Do you know what an API (application programming interface) is? If you’re not a web developer, there’s rarely any need to, but APIs are basically what makes the modern World Wide Web, with all its interconnecting interactive services and apps, able to actually work. APIs, as that third term “interface” implies, let applications talk to each other and exchange data–and they power everything from your Twitter client to services like Instapaper and Readability. But what if, like me, you often find yourself thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if Twitter and Instapaper were connected to each other, so every time I favorited a tweet with an interesting link, it would automatically show up in my Instapaper queue ready for me to read?” Unless you’re capable of deciphering this Klingon-esque documentation, you’re out of luck.
Linden Tibbets figured there had to be a better way for non-l33ts to “put the internet to work for you,” as he puts it, instead of the other way around. So he created ifttt.com (“if this then that”), which lets regular web users connect sites and apps like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Vimeo into rudimentary–but highly useful–personal mini-tools. Think of it as duct tape for webapps.
Technically even this is an ultra-simplified kind of programming, but Tibbets considers it more akin to using a pencil to hold your hair up or using a bottlecap as a makeshift ashtray–the kind of simple everyday “hacks” that we all do to make our lives more convenient. “These types of creative adaptations are much easier in a physical world where the useful properties of an individual object can be understood quickly,” he writes. “In the more abstract digital world, these adaptations are a bit harder to come by, with even the simplest of insights requiring years of engineering experience to successfully implement. I realized that the key to unlocking the creative potential of our existing digital tools might be to build a service that simplifies and consolidates the way those tools can be connected.”
Ifttt.com is a marvel of intuitive interaction design–so simple a monkey could get it, but not so artless that an intelligent human would feel insulted. The app takes full advantage of the whole browser window, serving up easy instructions in huge Helvetica type and giant, friendly blue buttons to guide you through the “if this, then that” programming process in a way that’s impossible to fail at (and also impossible to resist). Within seconds I had “duct taped” Twitter and Instapaper together in exactly the way I described above. (Twitter’s desktop app already integrates with Instapaper, but I mainly use Twitter via its stripped-down web interface, which offers no such conveniences.)
As the web becomes more app-like, with clever tools abounding for every specialized need you could ever want, meta-tools like Ifttt.com will become more important as even “normal folks” wish to bend their digital doodads to their highly personal wills, in ways that developers and designers can’t anticipate. In fact, that’s the whole point of APIs in the first place. But figuring out how to turn indecipherable Klingon into good ol’ duct tape is a hell of an interface design problem, and I’m thrilled that Tibbets had not just the desire to solve it, but the insight to even recognize it in the first place.