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When The Right API Solution Is Not Always The Sensible One

I conducted an API workshop at Genscape in Boston yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with the technical folks there, and found their pragmatic, yet educated views on APIs refreshing. I spent the day going through the usual stops along the API lifecycle, but found some of our breakout conversations during the API design section to be what has stuck with me on my train ride back to New York. Specifically the discussions around versioning, content negotiation and the overall design of paths, parameters, and potentially providing query language layers on top of APIs.

After going through much of my textbook API design patterns for paths, and parameters, then working my through content negotiation and headers, we kept finding ourselves talking about what their clients were capable of. Bringing the API design discussion back around to why REST is still dominate in my opinion–simplicity, and lowering the bar for consumers. Time after time we found ourselves talking about their target consumers, the spreadsheet wielding data analyst, and how the bar needed to be kept low to make sure their needs were being met. Sure, we can quickly get academic and theoretical with the design practices, but if they fall on deaf ears, and API consumers do not adopt and use the API-driven tools, does it matter?

I know that all of us API “thawt liters” would rather folks just do things the right way, but this isn’t always the reality on the ground. Most people within real world businesses don’t have the time or luxury to learn the right way of doing things, and take the time to disrupt their flow with new ways of doing things. Most of the time we need to just get people the data and other resources they need, in the tooling they are comfortable with (spreadsheet cough cough), and get out of their way. Sure, we should still be introducing people to new concepts, and working to strike a balance when it comes to the API design patterns we adopt, but it should be about striking a balance between reality on the ground, and the future we want to see.

During the workshop we kept coming back around to simple, plain language, URIs that provide flexibility with path variables, as well as potentially relevant query parameters, that allow people to get CSV and JSON representations of the resources they need. With Excel as the target client, once again I find myself minimizing header usage, and maximizing the paths, and simplifying the data models in which folks can retrieve via APIs. I see this in industry after industry, and across the government agencies I am working with. I know that we all want our APIs to reflect the best possible patterns, and leverage the latest technology, but many of the people who will be potentially consuming our APIs, just want to get at the resources we are serving up, and do not have the time and the bandwidth to get on board with anything too far beyond their current mode of getting business done.

None of this will shift me evangelizing the “proper way to design APIs”, but it reminds me (once again), at how immovable the business world can actually be. APIs are having a significant impact on how we develop web, mobile, desktop, and device applications, but one of the reasons web APIs have found so much success is that they are simple, scrappy, and flexible. Being able to serve up valuable data and other resources through simple URLs, allowing anyone to take them and put to use in the application of their choice has fed the explosion in the API we see across the landscape today. It is why we still see just as many poorly designed APIs in 2018 as we saw in 2010. It is because the best design doesn’t always win. Sometimes you just need the right design for the job, and the one that will make sense to the audience who will be consuming it. It is why hypermedia, GraphQL, and other design patterns will continue to be the choice of some practitioners, but simple, plain, REST will keep dominating the landscape.