Beautiful APIs and dogfood

Phil Jackson - 2013-05-01

The secular trend towards APIs is seemingly unbounded. Out of the excitement will come established companies wanting to get their slice of the pie and experimenting with presenting their data through a programmable interface. How do you go about designing one considering current architecture?

If you were building a large system now, it might seem contrary to build a service which relies on a data source without an abstraction Puppy and dogfood in the form of an API. How, if an application has been servicing clients for years and a decision is made to release an API, do you design it? What do you base requirements on? Your current interface?

No. Well, probably not. One thing you can be pretty certain of is that the way developers want to interact with your API won’t be the same way users interact with your current interface. In fact, why would you want to build in such restrictions? You should be out to enable and encourage innovation with your data; you need to keep the interface generic, free of edge-cases and free of particularly domain specific logic. An oft-recommended technique for designing your interface is to “dogfood” it, that is, to become self-reliant on the same technology you present to others - any problems your clients experience you also suffer, any optimisations will benefit you equally. This sounds well and good until you consider the fact that your particular use-case isn’t necessarily the most useful application of your data.

Take Google Maps; reasonably early on the service was reverse engineered and people used the technology for some great mashups. Rather than lock down their system further, Google liked what they saw, recognised the potential value, and subsequently became more open by releasing a public interface. People were using the API in ways Google couldn’t have imagined when the original idea was conceived, despite the service being so innovative in itself. The strategy centred on remaining in control of the data while monitoring how people could innovate beyond what Google themselves had already achieved. It paid off too, they have a massive, profit generating customer base consuming and presenting the data.

To summarise, the best way to design an API which is presenting your company’s data might not be to represent your current data aggregations with a REST interface, but rather to design the data from scratch, keeping it as generic as possible. If you can rebuild the backend of your systems to use it then all the better. Once you’ve built the generic functionality you can better gauge what aggregations, endpoints and data can be exposed when customers are feeding back.

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