APIs: The Future Is Now

by Jared M. Spool

The moment Dr. Meg Jackson opened her bedroom drapes, she knew the day would start with chaos. It wasn’t supposed to snow in April, let alone six inches since she went to bed.

As soon as the phone started ringing, she knew what it was. Picking it up, she heard the all-too-familiar voice of the school superintendent, informing her town that school would be closed today.

Immediately, Meg’s thoughts turned remembering her morning appointment schedule. Her first appointment was in an hour with Mikey Thompson, a 4-year-old with a slightly over-anxious mother who wouldn’t be pleased if the appointment was delayed, let alone cancelled. Maybe she could leave the kids with the neighbors while she went in for her office hours?

That’s when the good news came in. The SMS on her phone was from the office appointment system, saying that Mrs. Thompson just rescheduled the checkup for next week. Ok. Time to breathe and figure out the day.

Her cell phone vibrated again, this time with an incoming call. “Margaret Jackson,” she answered.

“Hi Meg, Ted here.” Ted was another doctor in the practice.

Another voice: “Nickolas Richmond.” Another doctor in the practice had joined in the call.

“Hey everyone!” She recognized that voice as Mary Ellen, the managing partner of their little practice. “I wanted to talk about what we’re doing today. The roads are a mess and maybe we should close the office.”

Behold the Wonders of Twilio

The technology in this scenario—robo-calls, SMS integration, and group conference calls — are now available to any internet-enabled designer through a cool little service called Twilio. Twilio’s application programming interface (API) provides a rich library of automated functions, each at a very reasonable cost, to integrate voice, sms, and phone capabilities into almost any design.

The Twilio team has done an amazing job of providing a toolset for anyone who wants communications integrated into their apps. They’ve broken the technology into bite- sized pieces, which teams can assemble in any order to meet their particular needs.

In the above scenario, a small town school system found it easy to implement a robo-call notification system that the superintendent can initiate from her own home. The small pediatrics office integrated SMS notifications into their scheduling system, notifying staff of last minute changes. The practice also built a simple app that lets any partner immediately connect the entire staff in a conference call by calling an established phone number, just for moments like this.

As you can imagine, Twilio has become a popular tool. It’s easy to integrate various communications capabilities into apps to make them more seamless.

Connecting Nurses and Patients

Imagine a nurse practitioner who handles the Sunday morning patient call-in hours from the comfort of her breakfast table. Patients call the office number and a Twilio-infused app asks them for their name, phone number, and a brief description of the issue they’d like to discuss with the nurse. The system then tells them how many others are in the queue ahead and suggests they keep their phone handy for a “warning” SMS to tell them they’ll be next.

Before the nurse returns a call, the app brings up the patient’s record. (Twilio uses speech-to-text capability on the name and phone number.) At the same time, it sends that warning SMS to the patient to say that they are up next and to expect a call shortly.

The app then plays the recording of the patient’s original request, as she’s reviewing the patient’s history. With the press of a button, the system simultaneously calls the nurse’s phone and the patient, connecting both of them in a two-person call. All the while, the nurse can track how many more patients have called in (If there’s a large number, she can request the system SMS her colleague to take some of the waiting patients).

The World of APIs

Twilio’s service is one example of how APIs are changing what we can do with our designs. Other APIs are emerging on the scene, from all corners of the world. Now, it’s easy to extend your design with photo manipulation, credit card processing, medical databases, mapping, automated manufacturing controls, and millions more functions and capabilities.

The promise of the API isn’t new. The first ideas of re-usable, independent software that developers could interface to extend their core capabilities goes back to systems like SmallTalk, which originated in the 1980s.

Ever since then, technology has been on a march to find a way to make modular code efficient and feasible. Early attempts couldn’t break away from their monolithic structures or figure out how to separate out the underlying implementation from the interface. It took us more than three decades to make it easy to do and provide a business mechanism to support it.

Twilio is a great example of how far we’ve come. However, they aren’t the only ones. There are thousands of APIs available. Even the US government has gotten into the act, with their Big Data API initiative. You can now tap into resources from agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, adding their capabilities directly into your own applications. Many more APIs are on their way.

There’s Good News for Designers

APIs give designers a much richer toolbox than they’ve ever had before. We can now take advantage of capabilities on our devices, the wealth of knowledge stored in databases, and pull together resources to provide a richer experience for our users.

APIs provide us LEGO-like building blocks, each with unique capabilities, that we can plug together to extend our abilities. Just a few years ago, if you wanted to integrate SMS into your app, your development team would have to learn the ins-and-outs of connecting to the carrier’s interfaces (which weren’t standardized) and constantly deal with a shifting landscape of technology. The costs were unacceptably high for most organizations, so only the richest could afford to develop and maintain it, with low returns on that investment.

Now, rigorously built APIs, like those provided by Twilio and its ilk, bring those development and maintenance costs down significantly. The lower bar of entry means more competition, which lowers costs even more. This makes incorporating these capabilities easier than ever.

There’s Also Bad News

Even though integration is cheaper than ever, the cost for the design is not free. In fact, it’s growing.

Keeping up to date on all the APIs, their capabilities, and idiosyncrasies is not easy. We might not know an API exists to make something easy, losing out on an opportunity. Just as painful is thinking an API is more capable than it truly is, creating development, QA, and support costs that might not be worth it in the long run. (What happens to those doctors offices if Twilio goes out of business or gets acquired by a company that changes their mission?)

Designers will need to make API education a regular part of their work activities. Experimentation opportunities, like internal one-day hackathons or “20%-time” side projects, give the designers and developers a way to try out and play with APIs to extend interesting experience ideas. You already thought your to-do list was jam-packed, right?

APIs Are Designs Too

To make APIs work, they need a design. The method of designing an API isn’t that different from any other user interface project, except the users are fellow developers and designers.

We’re seeing a branch of UX design emerging that deals with creating easy to use and maintain APIs. They provide documentation, sandbox tools for testing functions, example code, and simple maintenance models for getting the API integrated and running quickly and effectively.

It won’t be too long before our own organizations need to ask what could we build as an API for our own stuff? As designers, we can play a role in helping make our core competencies a integral part of
other applications.

The Future Is Finally Here

Soon we’ll see APIs as a center-piece of core design education. Designers need to see the wave that’s coming their way and start preparing by learning what these things can do (and what they can’t).

An API-filled future is simultaneously exciting and scary. However, it’s a realization of the promise of seamless experiences that is probably most exciting. After all, isn’t that why we became designers in the first place?

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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