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What Does a Successful API Design Look Like?

Meta: A good API design doesn’t come about by chance. There are a few core principles that guide each successful API, and if your business is designing an app, you should know them.

What Does a Successful API Design Look Like?
“There’s an app for that.” Applications — from full-fledged programs to tiny snippets of code — have been part of the developer’s toolkit and many businesses’ arsenals for nearly as long as computing has existed. However, with the advent of smartphones, applications have become more necessity than luxury. When designed properly, these applications can boost business; a poorly-designed application can have an adverse impact on both your bottom line and even your reputation. At Vivid Infotech, we pay particularly close attention to the API, which is the linchpin of the app economy. If your business is in the early stages of app development, these are the API design best practices you should be paying attention to.

What is an API?

First, let’s establish what an API, or Application Programming Interface, is. At its root, any program or application is a set of instructions. The API defines the parameters for those instructions, including remote calls, routines and subroutines, protocols, and database structures. APIs are used in conjunction with operating systems, on the web, and in remote resource management. Major developers (like Windows and WordPress) provide API documentation to facilitate communication between applications, thereby ensuring smooth operation.

API Design Best Practices

Unlike some segments of computing (like the HTTP protocol), there is no single accepted standard for API design or generating an API key. However, over many years of trial, error, and iteration, a set of API design best practices called REST (Representational State Transfer) emerged. REST-compliant APIs — often referred to as a RESTful APIs — generally share the following features:

  • Database agnostic: The SOAP standard that is common in many APIs relies on XML. REST is capable of working in tandem with JSON, YML, and other formats in addition to XML
  • Portable: The ability to communicate across formats leads to a higher degree of portability, as well as the ability to work in a wider variety of settings
  • Uniform interface: From both a user’s and a programmer’s standpoint, the API should be relatively transparent — though, it should be noted, the back end ought not to be as transparent to your users as to your programmers
  • On-demand resource utilization: When the API is able to “call up” resources as needed, this enables a lighter design because less functionality needs to be written into the program
  • Clean structure and documentation: these factors, too often overlooked, will help to tie the other components together

Down through the years, other programmers and theorists have expanded on the REST idea. Regardless of individual programmers’ approaches to REST, the end goals should remain the same: maintaining agility, ease of use, and security, while minimizing data exposure. If there is a single overarching principle, REST should be understood to maximize function with the lowest resource utilization that is practical.

Drawbacks of REST

While REST has gone some way in standardizing API programming, it is by no means a panacea. Like any other guideline, there are — as Arnon Rotem pointed out some time ago — instances in which rigid adherence can hamper as much as it helps; at times, a more flexible approach is called for.

Furthermore, the fact that REST is a set of guidelines rather than an accepted international standard does have its pitfalls. Here, we will let one example stand in for a much longer list: date and time formatting. As in the world at large, there is no single accepted format. That leaves the choice at a programmer’s discretion, leading in turn to occasional issues with date and time conversions depending on whether JSON, UTC, unix, or ISO-8601 standards are used.

All of this underscores the importance of working with programmers who understand the everyday use and practical implications of the applications they are coding. Vivid Infotech specializes in mobile app design for businesses of all shapes and sizes, designed to scale with your business and your customers’ demands.