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The web is littered with good API intentions gone wrong. Too many businesses have realized they “need APIs” and created them as a tick-the-box feature without thinking about their broader strategic value. One critical difference between the businesses that succeed and those that don’t is the underlying approach by which APIs are planned and conceived.  Put simply: Is the API a project or a product?

Projects have a kickoff and a clear end date.  When the work is completed, the team moves on. Products, on the other hand, have a life cycle, a long-running team, and typically an orientation towards business outcomes. Winners in the API economy like Stripe, Amazon, Netflix, or Twilio have an API product mindset. Outlined below are five key traits that make these API products  successful.

#1: API products are designed with the intended customer in mind

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To often, when organizations adopt a “if I build it, the developers will come” approach — nobody comes. Before the API is created, then, the API product team should identify a target customer (e.g an internal developer, a partner, an external developer) and engage that API consumer to better understand his/her needs. This ensures that when the API is delivered, it provides immediate value.

#2: API products are packaged and marketed in a way that attracts targeted customers

When buying technology products online, there’s an expectation that the vendor will make the value of its solutions clear, compelling and personalized to the user. API products are no different. Owners must provide a clear path for future consumers to discover, research and ultimately acquire their digital capabilities.  Success with APIs stems from real and repeated customer-centricity.

#3: API products provide great customer experiences

A great customer experience here can be defined as the sum of critical moments in the customer’s journey with your API products. For example, how long does it take for your customer to get to hello world, or how does your customer get unstuck when they run into problems? Examples, forums, knowledge hubs, and even dedicated support teams help create great customer experiences and ultimately keep your customers coming back.

#4: API products have an owner and a lifecycle

Managing an API with the traits outlined above requires both a dedicated focus and a set of skills that often go beyond the typical API developer and architect. Understanding how to define user personas, work cross-functionally with customer-facing teams and build a capabilities roadmap is the domain of product manager.  Finding people with these skills is paramount to your API program’s success.

#5: API products have quantifiable and measurable success metrics

Key performance indicators (KPIs) provide marks on the ground to measure progress and align stakeholders on expectations and outcomes.  KPIs for APIs can take a variety of form factors (a list often distilled and owned by the API product manager) and can and should evolve over time as customer requirements change, market conditions shift, and skills improve. Without these, it’s difficult to understand how your APIs directly influence business outcomes and whether your strategy might need recalibration.

Hopefully now you’re convinced that for your digital strategy to succeed, APIs cannot be viewed as just a technical project creating yet another “cog” in the organization’s engine. When leadership and talent view APIs as products that must bear all of the above traits, the stage is not only set for enduring excellence in execution and provision of the API, the odds of customer satisfaction and ongoing engagement are greatly improved.

And while not all APIs will warrant the type of investment outlined above, adopting a culture of product-centricity across your organization (as opposed to just a few teams) instills habits that ensure all APIs are designed and delivered to be useful and delightful for the people consuming them.

To learn more about the impact of treating APIs as products and how align your organization and culture around this approach, download API strategy essentials: a practical guide for winning in the API economy.