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What is API Product Management? Everything You Need to Know

By Jason Knight – Product Director at DueDil

In today’s world where everything is connected through technology, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are the key players driving innovation and integration. APIs connect different systems, allowing for easy data exchange and creating successful digital ecosystems. Whether you’re an experienced developer, a startup founder, or a tech enthusiast, mastering API product development can open up numerous opportunities, turning your ideas into impactful, scalable solutions. This guide will walk you through the essential components, best practices, and winning strategies for excelling in API product development, helping you make the most of this transformative technology.

Key Takeaways:

  • APIs are essential for connecting different systems and enabling seamless data exchange, driving innovation, and creating thriving digital ecosystems.
  • Successful API products focus on solving real user problems and providing a smooth user experience, not just on technical implementation.
  • Comprehensive and up-to-date documentation is crucial for API adoption, ensuring users can easily understand and integrate with your API.
  • Visual demonstrations and prototypes can help non-technical stakeholders grasp the value of your API product, aiding in buy-in and support.
  • Prioritize scalability, security, and reliability in your API design, including thorough testing and versioning to avoid breaking changes and ensure a smooth user experience.
In this article
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    What is a Product?

    Defining what constitutes a product is a thought-provoking question and one that likely has many answers. However, I’d like to share my definition to provide a specific lens through which we can examine this concept. So, what is a product?

    A product is a tool or service that addresses a problem faced by many people, offering a solution that is both sustainable and scalable. Let’s break down these key elements:

    • Solves a Problem for Many People: At its core, a product should address a common issue or need. It’s not about creating something for a single client or a niche audience but rather developing a solution that has broad applicability. This approach distinguishes product management from professional services engagements, which are often bespoke and tailored to individual clients.
    • Sustainability: A product must be sustainable, meaning it can continue to operate and provide value over time without depleting resources or requiring constant redesign. This sustainability ensures that the product remains viable and beneficial in the long term.
    • Scalability: Scalability is crucial for growth. A scalable product can expand its reach and serve an increasing number of users without compromising on performance or quality. This attribute is essential for driving growth and ensuring that the product can meet the demands of a larger market.

    What is API Product Management?

    API product management, though distinct in its focus, shares core principles with general product management. API product management involves identifying the most critical problems to solve and collaborating with engineers and stakeholders to develop effective solutions. This practice can be visualized through a framework that emphasizes three key areas: users, commercial teams, and technology.

    • Users: Understanding the needs and problems of your users is paramount. Engaging with users helps identify the most pressing issues that your API needs to address. This user-centric approach ensures that the solutions developed are relevant and valuable.
    • Commercial Teams: Working closely with commercial teams is essential to align the API’s capabilities with business goals. This collaboration helps in understanding market demands, pricing strategies, and potential revenue models, ensuring that the API supports the broader commercial objectives.
    • Technology: Partnering with technical teams is crucial for building robust and scalable APIs. This collaboration ensures that the solutions are not only technically feasible but also innovative and sustainable, leveraging the latest advancements in technology.


    In API product management, product managers stand at the intersection of these three domains. Their role is to balance and integrate the insights and requirements of users, commercial teams, and technology to deliver the best possible solutions.

    Do API Product Managers Need to Be Technical?

    This is a common question, not just for API product managers but for product managers in general. The short answer is that while technical understanding is important, deep technical skills are not a necessity. They should understand technology, but they don’t need to be developers. They have an engineering team for the technical implementation. The engineering team handles the specifics, such as languages, protocols, and other technical details. In a well-structured product organization, these responsibilities lie firmly within the engineering domain. However, they do need some important skills to excel in their roles:

    • Understanding the Product: While they don’t need to code, API product managers must understand how to interact with an API. They should know how to send requests, receive responses, and interpret those responses. This level of expertise is necessary to effectively manage and improve the API.
    • Explaining the API: Product managers need to communicate clearly about their products. They should be able to explain the API’s functionality and value to various stakeholders, including non-technical team members, clients, and executives. This involves translating technical concepts into understandable terms and showcasing how the API brings value to the users.

    What is an API?

    Many of you are likely familiar with APIs, but for those who aren’t, let’s break it down in a way that’s easy to understand, even for non-technical users. Let’s use an analogy to explain the concept.

