The non-technical guide to API's and how they improve productivity and costs

 API's explained - In2itive LMS

We meet a lot of business owners and senior managers who say “I’m not technical, talk to my IT team about that”. We also see a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when technical people try to explain API’s. But the fact is you don’t need to be “technical” in order to understand how your business can benefit from API's.

Our approach at In2itive is always to try and help simplify and de-mystify “technical” matters for our clients. In keeping with that philosophy let’s try and keep this simple and non-technical.

This API article includes the following topics

What is an API and what can it do for me?

When someone asks you what your iPhone does, it’s unlikely that you say, “Oh, I’m not technical”. Instead you’d probably say your iPhone is a device that keeps you connected with every aspect of your business and social life. You probably don’t say your iPhone is a collection of electronic components including diodes, transistors, resistors, integrated circuits, processors, a software operating system and a collection of applications.

In much the same way, when asked about API’s, you can explain them thus. 

An API is something that allows you to streamline your business operations and improve operational efficiencies.

This is because the API enables your different business software applications to communicate with each other. An API (Application Programme Interface) is simply a set of requirements (or rules) that defines how one software application may talk to another software application.

The reasons why two (or more) software applications might want to talk to each other are so that:

  1. The two applications can share data
  2. And/or one software application can automatically ‘make something happen’ in the other software application without the need for human intervention.
 In2itive LMS - API's explained

What does an API do?

The list of what an API ‘could potentially do’ is literally limitless. As human beings we interact with software via a User Interface (UI). For most of us that means we use a nice graphical touch screen display, mouse or keyboard (like on our Smartphones, iPAD’s and laptops). We can see what shiny button we need to press in order to get the information we want (for example, to find a friend’s phone number) or to make something happen (for example, login to Facebook).

Software applications don’t need those fancy graphics that us humans prefer. Those nice shiny user interfaces are there just to make life easier for us humans. Software applications just need the actual data transactions that occur after us humans press the shiny buttons — and of course they need to know ‘the rules’ of interfacing in the first place.

So if another software application wanted to control everything that you are physically able to do with your iPhone, an API would be needed to explain all the rules of exactly how to do every function that you are able to carry out manually.  

Generally speaking, one software application doesn’t need to carry out every task that the other software application allows. Therefore API’s usually provide limited functionality to support the most common and/or important tasks.

Exactly what “information” that is allowed to be passed and/or what actions can be taken is defined in the API documentation.

What does an API do for my business?

API’s can help your business by allowing you to simplify certain tasks, speed up certain processes and help you eliminate duplication of manual effort.

They help you achieve this by reducing or eliminating the amount of manual effort (and associated costs) that would otherwise be required to conduct those tasks.

They can speed up processes that will increase customer and/or employee satisfaction. For example, reducing the time from a customer order to fulfillment.

A specific example of how an API can help

Let’s say one of these software applications is your organisation's order processing system or CRM.  

Since we are an online learning company let’s consider In2itive’s Learning Management System (LMS) is the other software application. Let us also assume that your business is using our LMS to deliver your online training courses (your products) to your customers.

Now imagine that your business takes an order from a new customer who wants to take one of the courses. So you enter the customer order details into your CRM (or order processing system).  

 In2itive LMS - API's explained

Once that order is created in your CRM system somebody in your organisation has to set the customer up with access to the LMS by creating a user account and login details, as well as assigning the course that the customer has just purchased.

When the order is entered into the CRM the operator will manually input the customer data. Perhaps that takes somewhere between 7 and 10 minutes.

Some of that user data will then need to be manually entered into the LMS in order to give the customer access to your training course. Perhaps that duplication of data entry takes the operator another 2-3 minutes. It’s only 3 extra minutes, right?

But what about when you get 100 orders? That’s 5 hours of entering some of the same data twice into two different software applications!

What if the CRM could send the data directly to the LMS without any further user interaction? If we could do that we’d save £££’s on effort duplication and would probably also increase the job satisfaction of the data entry operators.

And what about customer order number 99 in that list of 100? How long does customer number 99 have to wait after they’ve placed their order, for a data operator to input their data to the LMS so that the customer can actually use the training course? An hour? Two hours? Is that satisfactory for customer number 99, or do they want to access the product that they’ve just purchased immediately?

 In2itive LMS - API's explained

So, an API can help your business with:

  • Labour cost savings
  • Better utilisation of your internal resources
  • Increased job satisfaction of data operators
  • Operators are able to process more orders
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Rapid and consistent customer order fulfillment timescales

What’s not to like? This is a very simple example with the intention to explain to non-technical business owners and managers what the point is — that you don’t need to be technical to understand how your business can benefit.

API documentation

The functionality that an API supports will be explained in the API documentation. In the Introduction or Overview section of API documentation there will be a broad explanation of what information the API allows to be shared, and what actions it allows other software applications to take.

The rest of the API documentation is ‘black magic’ that only software engineers will understand. It contains all of the details that the software engineers require in order to write the code that makes their own software application follow the API rules of another software application.

How do I make these API benefits come alive for my business?

You take a look at the API documentation (the introduction and overview) and decide what parts of the API might help your business by allowing you to automate certain tasks.

Then you sit down with a coffee and talk to your software developers and explain what automation you’d like to have in place — and then you hand the API documentation across to them. Your software engineers are the people that will ‘make it happen’, so maybe give them a cake with that coffee!

What this means in reality is that the software engineers will lock themselves in a cupboard and write some software code that follows ‘the rules’ set out in the API. The way that they approach the task will all be defined in the API documentation.

But beware — only software engineers understand this stuff.

If you read API documentation do not read past the introduction or overview section because it will be full of code and rules that you will not understand. You do not need to understand it. Your software engineers will understand it and that’s all that matters. 

If you don’t have ‘in house’ software engineers that can implement the rules of the API for you then talk to your appropriate business system supplier and they should be able to offer some advice.

API's and the In2itive LMS

The example above is an actual application of the API that we provide for the In2itive LMS. It is in use by many of our customers who are benefiting from the automation that the In2itive API offers their businesses. It gives our customers integration and automation between their other business systems and the In2itive LMS. Examples of their other business systems include:

  • HR systems
  • CRM and Marketing Automation systems such as Sage and Infusionsoft
  • Employees getting automatically logged into the LMS as soon as they sign in to their corporate Intranet (thus avoiding the need for those employees to remember yet another username and password)
  • Registration of new starter employees onto the LMS and automatically assigning them their relevant training courses
  • Other business systems being able to request the employee's training progress results from the LMS so they’re able to feed that information back into their own company training records systems.

Not all business systems and LMS’s have API’s. But if they don’t have them ‘right now’ they can usually be developed in order to help streamline these types of business processes. 

Remember, you don’t need to be ‘technical’ to get it. talk to us about our API. we promise to keep it simple.