API usability at scale

Andrew Macvean, John Daughtry, Luke Church, Craig Citro
[Google Scholar] [DBLP] [Citeseer]
Read: 21 September 2020

Proceedings of the 26th annual workshop of the Psychology of Programming Interest Group
Note(s): google, friction diagram, usability
Papers: rieman:chi:1995

How can you evaluate the usability of web APIs? They gather usage data from the Google API explorer for 26 APIs looking for explorations that produce 4xx (i.e., HTTP error codes). They find that three particular APIs are especially error prone.

The next problem is gathering data about number of parameters, number of methods in API, etc. and try to correlate with how error prone an API is. The “coefficient of determination (R^2) score” is just “0.256”.

To communicate with developers, they observe users and generate [friction diagrams] and then use a cognitive walkthrough (rieman:chi:1995) to explain the problem to the API designers.

Evolving APIs is hard when you can’t get hold of all the clients.

A common metric to optimize is the “Time to Hello World” (TTHW): the time to get a trivial example working. Within Google, they instead use “Pain to Hello World” (PTHW) in order to focus more on long-term success.

One possible way to make evolving APIs easier is to auto-generate libraries for many different languages. Those libraries can support both the old and new APIs and can switch over to the new API when ready. Alas, it seems that hand-written libraries are more idiomatic and easier to use.