    Imagine you’re at a restaurant, hungry and ready to order food. Here’s how the process works:

    • The Customer (User): You, the customer, want to order food. You’re hungry and ready to make a request.
    • The Waiter (API): You communicate your order to the waiter. The waiter is responsible for understanding your request and making sure it’s valid (e.g., checking if the food is on the menu).
    • The Kitchen (Server): The waiter takes your order to the kitchen, where the chef prepares the meal. The kitchen represents the server or the backend system that processes requests and generates responses.
    • The Chef (Backend Service): The chef receives the order, prepares the meal using the ingredients available in the kitchen, and gets it ready to be served. This is similar to the backend service processing data and creating a response.
    • The Waiter (API): The waiter then takes the prepared meal from the kitchen and brings it back to you at your table. The API acts as an intermediary that delivers the processed information (the meal) back to the user (the customer).
    • The Customer (User): Finally, you receive your meal and enjoy it. In the same way, the user receives the data or functionality they requested through the API.


    This analogy helps illustrate the basic transaction flow of an API:

    • The user (Customer) sends a request to the API (Waiter).
    • The API (Waiter) validates and forwards the request to the backend (Kitchen).
    • The backend (Kitchen) processes the request and prepares a response.
    • The API (Waiter) delivers the response back to the user (Customer).

    While this is a simplified version, it captures the essence of how APIs function. There are more complex interactions and types of APIs, but this basic analogy should help anyone understand the core concept.

    What is an API Product?

    An API product is essentially a collection of API endpoints designed to solve a specific user problem. While it’s easy to view APIs as merely technical tools that display data on a screen, an API product goes beyond this. It provides a practical solution to a user’s needs, whether that involves importing data into a system, exporting data, or various other functionalities.

    Key Characteristics of an API Product

    • Solving User Problems: At its core, an API product is about addressing a specific user problem. It’s not just about the technical implementation but about delivering real value to users through practical solutions.
    • Multiple Endpoints: An API product typically comprises several endpoints, each serving different aspects of the overall solution. These endpoints work together to provide a comprehensive response to the user’s needs.
    • Use Cases: The API product is built around use cases that are relevant to many users. This focus ensures that the API product delivers significant value by addressing common issues or requirements.


    Taking API Products to Market

    How you market and sell an API product can vary:

    • Standalone Product: You can sell the API as an independent product, targeting users who need the specific functionality it offers.
    • Bundled with Other Offerings: You can bundle the API product with other products or services. For instance, you might offer it as part of a web application suite or integrate it into a broader set of tools.
    • Use Case Bundling: You can package the API product around specific use cases, targeting users who have those particular needs.
    • Implementation-Based Bundling: Alternatively, you can bundle the API product based on its implementations, catering to different technical environments or user requirements.

    What is the Need for APIs?

    Why Do You Need APIs in Your Product Portfolio?

    The necessity of having APIs in your product portfolio can be a significant consideration, but it isn’t always mandatory. Here’s a comprehensive look at why and when you might need to include APIs.


    Assessing the Need for APIs

    First, ask yourself: do you actually need APIs in your product portfolio? It’s valid to not include APIs if:

    • Other Priorities: You have more critical issues to address in your product.
    • Visual Focus: Your product is heavily visual and relies on a user interface, drawing your attention and resources there.
    • Business Priorities: You have other business goals that take precedence.

    Most importantly, you should only add an API if your users need it and it solves a problem for them.


    User-Driven API Development

    From a product management perspective, the primary reason to develop an API is if your users require it. Avoid creating APIs just because:

    • The CEO read an article about them.
    • A competitor released one.
    • There’s a fear of missing out.

    Building a product, including APIs, should always be user-centric. Develop APIs because your users need them, not for arbitrary reasons.


    Existing APIs and Their Potential

    If you already have APIs, especially if you have a web or mobile application or any system that integrates with your own data, you likely have internal APIs that facilitate these interactions. You might think of selling these internal APIs to your clients. While this can be a good idea, exercise caution for several reasons:

    • Documentation: Internal APIs often lack comprehensive documentation, making them hard to use externally.
    • Consistency and Design: Internal APIs might not be consistent or well-designed, having evolved over time to serve specific internal needs rather than adhering to a public standard.
    • Security and Scalability: Internal APIs might not have been designed with the security and scalability required for public use.


    Preparing Internal APIs for External Use

    If you consider making your internal APIs available to external users, ensure they meet the necessary standards:

    • Comprehensive Documentation: Provide clear and thorough documentation.
    • Consistent Design: Ensure your APIs follow consistent design principles.
    • Security: Implement robust security measures.
    • Scalability: Ensure your APIs can handle external load and scale appropriately.

    When are APIs Needed?

