What is an API? A guide to getting started as a total beginner

api code

You don't need to be a programmer to use an application programming interface (API). In fact, we're using them every day, even if we don't realize it.

For example, if you use Skyscanner to find cheap flights, the platform uses APIs to pull in flights, prices and availability from their connected partners. This is constantly updated, so you always see the latest flight offers.

skyscanner api

 

If you look for APIs, you'll find them everywhere. Any time one tool brings in data from another tool – like Facebook comments, Google Maps locations or YouTube videos – there's an API in place.

As another simple example, Airbnb uses the Google Maps API to show you the location of a property or activity on their platform:

airbnb google maps api

 

Although APIs can get complicated, they don't have to be. You can use other tools to implement simple Web APIs in your business without needing a lot of tech knowledge – which is what we'll show you in this post.


What is an API?

The most basic definition of an API is that it enables one piece of software to talk to another piece of software.

 

What are APIs used for?

When people talk about APIs today, they are usually referring to Web APIs for data retrieval. Millions of companies use these to...

  • Tap into publicly accessible content that's already been created and show the most updated version in their own app (e.g. sharing locations on Google Maps).
  • Access hidden information that doesn't exist on the normal web.
  • Automate an app that needs more complex, up-to-date information, such as the latest Instagram posts tagged at Wimbledon Stadium for a tennis news page.
  • Get their apps to interact, e.g. their mailing list with their CRM.

For many companies, APIs keep life simple and reduce the need to repeat the work that someone else has already done. Why would you try to create your own version of Google Maps when you can use the Maps API to include customized maps on your own web platform?

 

How do you use an API?

To create a new connection between apps with an API, you need to consult the documentation of the tool you want to connect and fetch data from. You might check, for example:

To make sense of developer docs and use an API, you'll need to have some tech knowledge or work with someone who does. It can get a bit tricky otherwise. (But a bit further down we’ll talk about how to use APIs and get the benefits without being a programmer.)

Making use of an API often requires an API key, which gives you permission to set up the connection and make the API call. An API key essentially identifies you as a user of the application - you will only be able to access the data of a given user if you have the exact API key of that user.

Each API's documentation will include details on how to get access to the API's data (an API key, for example), an overview of all the operations you can do (such as create data, update data and list data) and often some examples of API calls.

Once you have the access requirements, you can choose to use a tool like Postman or Runscope to manually interact with an API. These are "API clients", or third-party systems that allow you to make one-off requests to API endpoints without needing to input any code.

postman apis

After downloading Postman, here's how you can send your first request. To start with, you can also use postman-echo.com, their sample API, to get to grips with setting up an API.

 

How do you use APIs without being a programmer?

Not a programmer? You can benefit from APIs without needing to make sense of technical documentation by finding solutions that do the hard work for you. Two of the best ways for beginners to use an API are...

Native integrations

Native integrations enable you to create an instant connection between your tools, as the API work is already done. For instance, Mailchimp's integration with Canva lets you easily create stunning graphics for your newsletter with zero tech knowledge or set-up required.

Most SaaS (software as a service) tools have their own integrations library that offers plug-and-play free API connections between popular apps. Here's ActiveCampaign's example:

activecampaign marketplace

External integrations

In addition to native integrations, there are also external platforms that build connections between apps for you. These include apps like Zapier, which provides one-way data pushes to automate tasks between apps; and PieSync, which syncs data bidirectionally between apps to make sure that your data is always up-to-date in both tools whenever anything changes.

In this case, PieSync has also done all the legwork setting up APIs for you, so you just need to choose the specific connections between your favorite apps and customize the action of the sync. An example of this could be updating a contact property in Pipedrive when something changes in Intercom.

If you're curious about how PieSync works, it starts with our team building a connection to an app using their API. PieSync then acts as a middleman between apps to 1) request the information and 2) translate the information so that the other API can understand it. You can read more about how two-way syncs work here:

Check PieSync's connections between your go-to tools to see how it could work in your business.

 

The best APIs to use in your business

The best APIs for your business depends on which tools you need to connect. Look at the tools you need to integrate: this could be your analytics suite and a dashboard tool to visualize your company's performance data, or integrating Google Maps data with your web app.

Whatever your integration and connection needs, look for the simplest way to tick your boxes. Instead of using an API directly, check native integrations or if PieSync can create the results you want by syncing your contact data in two directions and updating in real time.

Get started with a PieSync free trial and sync your apps – no tech knowledge or complicated documentation required.

About Lucy Fuggle

Lucy Fuggle writes for PieSync, the two-way contact sync tool for hundreds of apps. She also works with her clients to make their brand matter with a content-rich marketing strategy.