What Is an API? (Plus Uses and Tips for Implementing)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published October 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) have multiple uses, such as determining the weather on your smartphone, logging into social media accounts or establishing an automated email for work. While often undetected by front-end users, APIs serve an important function in people's daily digital activities. If you're a developer seeking to improve user experience and integrate an API for customers, learning more about APIs may be beneficial. In this article, we define an API, describe the importance of APIs, discuss who might use them and how and share tips for integrating APIs effectively.

Related: SDK vs. API: What's the Difference?

What is an API?

An API is a set of definitions and protocols for building and integrating software. It acts as a software mediator between two applications. For instance, when you send an instant message or use an app on your smartphone, tablet or computer, you're using an API. A server receives the data, interprets it and performs the required actions before sending it back to your phone. The app you're using then re-interprets the data and displays it on your screen for you to read.

APIs allow developers to integrate applications into the existing architecture of a server or application. They facilitate communication between various products and services without requiring direct implementation. This can help developers throughout the engineering and development process of apps. APIs allow for ease of designing, flexibility, administration and use when creating new tools and products or managing existing applications.

Related: 7 API Development Skills for Web Developers

Why are APIs important?

APIs are useful to both developers and users, as they provide increased functionality and the ability to use already-existing web services. Here are a few ways APIs can be beneficial in web and application development:

Simple app development

APIs offer application developers a more efficient way to create apps compatible with a particular operating system. Operating systems frequently implement a variety of standard APIs for developers to use, which helps streamline the integration process. APIs can help developers save time because they usually reduce the amount of coding needed when creating an app. The widespread use of APIs can also increase consistency across other platforms that use the same application.

Related: What Is a Web Developer?

Enhanced security

An API may also help improve security. APIs control access to software functions that an application or website may not have permission to use. They also limit access to hardware resources, such as a smartphone's GPS, restricting what apps can accomplish.

For instance, when a user visits a retail store website or app that asks for a specific location, the retailer attempts to use the geographical location API in your web browser. While this may seem like a simple way for retailers to access your location, the site can only do so through an operating system's location API. When the website or app asks to capture the location, the user has the option to allow or deny the request.

Easy website integrations

Web designers can implement APIs for a variety of uses that can enhance user experiences. For example, to embed a map or generate a text translation on a website, operating systems and software companies offer APIs that facilitate integrations. Integration capabilities such as this allow web developers to leverage the data and resources already in place in existing tools. As a result, developers can focus on providing users with a satisfactory experience.

Uses for APIs

While developers use APIs to integrate applications and webpage functions, internet users also widely use APIs. An API allows organizations and individuals to share information and business functions across devices and applications. This may involve making digital payments or simultaneously posting content to multiple social media accounts, among many other functions. Industries that use APIs include banking, retail, automotive, travel and streaming services. Here are some of the main uses of APIs for webpages and applications:

User accounts

Users interact with APIs whenever they log into an email account, social media page, food delivery app or website where they have an existing account. The API acts as a connection between the operating system and the app the user opens to determine whether the user needs to log in. This often manifests visually as a pop-up window on the screen, asking whether the user wants to log in. Once the user confirms, the API provides the app with unique identification information. This helps keep passwords and other personal information secure.

Weather forecasts

When users search for weather information in their city or another location, search engines might show the search results of the current weather forecast. Most operating system companies direct these searches through APIs to third parties that specialize in providing weather information. A weather API packages current weather data in an easily interpreted file for developers to reformat appropriately so users can view the forecast on the smartphone app or website of their choice.

Automatic bots

Internet bots use APIs to send automatic updates, direct messages and other real-time information through specific software instructions. This encompasses hourly reminders on your smartphone, identifying grammar mistakes and sending automated emails, along with many other functions. APIs notify bots when users meet specific conditions and then an API's integration with various bots provides users with task automation capabilities, streamlining the user experience.

Related: How To Become a Web Developer (With Certification Tips)

Tips for implementing APIs

Here are some tips for designing and integrating APIs to improve user experience:

Devise a plan

It can be complex to design and implement an easily used, scaled, secured and documented API. Integrating an API may require a plan with its own board, backlog and sprint, similar to the production of any product. Devising a plan can ensure that developers and testers effectively use API best practices and identify any aspects that may require improvement.

Implement a version strategy

An API is a product that may evolve as specific business requirements change. Users often expect API updates to arise consistently as technology advances, similar to the way in which other products and applications update or have new versions replace old ones. It's important to have a version strategy, which ensures the proper management of new versions of products, in place when releasing an update and consider how updates might impact consumers upon implementation.

Provide support

After designing and testing an API, developers often provide continued support to users. If users submit reviews or an error occurs, a quality assurance team may notify the development team. This may include the IT team or other personnel within an organization who work alongside other developers. Before the public release of an API, developers may also use tools to monitor the code and search for ways to improve it.

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