Don't Demonize. Monetize: the Genius of APIs, the Trend of Platformification

5 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

I pulled many valuable nuggets out of Alan Cooper's talk at SXSW, like the one that explains the rise of the sniper app. Near the end of his talk, I asked him why the business, UX and design communities are not embracing the current trend in API proliferation (a.k.a. Platformification) and what can be done to help designers and content strategists see that APIs are yearning to be designed.

To summarize the key points of Cooper's response. First, the trend in API proliferation is among the most important events on the Internet right now. Second, APIs are the most important interface to be designed, and visual interfaces are only the third most important interface. Lastly, and most provocatively, a designer who shies away from designing an API is not qualified to be a designer and is not worthy of their title. So what do each of these mean?

Make Tollbooths, Not Barricades

How many more examples will it take before the worlds of business, technology and design realize that plaformification is undeniable? Tumblr announced this week that it was looking for a person to lead its API offering in a kinder and gentler way. I'm assuming that someone over at Tumblr realized it was time to stop whining about lemons and make lemonade. Tumblr is just the latest in a long line of businesses to understand that a shift is taking place and that it should be in the business of building tollbooths rather than barricades.

ESPN has made its headlines available free to the public and has also started releasing monetized versions of more in-depth API products. When Disney, who owns ESPN, is giving its content away, then you know that something has got to be changing in the world. Disney and ESPN have followed in the footsteps of NPR and moved their resources and focus away from "the stick" and over to "the carrot." They have stopped trying to stop the people who want to use their content and instead figured out a way to make money off of it.

Here's the deal. It is a waste of time and effort to try to stop people from using your content in their site. You will never be able to stop them all and rather than paying people to detect and stop them, it would be a much better use of resources to track the usage, put guidelines around it and, most of all, figure out a way to monetize it! Whether it is through license fees, partnership agreements, directing traffic back to your site or proliferating your content to drive other business metrics, all of these are superior to choosing to fight with the barbarian hordes. The only people who are not making money of the proliferation of their valuable content are the people who either give it all away or try in vain to stop others from using it.

Did Alan Cooper Channel Rick Perry?

If APIs are the most important interface to be designed and visual interfaces are only the third most important interface, what is the second most important interface? I have some guesses, but Cooper was so excited about the topic that he forgot to name the second one, but rather than digress into speculation around what he would have chosen (my money is on service design), I will attempt to explain why Cooper believes APIs are the most important one.

Learning Opportunities

Besides creating the concepts of personas and goal directed design, Cooper essentially created the current environment where IT and design professionals are constantly in demand by seeing the power of APIs. He created an entire industry by planting the seed that became Microsoft's first version of Visual Basic where developers could make their own dynamic widgets that other developers could then use in their own copies of VB with little to no configuration required. Microsoft was ALWAYS user centered; it was just centered on a different user: The one who has to write the code!

All programming languages are essentially abstracted APIs that allow a developer to not have to care about how a computer completes a complex multistep task. Developers can use these programming languages to design and abstract a whole bunch of other complex tasks and wrap them up again into another abstraction that allows a different developer to not have to care about how the API's author completed the task. APIs democratize computing to the Nth degree. APIs are liberators for coders (most of whom are frustrated artists/philosophers -- for those who doubt this, watch this talk by Brett Victor) and most every major breakthrough in how we use technology in our world came from someone who knew how to write code written on top of an API.

The Product That Does Not Come in a Box

APIs are a product that need a designer, just like any other product. Form and function still apply. Elegance is exuded by a well-designed API that blends consistency and variation into a decipherable pattern. A well-designed API can create the same sense of flow for a developer that a consumer feels on a well-designed website. A well-designed ecosystem of APIs can create an industry, an industry movement (AJAX and Web2.0) or sometimes even destroy an industry (as the Google Maps API combined with smart phones laid waste to the GPS device industry).

It's not too late for strategists and designers to be ahead of the curve if they jump on now and embrace the roots of their professions. An API can be a thing of both power and beauty. This is your call to arms! If you wait much longer, you'll be a print designer in a web design world.

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