Another year has come and gone, which means every media outlet is filled with retrospectives and Top 10 lists (such as ours for 2022). Here’s our take: The value of looking back is that it sets you up to move forward purposefully.
Let’s be honest; 2022 was a little rough. Our hope is that some reflection on where we’ve been can set you up for a more productive 2023. Below are API industry trends from this past year. In January, we’ll follow up with thoughts on putting these trends into action.
1. A Sharper Focus on Humans
Remarkable AI tools like DALL-E and ChatGPT dominated technology conversations in 2022. But while we’re as impressed as anyone, humans must remain the focus—particularly for APIs. Your APIs are being used by real people, and creating a positive experience for them is crucial to your long-term success.
Recognizing the Value of Empathy
The developers who use your APIs come from many different backgrounds. Each new API consumer arrives with different knowledge, experiences, and emotions. Emotions? Yes, really. Empathy is the first element of design thinking, an approach to UX that is rapidly gaining traction across industries. UX for APIs means DX—developer experience—so design thinking for APIs means starting with empathy for developers. What are developers’ anxieties, frustrations, and motivations when they come to your product for the first time?
Developers have choices, and a sense that they are thoughtfully considered can go a long way in setting you apart from competitors and building trust with users. We saw more companies creating robust developer experience teams this year, and when market trends have forced some belt-tightening, we’ve been happy to see that API companies are still investing in their documentation and customer success efforts.
The pace of change in the tech industry is relentless—every day brings a host of new requirements, compatibility issues, procedures, standards, and versions—often giving developers the sense they’re running hard only to stay in place. Good API products should help alleviate some of this frustration: the purpose of the REST standard is to make tools predictable and reliable so that breaking changes don’t disrupt users’ workflow. In practice, those ideals don’t always work out, but this year brought increased attention to the need to “eliminate toil.”
So what is “toil”? In a nutshell, it’s bad developer experience—tedious work with no measurable impact on product goals, complicated processes that hook into multiple products and platforms, making them resistant to change, and those pesky dependencies that crop up when you least expect them. Google has made “Eliminating Toil” a core principle for site reliability engineering, but it’s probably more realistic to say that the tech industry is working towards reducing toil. While we’re far from eliminating it, companies are increasingly paying attention to how automation and collaboration tools can lead to more predictability, reducing workloads for internal teams and reducing toil for API consumers.
As an industry, the more we can deliver a toil-free developer experience, the closer we’ll be to delivering on the promise of APIs. The principles of RESTful design are aimed at improving scalability and flexibility. If your API responses remain predictable, developers can continue working with your products, blissfully unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes. Of course, that’s not going to happen on its own—reducing toil is the result of a thorough design process.
2. Profitable Use Cases = Catalyst for Investment
This year’s human-centered trends point to the importance of a design-first approach to your API programs. After all, a clear view of who your users are and how they are using your products is a sound starting point for designing an excellent developer experience. A design-first approach also can help you focus on how you can get the most financial benefit from your API programs.
Building Tools Developers Will Pay to Use
When an API is able to meet a specific need, it’s the first-choice solution for many developers. And while the internet is full of lists of free resources for developers, professional developers will pay to use the best tools.
In a recent conversation in a developer Slack community, I informally polled some senior engineers from a range of tech companies. I asked what they look for when choosing between two libraries. They mentioned ease of implementation, quality of documentation, frequency of releases, maintenance activity, and user issues and ratings. Most of the things they mention are practical indicators for good DX—and not a single person mentioned cost.
If you can offer a usable, reliable solution that actually meets developers’ needs, they will pay for it. The increasing popularity of modern CSS frameworks like Tailwind and Material UI is an example. Bootstrap is free, but in 2022, many professional developers are opting for the better performance and DX of newer paid tools.
