Why Building Empathy into APIs Makes Everything Play Nice Together

API architect Kollivakkam Raghavan explains why engineers need to think about others when developing API interfaces.

By Brian Carlson

By Brian Carlson December 13, 2019

For developers who prize the solitude of coding, a good dose of empathy will go a long way to improving their ability to design effective interconnect software for other developers.

A UX mindset is needed in API development to make them easier to use by other developers, according to Kollivakkam Raghavan, Director of Engineering for Prism at Nutanix. To get that user-centric mindset, developers need to work on fostering a more empathetic state of mind.

“When I'm building an API for you, I will put forth the best solution that I would want as an engineer and consider how I would want to consume that API,” said Raghavan, who previously worked as an engineer at F5 Networks and was Head of Engineering at Cisco Network Assurance Engine - APIs.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are the glue that connect applications and services together. APIs not only help reduce the amount of code a developer needs to create, they also allow for more consistency across apps on the same platform. Prior to the explosion of the app economy, when using various enterprise applications and APIs, the user experience (UX) was never high on a developer’s priority list. APIs are built for and used by developers, and slick user interfaces (UI) are not a hallmark of the developer mindset.

“APIs are being produced by developers and consumed by developers,” said Raghavan. “Developers tend to embrace complexity. They wear it as a badge of honor. When you get a set of developers and ask them how to solve a problem, you probably get as many different approaches as there are developers in the room answering that question.”

According to Raghavan, it is important for developers to build up their own empathy in order to design APIs with a UX mindset, making them easier for other engineers to use more effectively.

Enterprise UX Matters

For Raghavan, connectivity and interoperability were always the stick to measure APIs by. Did they perform the function they were designed for? That was the true measure of API success from the engineers’ POV. But with the app economy proliferating across B2C and B2B, responsive connected consumer experiences move into enterprise data centers. Developers and other employees inside the enterprise expect the same level of user interface design at work that they have come to expect in their consumer experiences.

“The user interface in the enterprise was always brushed off, but with the app economy, that has changed,” said Raghavan. “People want simplicity in their applications and user interfaces. API design and API development, that's what I'm hoping to bring to Nutanix.”

Part of the challenge is that there is no more walled garden when it comes to connectivity and interoperability. Different services and apps from varying vendors must be connected together for many modern web services, such as Alexa, to function.

“All of these things are getting aggregated into a single experience if you look at something like Alexa integration in your home,” Raghavan said. “There's so much complexity behind a simple statement that you've told Alexa. All of these things are being enabled for the user through APIs.”

Since so many elements need to connect to provide these types of web services, the importance of a user-friendly enterprise UX in APIs becomes critical to enabling developers in turn to create better experiences for customers.

“There's no longer one company building one product and providing all the services,” Raghavan said. “Look at the iPhone for example. Why did the iPhone take off? The iPhone took off because even a three-year-old could understand it. The beauty of the iPhone is in its simplicity.”

Unlike the iPhone, which was able to develop a superior UX through centralized design, modern technologies like Alexa rely on the interconnectivity of services and applications to ensure their functionality and a consistent user experience. But Raghavan asked: with so much attention and focus on the consumer customer experience, why is the enterprise customer experience getting left behind? Why exactly are developers having trouble making APIs that are easier for other developers to use and implement?

“Unfortunately, APIs have not gotten there because APIs are produced by developers and consumed by developers,” he said. “Their simplicity of use is definitely ignored. There is an increased focus in the enterprise to make graphical user interfaces simple, because the app economy has forced that.”

Designing APIs with a UX Mindset

Developers tend to only think about meeting functionality needs when developing an API, said Raghavan. They are not really stepping back and thinking of how someone else uses the API and interfaces with it. This is not surprising, since it’s just not in the mandate or mindset of many developers to think about UX. The rub comes when this lack of design empathy in API development impacts the ability to use APIs to deliver better customer experiences across the enterprise.

“As an engineer, when I'm writing an API, I shouldn't be thinking about me,” he said. “I should be thinking about how you would want to use the API. It should be as simple as possible for you to get your job done.”

To Raghavan, empathetic design means creating APIs with the consumer in mind.

“I call it designing APIs with a UX mindset,” he said. “We need to build empathetic APIs for consumers who have real world problems to solve. We want them to focus on their problems.”

He said a good, empathetic API is invisible to the user.

“Every company, including enterprise companies, is now saying that they want to be an API-first company,” he said. “With more applications and services coming into play, people are realizing that they shouldn’t build everything on their own. Instead,  it’s best to consume a mesh of services that somebody has already developed.”

If developers want more people and businesses to use their application, Raghavan said they need to be diligent about how the application will be used by others, and make sure the app’s ability to work with any other applications is seamless. Empathetic APIs bring simplicity and harmony to our increasingly interconnected digital world.  

Brian Carlson is a contributing writer. He is Founder of RoC Consulting and was Editor-in-Chief of CIO.com and EE Times. Follow him on Twitter @bcarlsonDM

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