APIs are an invisible wire

It’s been said that the best user experience is one that goes unnoticed. In other words, the more seamless design is to the consumer, the better it is. In almost all cases, the same can be said for the elegant integration of APIs.

Typically an application or device user has no idea their experience includes the integration of one or more 3rd party APIs. They don’t know that once they load the app, it’s making calls to other remote services, pulling a range of content and data at their request.

We find a close parallel among common household utility dependency. Use of water, electricity, even telephone, is done without understanding the complexity of underlying pipes and wires carrying something to and from our homes to local providers. However, we do recognize those pipes and wires exist.

With API-integrated apps and devices, everything should work so easily the user may never need to know that the app relies on interacting with a variety of platforms. The app’s connection to one or more APIs should always be an invisible wire to the user.

Examples and exceptions

Siri, perhaps one of the most sophisticated and seamless multi-platform experiences on mobile devices today, magically connects users to dozens of 3rd party platforms without them knowing and without them needing to know. News, weather, sports scores, directions, scheduling appointments and much more are delivered by way of the most organic voice controlled interface. Content and service-generated data arrive without need of decision, selection or login.

We experience subtle but advanced integrations all the time now — even through the browser. When buying movie tickets, that complimentary movie review displays naturally. When posting a video or photo link to Twitter or Facebook, the thumbnail, title and description appear instantly. I’ve recently been able to enter my gas utility account number and zip code to qualify for a product rebate. The account was validated and rebate applied without missing a beat.

There are times when an otherwise smooth experience gets disrupted. Prompting the user to choose among services, kicking them out to webpages for login or preventing them from accessing certain data are just a few examples when use of APIs reveal themselves.

Sometimes, this initial disruption is essential to maintain or guarantee secured access to financial (think Paypal verification) or health-related data. User trust has allowed for more fluid integrations. As devices become regulated and secure, user logins through methods like single sign on can bridge these services more seamlessly.

Upholding the invisible wire

App developers and designers are inherently driven to create great experiences. On behalf of their users, they integrate data. When there is a choice, the preference must go to those APIs with optimal performance that are managed to support seamless integration.

For their part, platforms offering APIs to app developers should help support these experiences by listening to developers need; Understand how the API is being used, in what context and support with code and documentation that reflects best practices.

As we see proliferation of API-served content and data among devices available now and into the future, integration should only get easier for app designers and developers. With superior management tools, multiple platforms can consolidate at the cloud level, combining data sources into one easy-to-integrate stream.

Upholding great user experiences should remain common practice reflecting collaboration between data provider and app builder. The data marriage of services like telephony, location, messaging, entertainment content and others should always remain hidden to the user.

They end user should never have to trip over that invisible API wire.

[Photo credit: MadebyJoel]


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  1. @pia_elisabeth 29. May, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    “APIs are an invisible wire” | The elegant integration of APIs in everyday UX by our very own @chuckstar http://t.co/p12d6HPkPc

  2. Kevin Suttle 29. May, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    Great insight as always Chuck. Especially liking the comparison of (good) APIs to household utilities. The same could be said for the inner workings of the human body, as you described in your talks a few years back.

    You’ve also hit on a vital point that I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately, and that is the intersection of developer UX and user UX. When an API is designed well, all points of contact are affected positively by it. The developer who implements it in their favorite programming or scripting language, and the user who, as you point out, has no idea an API call is even being made. It just works.

    Even deeper than the API is content, which still reigns as king. If APIs are the backbone of connected services, then content is the marrow. When reading these slides (http://www.slideshare.net/kleinerperkins/kpcb-internet-trends-2013) from Mary Meeker of Kleiner-Perkins, Pandora understands this on an elevated level. Their Car/TV/Appliance usage is likely to surpass PC usage in 2 years. They’ve structured their APIs in such a way that any endpoint can take advantage of their content and services.

    NPR is a shining example of this kind of careful structuring, and saw an 80% jump in page views after launching their API in 2008. http://schedule.sxsw.com/2011/events/event_IAP7331 They did this by making content available and consumable everywhere, reaching users where and when they are. It’s now the “centerpiece of the NPR’s digital media and mobile strategy”.

    NPR and Pandora’s strategy of pipelining content through well-considered APIs are exactly these “invisible wires” that you describe, something that, as a user, and developer, I hope we see far more of.

  3. Mashery (@Mashery) 29. May, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    RT @VinceKuraitis: APIs are an invisible wire. by @chuckstar, Dir. Platform Strategy, Mashery http://t.co/bgJAAjwzQm

  4. @Collaborizm 29. May, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    #APIs are an invisible wire http://t.co/pmnnvXPx4B via @chuckstar

  5. @tstongemash 30. May, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    RT @MattyLanders: APIs are an invisible wire. by @chuckstar, Dir. Platform Strategy, Mashery http://t.co/NOjwXfdpE6

  6. @mahillon 30. May, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    RT @MattyLanders: APIs are an invisible wire. by @chuckstar, Dir. Platform Strategy, Mashery http://t.co/NOjwXfdpE6

  7. Sasha Kamenetska (@sashNmash) 31. May, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    awesome post by @chuckstar on how #APIs are the invisible wires that connect data & services to make apps work: http://t.co/un7AQcAt9f

  8. @IntelAPIGateway 31. May, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    RT @chuckstar: New post: “APIs are an invisible wire” – about the elegant integration of APIs in everyday user experience http://t.co/XW73VGGJ64

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