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Support, Support, Support: the Key to Effective APIs

Support, Support, Support: the Key to Effective APIs

At Brightcove, we believe an API is just as important as the support we give--as providers of APIs--to the developers who use them. What makes an API good can best be determined by two key questions: "Does it do what I need it to?" and "Does the end result match the goals I set out to complete when designing it?" At the very least, an API needs to perform the actions that a developer could do on their own—without that it's worthless! But an API also needs to provide additional benefits, for example enabling scalability.

The reason we need to ask questions like these is because API selection is a big decision for developers. They are choosing to give up some of their own power for a tool that should help them deliver a better product, faster. Before APIs existed, developers wrote and knew what every single line of code did, but with the growth of APIs, they're now, at least in part, relying on someone else.

Speaking at the Nordic API Summit last year, Adam DuVander, contributing editor at API community ProgrammableWeb, gave an example of how APIs can help create better products. He talked about how Netflix can now be accessed from more than 1,000 different devices, all through one API! By opening up its API, Netflix has allowed itself to get in front of more developers—and more end consumers as a result.

As providers of APIs, we need to help developers and be supportive partners to them. We take our role as a partner to the developer community very seriously, due to the fact that often, developers are using APIs because they can't perform a certain task without them. Mobile payment companies Braintree and Stripe are two great examples of APIs really helping developers to create great products. Their APIs have made it much simpler to manage credit card transactions around the world. Now it just takes an API call to either company, whose API then handles the transaction, making the process much quicker and easier. If mobile payments weren't handled automatically like this, then it could take hours or even days just to pay online for your shopping! And thus, it is for reasons just like this that API stability is vital.

So how can API providers, like Brightcove, help developers? There are three key ways, which we covered during last year's Nordic API Summit in our presentation, "Being the gentle giant: helping people integrate for the long haul"

1. Educating people

In the current world of open APIs, developers can use an API as a blank canvas on which to create whatever they want. While that's the beauty of openness, it is important to provide users with help and advice both to get them started and to get the most out of your API. From user guides, to blog posts, to integration libraries, any and all information is useful—just make sure developers a) know where they can find the information and b) know that you are on hand to help them.

That said, there are limitations to these documents. Quick start guides can be a fantastic way to get an easy win, but it's worth bearing in mind that they will be read by novices and highly advanced developers alike, so make sure you start with the simple information first. Remember, quick-start guides are there to help developers to start interacting with your API quickly, but, regardless of their ability, you need to ensure that the information you provide will prime them for long-term success. It's a similar situation with integration libraries. They are a great way of showing off best practices, but make sure you keep it simple, so that when you come to make minor changes to your API, that you don’t have to completely re-write it.

2. Two-way feedback

This works both ways. You need to be proactive in letting the developers using your API know how they're doing and in suggesting alternative ways of doing something. But it's just as important that people feel they can, and have the mechanisms with which, to provide you with feedback as well, so you can take action where necessary. Two-way dialogue is key—not only to keep developers happy and heard, but also to ensure that you are providing the most valuable product possible.

3. Support post-integration

Support when integrating an API is only half the battle—the real support requirements come when the integration is done. Be upfront with your developer audience if there is downtime coming, especially if it's at short notice. When that occurs, find out who is going to be affected and help them through the changes so that their products won’t break once the changes have been made.

If you are an API provider, stick by these three points and you have the basics for keeping your developers audience happy. APIs are exceptionally useful for everyone—especially as we're moving towards a truly open world of development. But now is not the time to be complacent—developers are creating amazing apps every day, and it is up to those who provide the APIs to make sure that they are easy to use and secure—providing accessible support, whenever or wherever it's needed.