Treating APIs as a First-Class Product
API-first companies are far more widespread than you might realize. Even after a difficult year for tech, companies that have invested in APIs as their primary products are continuing to deliver extraordinary long-term results. In fact, in difficult market conditions, APIs are an even more compelling product offering, offering tools that can be deployed as needed. APIs are a “do more with less” product – supporting them is much less costly than a full-fledged desktop SaaS application, while their scalability allows consumers to continue using them even as the business environment changes.
A growing number of companies are recognizing the potential of their APIs as independent products. The realization that APIs can be revenue generators is inspiring greater investment and more attention to quality. Taking this route means the old vision of an API as a data dump is not going to cut it: this approach requires careful consideration of every stage of the code and product lifecycle, including mocking, testing, and version control, as well as staffing teams to support the product and consumers over time.
Expanding to New Markets
One of the advantages of APIs over full-service SaaS products is how quickly they can be built and deployed. That’s making APIs a top choice for industries that previously had relatively little custom technology. When new use cases are identified, the “composable'' business model enabled by APIs lets teams deliver a proof of concept quickly and iterate on it as uptake grows. The downside risks are comparatively small relative to building custom full-stack applications or buying expensive third-party products.
At their simplest, APIs are a means of sharing information. Their transformative power arises when an industry recognizes the potential to combine different streams of information in new ways. In 2022, we saw this happening in less tech-focused industries, such as trucking, where APIs are leading to much greater predictability in fleet maintenance costs. In other cases, tech-centric industries like telecom are using APIs to offer “self-serve” versions of their products, democratizing access to expert-built solutions and creating new revenue streams.
3. Looking Back to Move Forward
Good API products are not just data—they are designed and delivered to achieve business use cases. In that sense, they’re not revolutionary, and this year, tech industry leaders found value in some tried-and-true business principles. Even as technology changes, the fundamentals remain the same.
Back to Basics for Security
Over the last several years, companies have taken pains to portray themselves as serious about security and committed to protecting sensitive information. The reality is that many efforts have been haphazard and reactionary. While the industry still has a long way to go, security advocates saw some improvement in awareness and efforts to prepare in 2022. Tech leaders are increasingly aware that security and reliability are essential product features. Consumer products manufacturers have taken this to heart, and tech companies are getting the message.
Counterintuitively, many cybersecurity experts have switched to a simpler approach. Rather than trying to anticipate the most sophisticated vulnerabilities and defend against one-off targeted attacks, they say, companies must attend to the basics. Many of this year’s most common exploits were among the least technically complex—phishing attacks, DNS tunneling, password attacks, and malware attacks. The common thread? It’s all human error. A back-to-basics approach to security starts with education, and while a strong security strategy need not be wildly complex to be effective, having one is not optional.
Great Products Don’t Have to Do It All
Another “back-to-basics” trend has been for companies to narrow their focus rather than pursuing growth in all areas. After a couple of years of phenomenal growth, the tech industry experienced a significant pullback in 2022, led by some of the biggest “do it all” players. That’s not to say the future looks bleak—quite the opposite! We are in a reset period, where tech leaders are reflecting on their greatest assets and committing to delivering better products and results against a more targeted set of goals.
Products don’t have to solve every problem to be useful – in fact; it’s often better to offer fewer features so that consumers can choose exactly what they need and build a toolbox that’s suited to the job at hand. At its best, this trend toward focusing on your core offerings emphasizes craftsmanship and builds trust with users. It doesn’t preclude growth in the future but sets a better foundation for growing where you are strongest and where your efforts can best meet real user needs.
Meet the New Year with Clarity and Enthusiasm
The tech industry’s rapid shifts in 2022 caught many of us off guard and brought substantial challenges across many aspects of work and life. This year’s API trends, we think, offer an opportunity to move forward by refocusing on the fundamentals: your business goals and the users you serve. The year ahead will present many opportunities to put the lessons of 2022 into practice, and we look forward to being there to help you take on those new challenges with a renewed focus on designing great API products and delivering the best possible experience for your API stakeholders. To stay informed on upcoming industry trends, subscribe to the API Intersection podcast.