Advantages of a Design-First Approach for APIs

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Bringing in an API is no small job. It makes sense, then, that there are varied approaches to this.

Broadly, these fall into two categories: code-first and design-first. Both have the same end goal of creating a functional API, but take different paths to get there.

Individual factors – like organisational culture, project requirements, and preferences of development teams – play a role in which approach a team will choose. However, there has been a recent shift towards design-first approaches.

In this article, we will run through what a design-first approach for API is. We’ll then take a deeper look at its main benefits, and some tips on how to get the best out of this approach.

What is a Design-First Approach to APIs?

A design-first approach sees the API being designed before any code is written. Developers prioritise the specifications of the API, drafting them in collaboration with those who will use it regularly when it launches.

Unlike code-first methods, design-first doesn’t involve immediately diving into writing code. As such, design-first is naturally more inclusive of stakeholders from across the company, whether or not they’re in technical roles.

Advantages of a Design-First Approach to APIs

Improved Communication and Collaboration

No matter how long you’ve spent developing your API, the ultimate test is whether the people you’ve built it for actually end up using it.

And while you can’t foresee every problem they’ll have, adopting a design-first approach means such problems are easier to pre-empt. You can address concerns at a much earlier stage, meaning it’s more likely that everyone will be on the same page as the project moves forward. It also reduces the likelihood of misunderstandings that could slow the project down later.

Happier Developers

Code-first design does have its benefits if you’re looking to get an API out into the market quickly. But if you’re on a particularly tight deadline, you can end up sacrificing quality in pursuit of this speed. The end result could be an API that’s clunky, poorly planned, and up to the developers to fix.

This level of pressure isn’t good for anybody. With a design-first approach, developers can take their time to create solutions, instead of being overwhelmed and delayed by requests to clean up code.

Cheaper and Quicker Development

You could say this point is connected to the last one!

You don’t have to be an API specialist to know that fixing an API problem after it’s been fully coded costs much more than fixing it before that point.

And that’s not the only way that a design-first approach lowers development costs. You can build components once, and re-use them for future APIs. This is, again, cheaper than having to build new components from scratch, and can also mean APIs reach the market in a much shorter time.

Improved API Security

For all their strengths, critics have targeted APIs – somewhat unfairly – for their security flaws. A design-first approach is one way to guard against this. By prioritising design from the beginning, you can make sure that security is central so that if a hacker breaches an API, it’s less likely to be yours.

Tips for a Design-First Approach That Works

Consistency is Key

Human beings are creatures of habit. Since you’re (probably) making your API for human beings, you should take this into account.

You can ensure your API has consistency by focusing on its documentation. This is key to making your API accessible for everyone, not just developers. Your documentation, whatever form it takes, should give a clear view of what your API is, what it does, and various examples of how to use it day-to-day.

Stakeholder Buy-In

As mentioned earlier, one of the key benefits of a design-first approach is that it involves people beyond just developers. However, this is hard to achieve in reality if you don’t have buy-in from these groups.

All of them will have different perspectives and priorities, but you can cut through this by focusing on business value. Solid metrics and proof of concept (both easily created with a design-first approach) will add weight to what you say about this.

Continuous Feedback

There’s always going to be a chance of changes happening in the business. Not surprisingly, this impacts how people might use the API – which will naturally bring up feedback from users, even long after you’ve rolled it out. Responding to it makes sure your API continues to be helpful to these users, giving it longevity and that elusive business value.

When it comes to building an API, a design-first approach might run counter to developer wisdom – and it may not have the same benefits as others. But there’s no doubt why more companies have been moving to it. A design-first approach ultimately produces an API that’s better for business in the long run – lowering costs, incorporating more inclusive building processes, and delivering a secure piece of software to the market quicker. Who wouldn’t want that?

Looking for an API solution? PKF Smith Cooper Systems has two – MRGE and WIRE.

Find out more about them here, or call us on 01332 959008.



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