Mobile app playbook: adding data from third-party APIs for fun and profit

By Bear Douglas
Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Last week, we explained how structuring a backend helped us build the Furni sample app quickly and solve our multiple logins dilemma. We created a set of Lambda functions in AWS to let us consume information from our database — furniture specs and photos generously provided by real-life retailer Dot & Bo.

Their help was the linchpin of Furni’s success, for an obvious reason: you can’t have a prototype furniture store without any furniture. It would have taken us ages to find enough pieces to fill the app, let alone photograph them all so they looked good. Even in a prototype, poor design and ugly images are distracting.

Fresh, high-quality content is critical to nearly every app, because people come back to your app to see something new or updated — checking online stores during sales, exploring maps to see how bad traffic is right now, or seeing the news to learn what’s going on in the world.

Although up-to-date content can be time-consuming and expensive to produce, there are plenty of shortcuts you can use to keep your app feeling “live.”

Part five: adding data from third-party APIs for fun and profit

It’s truly astounding how much information is available to you, programmatically and for free, if you know where to look. As a developer advocate, I’ve been to a ton of hackathons — well over a hundred — so I’ve encountered a lot of different APIs, and seen thousands of different projects that people make with them.

Pulling in data from third-party sources can give your app depth and immediacy, but that data is rarely enough on its own. The best projects, the ones I want to see become real businesses, use third-party APIs alongside app-specific information or functionality — they synthesize multiple data streams into something new.

One of my all-time favorite hacks was a game where a set of friends each got a push notification at a random time of day, and competed to take the best photo of what they were each doing at that moment. Another great project helped people find the perfect vacation by letting them specify budget and temperature preference, then showing a map of affordable destinations together with a local Twitter stream, so you know what’s happening in that city or country.

Cannonball took a lesson from the first example — start with a simple game, then make it feel more interesting and current by adding a way to interact with people, live. Cannonball is pretty fun to play once or twice, when the photos, word bank, and game mechanics all feel new. But they get stale fast, and the fun of games like magnetic poetry is sharing the silly things you wrote with your friends. Adding in a Twitter timeline with all the poems people shared kept new content in the app, and brought in some of the feel of an offline game.

Furni took it a step further, including a timeline of curated Tweets about design and furniture, but also combining the Dot & Bo data with a person’s contacts list (if they chose to share it) to show a special feed of “Friends’ Favorites” furniture. Even if the main catalog never changes, that curated list would probably grow, shrink, and update.

There are so many cool APIs you can use to make your app stand out. Check out Programmable Web’s API Directory to get inspired, or Mashery’s partner APIs and the Mashape Marketplace. And of course, we’d love to hear about your favorite APIs — Tweet us some tips using #MobileAppPlaybook!