    Here’s why you might need APIs to complement your product offering:

    Resource Constraints

    • Small Companies and Start-ups: Limited resources often force small companies to focus their efforts. They must pick specific market segments or solve particular problems due to resource constraints. Trying to do everything can lead to failure. Small companies need to allocate their resources wisely to maximize their impact.
    • Big Enterprises: While large companies have more resources, they still face limitations. Some problems simply aren’t worth solving internally. Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, explains how big companies struggle with certain use cases that are better addressed by startups. It’s about understanding where to direct resources effectively.


    The Importance of On and Off Ramps

    Your product serves as a part of your users’ journey, not the entire solution. Just like on and off ramps on a highway, your product should facilitate easy entry and exit. Here’s why:

    • Seamless Integration: Users need to interact with your product effortlessly. Instead of struggling with cumbersome processes like exporting CSVs or manually entering data, APIs provide seamless integration. They act as on and off-ramps to your product, reducing friction and stress for users.
    • Enhanced User Experience: By offering smooth onboarding and offboarding processes, you make it more likely that users will choose your product. A stress-free experience encourages adoption and fosters loyalty among users.

    Understanding the Whole Product Concept

    The whole product concept revolves around the idea that a product encompasses more than just its technical implementation. It includes the entire user experience from start to finish, covering every interaction and support element that surrounds the core product. Here’s what this means for your product strategy:

    • Comprehensive User Experience: Your product should not only perform its intended functions but also provide a seamless, enjoyable experience for users. This includes everything from the initial sign-up process to customer support, documentation, and user interfaces.
    • Beyond Core Functionality: While your product may effectively address specific user needs, it likely doesn’t cover everything users might want to do before and after using it to solve their problems. Consider the broader context in which your product operates and how it can integrate or complement other tools and processes your users employ.
    • Unified Experience: Users prefer a unified, cohesive experience over juggling multiple tools. They dislike having to remember different logins, URLs, and bookmarks. A streamlined, integrated experience enhances user satisfaction and loyalty.
    • Ease of Consumption: The easier it is for users to access and use your product, the more likely they are to adopt and stick with it. Simplicity and ease of use should be top priorities in your product design and delivery.


    Practical Implications

    • Integration: Ensure your product can integrate smoothly with other tools and systems your users already rely on.
    • Support and Documentation: Provide excellent support and comprehensive documentation to help users navigate and maximize your product’s value.
    • User Interface: Design intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that reduce friction and enhance the overall experience.
    • Continuous Improvement: Regularly gather user feedback and continually refine your product to meet evolving needs and expectations.

    Understanding UX Principles for APIs

    Once you’ve identified the need for APIs through thorough discovery, it’s essential to consider UX principles for APIs. While you don’t need to be a developer to harness the value of APIs, understanding key terms and their impact on user experience is crucial. Let’s delve into some fundamental API concepts:

    Types of APIs

    • SOAP: An older protocol that’s less popular today.
    • REST: Common and straightforward, although it has its critics.
    • GraphQL: A newer query language and framework gaining traction, particularly among developers.
    • Streaming APIs: Establish continuous connections for real-time data exchange.
    • Stateless APIs: Make a request, receive data, and complete the transaction in a single step.


    Data Formats

    • Binary Data: Includes files like PDFs, videos, and audio files.
    • CSV Files: Simple and widely used for tabular data.
    • XML Files: Less popular nowadays.
    • JSON (JavaScript Object Notation): Highly favored for its simplicity and readability, JSON is the most commonly used data format.


    Inbound and Outbound Data Flows

    APIs serve as both on-ramps and off-ramps for data. You can:

    • Consume Data: Fetch information from external sources by accessing APIs.
    • Push Data: Send data to external systems through APIs.

    Understanding Your Users

    In product development, success hinges on a fundamental query: Who are your users? Understanding them isn’t merely about demographics—it’s about grasping their essence. Here’s why identifying and empathizing with your users is paramount:

    • User-Centric Approach

    Putting users first is non-negotiable. By empathizing with their needs, challenges, and dreams, you craft solutions that truly resonate.

    • Customized Solutions

    Users aren’t passive; they actively shape your product. Engage them through surveys, interviews, and testing to tailor your offering precisely to their needs.

    • Embracing Diversity

    Users come from varied backgrounds and perspectives. Embrace this diversity to ensure inclusivity and accessibility in your product.

    • Continuous Adaptation

    Product development is iterative. Learn from user feedback, adapting and evolving your product to stay relevant amidst changing needs and trends.

    Unveiling the Interface: Understanding API Interaction

    Do APIs have an interface? It’s a valid question, considering APIs lack a visual element. However, the essence lies in understanding the journey users undertake to interact with them and the data they provide.

