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APIs: Changing the World One Enterprise at a Time #SXSW

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My API journey is nearing its end. Back in 1999, I first started articulating how user experience (UX) principles could be applied to coding interfaces between objects and systems.

A few of my colleagues at the consulting firm where I was working got it. But it mostly fell on deaf ears. What a difference 15 years makes.

The API Designer/Artist Perspective

The SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas is in its 21st year now — and with each passing year, its coverage of the API space matures.

Two years ago at SXSW, software designer and programmer Alan Cooper (the godfather of User Centered Design and APIs) and I had a conversation about how designers were missing a big opportunity by not  looking at API design as product design.

Last year at the conference, API design and the API economy was covered in several sessions. But I still stood alone as the only one interested in talking about applying both UX design principles and business strategy to the space of APIs.

This year was a glorious surprise for me and other holistic API enthusiasts when it all the conversations about API and design came together.

Jeremiah Cohick Lee, an API engineer at Fitbit, dug deep into advanced API patterns and noted how API designers had seemingly clear choices on driving accessibility and affordance above all else. When I asked him how he balanced API accessibility against other business concerns like performance, he said, "I don't. I always skew towards accessibility."

Last year, I would have shook my head and been disappointed. This year, I get it. Lee is an artist at heart, and explained his motives for using APIs to touch the lives of developers and product consumers in detail. I have come to admire his religious adherence to adoption and accessibility above all else (even if I don't have the same perspective).

Expanding My Perspective

In years past, I believed adoption was the trump card. It's not so much that I now believe this view is incorrect as I believe it is incomplete. I stirred up a lot of attention and conversation a while back when I wrote that UX is not primarily about creating great designs and it doesn't surprise me that the battle between adoption, business models and sustainability continues. It's only in the past year that these ideas have begun to impact API design with Twitter being the biggest example of note.

Before you think that I'm claiming that Lee is thinking small, let me clarify. Lee is thinking bigger than us all. His sights are set on changing the world via API design.

Lee discussed how the power of APIs can usher a new wave of division of labor into the world as APIs do more than share data and content. The real value of APIs is how they share capabilities. Lee closed his talk with asking a simple but evocative question; "What does your API want to be when it grows up?" Lee wants his APIs to be fulcrum that others use to make the world a better place.

The API Business Strategist Perspective

Thor Mitchell, product manager for the Google Plus and Maps APIs at Google, followed Lee brilliantly in a Saturday session titled API Management: The Agony & the Ecstasy. Mitchell spoke about the stages that surround design and articulated the holistic business view of API strategy and management the space has been lacking.

Mitchell spoke about the great paradoxes of API management and gave workable solutions and approaches for each of them:

The Chicken/Egg Paradox of API Marketing - How can you attract developers to your API when you have no developers building cool things on your API? Google's solution to this problem is quite simple: develop a stable of launch partners. Well in advance of a planned API launch, Google starts recruiting partners to build interesting applications on top of the API, given that at least two months are required for a partner to build something that is both functionally compelling and performance optimized, Google front loads their technology implementation to decouple the launch partner's dependencies on Google's fully functional product. As Google approaches the launch date, the launch partners' products magically start appearing. 


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