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How to Embed UX Thinking in Your Next API


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At the heart of scalable and intuitive APIs is great user experience, but the UX of an API is rarely considered. Learn how to integrate UX strategies to create improved API experiences using real life examples and lessons learned from upgrading Shopify’s own API.

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How to Embed UX Thinking in Your Next API

  1. 1. Steph Shin UX thinking in API design
  2. 2. ● Cross-functional teams ● Organized problem spaces not discipline ● Platform product line ● App store billing domain ● Highly technical space Context: UX designer at Shopify
  3. 3. ● Serves third party app developers ● Allows app developers to charge Shopify Merchants directly through their store account ● Originally built in REST ● Our goal was to build it in GraphQL ● Launch at Shopify Unite 2019 Context: Shopify’s Billing API
  4. 4. “Instead of defining the structure of responses on the server, the flexibility is given to the client.” – Petr Bela, GraphQL in the age of REST APIs
  5. 5. REST vs. GraphQL Source:
  6. 6. Why would I need to think about UX for an API?
  7. 7. Application Programming Interface
  8. 8. “An API is first & foremost an interface for people” – Arnaud Lauret, The Design of Web APIs
  9. 9. Developers are people too.
  10. 10. if API = Interface and Developer = user then using API = UX
  11. 11. Start by accepting the fact that you are NOT the user!
  12. 12. “[Users] are usually very different than those who write the code, even [when] they are developers: they have different backgrounds, experiences with user interfaces, mindsets, mental models, and goals. They are not us.” – Raluca Budiu, You Are Not the User: The False-Consensus Effect
  13. 13. ● Trustworthy & consistent (even if it’s unpredictable) ● Human (even if it’s highly technical) ● Discoverable (even if it’s not the main star) ● Easy & simple (even if it’s challenging & complex) Great UX should feel...
  14. 14. “Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.” – Jared Spool
  15. 15. ● Who will be using this API? ● What problem does this solve? ● What are the use cases? ● What could get in the way of an enjoyable experience? ● How do users understand the problem space? Helpful questions to guide the design of great user experiences:
  16. 16. What does UX look like for API’s?
  17. 17. Collaborate Be open to the wealth of insights and ideas that non-technical people bring to the technical design process. NOTE: Discussions can be difficult because words often hold many different definitions. Diagrams, models or a glossary could help ensure better alignment.
  18. 18. “Teams that fail, fail to listen to each other.” – Brent Summers, Get over yourself: Collaboration is the secret to great products
  19. 19. Research precedents Look to related or similar examples to understand the thinking behind the solution. Try to piece together what they learned that led to their decisions. NOTE: It’s not enough to simply copy. You’ll need to understand how to apply it to your specific context.
  20. 20. Interview users Talk to users directly and learn about their current solutions, their motivations and their mental models. NOTE: It’s very easy to fall into biases. Be sure to work with a researcher whenever possible to avoid influencing interviewees with leading questions.
  21. 21. Example of a leading question: “I saw you were having difficulty with the navigation. What happened?” Vs. “What was easy or difficult about getting to the content you wanted?” ⛔ ��
  22. 22. “Leading questions rob us of the opportunity to hear an insight we weren’t expecting.” – Amy Schade, Avoid Leading Questions to Get Better Insights from Participants
  23. 23. Model the concept Map out and visualize the objects & relationships involved. Use this to align on the system, taxonomy and schema. NOTE: Focus on organizing the objects and articulating how they relate to each other and move through the system. It’s helpful to think of journeys. Use analogies to help you illustrate the concepts.
  24. 24. Test out the usability Whether hi- or lo-definition, find a way to present and test the core logic and structures of the API design. This can be done with, interviews, tree tests, surveys... NOTE: Be as objective as possible and work with a researcher when possible to avoid influencing your bias.
  25. 25. Steps to improve user experience Collaborate Research precedents Interview users Model the concept Test out the usability
  26. 26. What did I learn?
  27. 27. Naming is hard! Language has many layers of meaning steeped in culture, past experiences and individual biases. Focus on the what the word represents rather than the specific words and finalize the terminology later.
  28. 28. Oversimplification can complicate things Taking a complex concept and oversimplifying it can cause problems when scaling. Try to avoid conflating similar but separate concepts.
  29. 29. Usage fees in REST
  30. 30. Usage fees in GraphQL
  31. 31. Not all feedback is equal Find a balance between being descriptive and prescriptive. You don’t have to act on every feedback. Decisions should be informed by the product vision as well as user feedback and data.
  32. 32. Questions & compliments welcome 😉