What’s an API? (And Why Does It Matter?)

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To a developer, “What’s an API?” might be a straightforward – if not exactly simple – question. But to anyone who doesn’t have experience with code, APIs can come across as confusing or downright intimidating.

In this post we’ll cover the basic definition of an API, look at how APIs are liberating companies, and go over practical applications of APIs.

The language is geared towards a non-technical audience so you don’t have to worry about navigating code snippets. That said, technical readers might find this a valuable resource to point to when faced with the task of explaining APIs to non-technical counterparts.

Ready? Let’s hop to it!

What’s an API?

API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” APIs give individuals and companies the power to add functionality to a website, application, platform, or software without having to actually write the code. This is accomplished by integrating the API code into a company’s existing code.

We encounter APIs all the time. If you’ve ever bought something from an online retailer, for example, then you’ve almost certainly interacted with an API. Most online retailers process payments using APIs from Stripe or PayPal.

Other APIs you’ve likely run into include the Google Maps API on sites like Yelp, and the “Sign in with Facebook” API which allows you to log in to a website using your Facebook credentials.

Here’s an example of what the Google Maps API looks like in action:

Yelp didn’t build or code this map. They integrated the Google Maps API instead.

And here’s an example of the “sign in with Facebook” API in action:

Airbnb allows users to log in manually, or with Facebook login details.

API integrations don’t necessarily have to be outward facing (as in the examples above). APIs can also be used as internal business tools. Some companies use APIs to automatically print shipping labels, schedule calendar events, fill out HR paperwork online, etc.

Why APIs Matter

APIs have changed the way companies build their products and platforms by giving them the power to add specialized functionality without having to develop the functionality themselves. This is huge! It’s especially liberating for companies that have tight engineering resources or want to allocate their development time elsewhere.

Some companies use APIs act as building blocks for their product or service. Lyft, for example, uses the Stripe API to handle payments, the Twilio API to send text messages to riders, and your phone’s geolocation API to locate you for a ride. Lyft stitched those APIs into the fabric of their platform, essentially creating the service we’re all familiar with today.

Other companies use APIs to elevate the value of their product or platform.

The real estate investment platform Brokermint integrated HelloSign’s eSignature API early in their development. Brokermint knew their customer’s were eager for a way to sign documents directly on the Brokermint platform. The addition of embedded electronic signing resulted in a 23% increase in their sales conversion rate. Not only did the new functionality make current users happy, it allowed Brokermint to position themselves as a more valuable solution to future customers.

Other reasons companies use APIs:

  • Resource savings. Companies that choose to integrate APIs benefit by saving time and engineering hours that would have been required to build the same functionality. A HelloSign API integration, for example, carries an average integration time of 2.5 days. Compare that to the months (and years) of development and security resources it would take to create and maintain the eSignature solution independently.
  • Specialization. Companies that use APIs are better able to focus on evolving their bread and butter offerings, while leaving the non-core stuff to companies that were built to focus on those things.
  • Compliance management. APIs that deal with sensitive information (like Stripe’s payment processing or HelloSign’s eSignatures) come equipped with the proper compliance(s) to protect data. This is a huge plus for companies that require safe and secure transactions. FinTech companies, for instance, will often use compliant APIs so that they don’t have to go through the compliance process (which is time-consuming, costly, and risky).
  • Innovation. APIs are created by entire teams that are dedicated to making the API the best it can be. Companies that embed APIs can really benefit from this continual improvement. Check out HelloSign’s list of 2016 API improvements to get a sense of the evolution of an API.
  • Maintenance. If something wonky happens with an API, dedicated teams will launch into “fix” mode so the API customer doesn’t have to. API teams are also there to ensure maximum “uptime” of the API’s functionality, which is critical for businesses to function properly.

What Makes a Great API

As with any other product, there are great APIs and there are not so great APIs.

Here are a few signs of a great API:

  • Excellent documentation. If “documentation” means nothing to you, rest assured that it means something to your developer. Documentation is basically the manual for an API. Clean documentation is straightforward, consistent, and has great code examples. That means it’s easy to read, easy to interpret, and easy to integrate.
  • Adaptability. Customization is key if you have a specific vision for how you want to use an API in your product or platform. APIs are used to improve your product, but you don’t want your product to look or feel like a Frankenstein monster. Customization features like white labeling allow you to keep your product experience consistent.
  • Opportunities to test. You wouldn’t buy a car without testing how it drove, would you? Same goes for APIs. It’s super helpful to have testing tools available so your engineers can get a feel for the product and experiment with the code. Tools might include a free test mode, testing sandbox environments, and an API dashboard.
  • Support for developers. Imagine if you had a question about a product, but didn’t have access to a support team that could answer your question. It’d be incredibly frustrating! The same feelings apply to developers. Not having support is frustrating. Easy access to great developer-specific support, on the other hand, makes a huge difference.
  • SDKs in multiple languages. The more SDKs, the higher likelihood the API will speak the same language your company programs in. This will make it easier and faster to get a working integration. The HelloSign API has SDKs in 6 major languages, such as C#, PHP, and Python. You can check out the list here.

Real Examples of API Integrations

API integrations take all shapes and sizes. That’s part of their power and appeal! If you can dream an API integration, it’s likely possible.

Let’s look at a few real HelloSign API integrations as examples:

lienwaivers.io

Customers of lienwaivers.io use the HelloSign API to sign lien waivers right from the lienwaivers.io dashboard. This was a huge win for the company and customer alike!

Adding embedded signatures to their platform resulted in 79% improvement for document turnaround time – from 12.4 days to 2.6 days.

More details here.

Loftsmart

Here’s another example of an eSignature API integration, this time with rental platform LoftSmart. LoftSmart used the HelloSign API to embed rental agreement management into their platform.

When a rental paperwork flow is triggered, an iFrame pops up with the rental agreement. Tenants and property managers have the opportunity to fill everything in right then and there, without having to navigate to another website or print and scan documents.

More details here.

JobAdder

Last example!

JobAdder is a recruitment management platform that integrated the HelloSign API to make recruiting totally seamless.

They used the HelloSign API to integrate embedded templates into their platforms. That means their users (recruiters) can create and save reusable document templates for their unique recruiting paperwork. Keep in mind, they can now do this all within the JobAdder.

JobAdder also used text tags in their integration. Text tags allow their users to auto-populate hiring documents (like offer letters) using data saved in the JobAdder database. This basically automates the paperwork portion of recruiting.

More details here.

The three examples above are just the beginning. You can design an eSignature API integration in a million and one different ways. Some companies build a sales contract signing flow into a CRM, others might build a W-9 signing flow into an HR platform or stitch together investment form workflows into a FinTech service. The list goes on and on.

Is an API Right for You?

APIs allow companies to achieve things that weren’t possible before. An API is 100% worth investigating if you’re looking for:

  • Short-term savings. APIs save dev time and are cheaper than building your own solution.
  • Long-term savings. APIs come equipped with maintenance/compliance/etc. This makes them cheaper in the long run.
  • Focus. APIs can take care of critical but non-core functions of your company, allowing you to focus on what your company does best.

Questions?

We’ve covered a lot of ground and we hope this cleared up a lot of your questions about APIs! If you’re curious about how to set up an API at your company, we’re here for you. Contact us for a demo of the HelloSign API or send our documentation to your developer so they can explore.

Additional Resources

APIs for Humans: The Rise of Developer Experience
10 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Your API
3 Questions to Answer When Integrating the HelloSign API
6 Steps For Getting Started With the HelloSign API [Non-technical]