new feature can take anywhere from weeks to months.

Using APIs as your microservices architecture lets you reuse the code you already have. Once the API is finished and complete with documentation, you can share it with other developers. Not only will your code be more consistent, but you’ll also save time in future projects.

APIs allow you to integrate third-party tools and improve the user experience in your app. One such example is the OpenAPI initiative, an API description standard shared by many apps in 2024. If two apps are built with OpenAPI, a half-decent developer can connect them and improve the functionality of your app.

Instead of building new features from scratch, you give your users the freedom to integrate functionalities they want from other apps into your app.

This brings another major upside - you never have to rely on one third-party vendor for a product integration. By using APIs, your developers have more freedom in selecing the building blocks that best suit their needs and use cases.

Reduces development costs

Let’s say you have a CRM and you want to build an integration with a digital signature app. An API-first approach reduces redundancy since you already have existing code you can plug into.

With APIs, you isolate different components of your software. Whenever you need a connection or an integration, you can reuse these components as building blocks instead of working on the integration from scratch.

8 steps to an API-first development approach

If you’re building a new app or want to reinvent the way you’re developing your existing one, there are certain steps you can take to get there.

Assess your APIs and make an inventory

Before going all in on your API platform, first take a look at your existing architecture and the way you develop and deliver software. If you already have API access and API consumers, find out how they are using these resources and if there are any areas where you can make improvements.

Then determine the instances where an API could add value to your product. For example, making processes simpler, improving existing functionalities or enabling integrations with third-party apps that don’t exist right now.

Define goals and API strategy

What do you want to achieve with your API strategy? Is it increased compatibility with apps outside of your ecosystem, improved UX, faster development or something else?

api strategy
Source

Your API strategy should have clear purposes and goals. While building your product API-first is something that most product managers would recommend, it also makes no sense if it’s not done without a proper strategy in place.

This strategy should include policies around consistency, security and access, compliance and all the other details relevant to your team and your customers. Before writing a single line of code, ensure you have roles and responsibilities in your team for developing the API functionalities.

Most commonly, you would do this with something called an API contract. This is a formal agreement that describes the kind of functionalities your API should have, how they should work and what kind of problems they should solve.

API design

If you’re just starting your development process, you should first map out your APIs and design them early. First design, then implement.

As you’re doing the work, consider principles such as RESTful and other design patterns that will ensure your finished APIs align with your overall objectives and use cases. Define your API endpoints, methods, request and response formats, as well as versioning strategies.

API development

Once you have the design specification, you can build the API. As you’re developing, pay special attention to making the API secure, scalable and documented.

Version control comes in especially handy as you’ll be able to revert to previous versions if something goes south. Also, the people using your API can reference a specific version they need and avoid making changes to that version that works.

Document APIs

API documentation is crucial if you want your APIs to be used and adopted by developers and users. It is up to you as the vendor to make the API easy to use and implement. 

api documentation
Source

To achieve this, the API documentation needs to be flawless and include instructions for use, example requests and responses, authentication and authorization requirements, security concerns and more.

Test and validate

Before you go to production, test and validate your APIs to make sure they work as you intended them to. Do unit, integration and security testing to find out where potential issues may be.

If you have a focus group of expert users, you can give them the beta version of your API to test out with their tech stack and report back to you with their findings.

Implement good API management practices

API management tools and platforms can help you across the development lifecycle. With these tools, you can create an API ecosystem, deploy it, monitor its performance and track how developers are using it.

Make sure to implement version control in your API application development. This will allow you to make quick changes on the go and revert back in case anything crashes.

Last but not least, pay special attention to your API security. Introduce several layers of authentication, authorization and data encryption. Bear in mind that you need to protect your developers’ and users’ data, not across one but multiple apps.

Iterate

Once you’ve built APIs for your products, the software development is not finished. Encourage your developers and customers to share feedback with you about the API functionality, performance, and the documentation you created.

As time goes on, implement that feedback and report on your changes to your end-users. This creates a feedback loop and ensures even more relevant feedback in the future.

Conclusion

Becoming API-first means your business prioritizes great user experience and that you’re thinking forward with your customers’ best interest in mind. If you’re not already API-first, getting started soon is an investment in the future of your business.

At Luzmo, we’ve been API-first since inception. Thanks to our API methodology, you can plug Luzmo into just about any app and have an embedded analytics dashboard that connects to it.

Get in touch today and we’ll show you how.

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