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Oct 12, 2023 | 5 minute read

Composable Commerce Buzzwords Demystified, Part Two: “API-first”

written by Seamus Roddy

An ongoing priority for our team at Elastic Path is to help business leaders have an understanding of the technology and business impacts of composable technology.

Oftentimes, reaching that understanding has been difficult, as buzzwords shroud the promise of composable commerce – and make it seem like a purely technical affair. But composable commerce isn’t a hodgepodge of technical jargon. It’s an approach that helps business and tech teams meet unique business needs.

In the first part of our series about composable commerce buzzwords, we demystified the term “headless.” Now, it’s time to break down another composable buzzword. What does the term “API-first” mean? And how does an API-first approach provide value to brands?

API-first: The technology

API stands for application programming interface. APIs are software intermediaries that allow disparate software applications to communicate – seamlessly tying together multiple apps or services.

To achieve headless architecture, many brands embraced added APIs. This is when APIs are added to existing software. Take as an example a cart functionality on a commerce website. In the past, if you ran that commerce site, you had built a cart page using HTML, CSS, and Javascript so that a web browser could display it. Now, you want this commerce cart to connect to separate internal and external applications, such as a social media site or online marketplace. Adding APIs allows your data to be retrieved by other applications and for you to retrieve data from those other applications, so you can facilitate the purchase of your products or services on another site. The API is the connective tissue between your software and another application’s software.

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An API-first technical approach goes further. When you’re API first, your developers, in partnership with your business team, design your APIs before a single line of code is written. In the same way that traditional software is berthed from wireframes and screenshots of how the software will work, APIs produced in an API-first approach are built to provide specific value to your business. These APIs aren’t tacked on to preexisting software. They’re the centerpiece of the commerce design process itself – meaning that your commerce applications are being built to seamlessly connect with other applications and software.

API-first: The business impact and benefits

API-first means having technology that is built around business needs – and unlocks a host of specific business benefits.

APIs themselves have long been lauded as a way for commerce leaders to innovate, grow, and build new revenue streams. In 2017, McKinsey said, “APIs allow businesses to monetize data, forge profitable partnerships, and open new pathways for innovation and growth.”

Added APIs serve as an intermediate step to full API innovation. Added APIs make it possible to adopt a headless architecture without a full software replacement. For example, some companies seamlessly integrate custom landing pages to a Shopify backend.

But added APIs come with limitations, as these APIs are tacked onto a pre-existing software. In the case of landing pages, design and messaging can be changed, but functionalities such as checkout are pre-built. It’s probably not a bad customer experience, but it’s not an experience unique to your brand, either.

API-first approaches unlock the full potential of APIs. Today, knowledgeable programmers and business leaders prefer an API-first approach, because it turns every part of a commerce system into a gateway for communication. That results in:

  • Truly unique customer experiences: API-first allows for a decoupled frontend and imposes no limitations on flow, functionality, or requirements. This is why one piece of API-first software can power B2C, B2B, and B2B2C experiences – along with other business models.
  • Improved automation: Repetitive, manual business user tooling processes can be fully automated, which saves time and money. Business user tooling can also be custom-built to match your company’s workflow – saving time and lowering training costs for new hires.
  • Accelerated development: With a predefined API contract, development teams can work faster and more efficiently, drastically decreasing project timelines and allowing an existing team to take on more business objectives and deliver more value.
  • Language-agnostic development: APIs allow developers to use any programming language. Generalists can build commerce experiences – it’s not necessary to hire and pay specialized, expensive development specialists. Plus, without coding language limitations, existing programmers do not need to learn new systems and the pool of available programmers to hire is much larger.
  • Business-first customization: An API-first foundation means the technology conforms to business needs, always and forever – not the other way around.

In short, an API-first approach means unique commerce experiences that drive revenue and serve business needs. An API-first approach also means that you save money on hiring and training and save time on development.

API-first isn’t just a technobabble buzzword. It’s an opportunity to drive change, shrink project timelines, trim costs, and create better commerce experiences that increase revenue.

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