    Simplifying User Experience

    Let’s envision a scenario—a task system with data stored across multiple tables. Rather than burdening users with calls to various endpoints, simplifying the process by consolidating data retrieval into one endpoint streamlines integration. This user-centric approach minimizes developer workload and maximizes efficiency.

    Prioritizing Documentation

    In the API realm, documentation is akin to a menu. Just as a waiter consults a menu to understand offerings, developers rely on comprehensive API documentation. External APIs must offer robust documentation to guide users seamlessly through integration. Auto-generated or manually curated, clear documentation is crucial for scalability and user satisfaction.

    Ensuring Reliability and Compatibility

    For API products, reliability is paramount. Breaking changes can disrupt not only your product but also the systems integrating with it. Implementing versioning, request validation, and clear error messaging mitigates such risks. Additionally, considering rate limits, quotas, and uptime SLAs ensures enterprise-grade reliability and compatibility.

    How to Engage Non-Technical Stakeholders with API Products

    While much emphasis is often placed on impressing developers and technical integrators, it’s equally crucial to captivate non-technical stakeholders, including management and executive teams. These decision-makers often hold the purse strings, making it imperative to showcase the value proposition effectively.

    Understanding the Audience

    When demonstrating APIs to technical users, tools like Postman are invaluable. However, non-technical stakeholders may not be familiar with such platforms. Thus, it’s essential to find alternative methods to convey the benefits comprehensively.

    Visual Representation

    If your API mirrors web app functionality, leveraging the app for demonstrations is ideal. It provides a tangible representation of the API’s capabilities, facilitating a clearer understanding of its potential impact.

    Prototype and Demo Frameworks

    In cases where direct visualization isn’t feasible, consider employing visual mock-ups, prototypes, or demo frameworks. These tools offer a tangible, visually appealing representation of the API’s functionality, enabling stakeholders to grasp its value intuitively.

    The Power of Visualization

    Drawing inspiration from innovative approaches, like Domo’s 3D visualization of data endpoints, underscores the effectiveness of visual storytelling. Such visually stimulating representations can elicit immediate comprehension and appreciation of the API’s utility.

    Tailored Solutions

    Customizing visual demonstrations to align with the client’s domain, such as banking or business intelligence, enhances relevance and resonance. While not intended as full-fledged products, these visual aids serve as powerful tools for elucidating value propositions and expediting decision-making processes.

    API product development represents a pivotal opportunity for innovation and growth in today’s interconnected world. By adhering to best practices, understanding user needs, and prioritizing simplicity and reliability, you can create API products that drive value, foster collaboration, and unlock new possibilities. Embrace the journey of API product development with curiosity, creativity, and a commitment to excellence, and you’ll pave the way for a brighter, more connected future.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    In product management, an API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of defined protocols and tools that allow different software systems to communicate and interact. It enables product managers to extend the functionality of their products by integrating external services and data, fostering innovation, and enhancing user experience. APIs are crucial for building interconnected digital ecosystems and scalable solutions.

    It is a common misconception that API product managers need technical expertise to solve product problems. The engineering and technology teams are required to have these skills.

    Product managers need to be able to interact with an API including sending requests, receiving responses and reading responses from an API. They also need to be able to clearly explain APIs to various stakeholders

    The full form of API is Application Programming Interface.

    API products refer to packaged sets of API endpoints designed to solve specific user problems or fulfill particular use cases. They provide structured access to data and services, enabling developers and businesses to integrate and build upon these functionalities efficiently. API products are essential for creating seamless digital experiences and fostering innovation in various applications.

    API examples include the Google Maps API, which allows developers to integrate maps and location services into their applications, and the Twitter API, enabling access to tweet data and user interactions. Another example is the Stripe API, which facilitates online payment processing for e-commerce platforms. These APIs provide essential functionalities that enhance and extend the capabilities of various applications and services.

    SQL (Structured Query Language) is not a type of API, but rather a language used for managing and querying databases. However, APIs can utilize SQL to interact with databases. For example, a database API might use SQL commands to retrieve, update, or delete data within a database, serving as an intermediary between the application and the database system.

    The most popular API type is the REST (Representational State Transfer) API. Known for its simplicity and flexibility, REST APIs use standard HTTP methods like GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE, making them easy to use and integrate with a wide range of applications. REST APIs are widely adopted due to their statelessness, scalability, and compatibility with web technologies.

    About the Author:

    Jason KnightProduct Director at DueDil