The Importance of Developer Experience for your Digital Product’s Success
- Product Design /
- Product Development /
As a product leader, you scrutinize every facet that impacts your product’s trajectory – from pricing to positioning to partnerships. But there’s one make-or-break area that receives surprisingly little attention given its far-reaching influence.
That overlooked area is developer experience (DX).
Simply put, if your product has an API, SDK, integration capabilities, or dependencies on other development tools, you have a developer experience to manage. And evidence shows that DX dictates adoption velocity, implementation costs, security outcomes and long-term viability more than almost anything else.
Yet because developer experience lacks clear ownership within organizations, it easily falls through the cracks. Engineering teams assume product managers own it. Product teams assume developers own it. CXOs assume it’s just an engineering concern. The end result? A critical driver of product success gets little proactive investment.
This needs to change. Developer experience must become a strategic priority – not just a tactical concern – across the C-suite.
The reason is that developers are your product’s earliest adopters and most vocal advocates. Keep them delighted and your offering propagates virally through collaborations, integrations and enthusiastic word-of-mouth. Frustrate them and precious momentum seeps away to competitors.
In this guide, we’ll unpack why developer experience should be elevated within your organization and equip you to improve it.
What is Developer Experience (DX)?
The field of user experience (UX) is interested in how easy or hard it is for someone to use a digital product (website, software), particularly in terms of how pleasant that experience is for them. Generally speaking, a better user experience is desirable for reasons I will explore a bit later on.
Developer experience (DX, for short) is the subgenre, or extension, of UX, concerned specifically with the developer persona and their experience using developer-specific tools (libraries, platforms, services, API’s, SaaS products, etc. – which for brevity, moving forward, I’ll just refer to mostly as “tools”).
As a first example of developer experience, let’s consider a familiar player and tool provider in the technology space, Amazon Web Services (AWS). The AWS platform contains a number of services, or tools, used by developers to accomplish various technical tasks. While building a digital product any developer who uses an AWS tool can be said to have had an “experience”. This experience will encompass specific tasks such as:
- Creating an AWS account and logging in
- Installing and using the AWS CLI
- Searching and reading official AWS documentation
- Searching for tutorials and examples pertinent to their specific use case
- Writing code that utilizes AWS services and their APIs
The experience of the developer using AWS tools, and the holistic platform, will fall somewhere on the spectrum of bad to good. The quality of the developers’ experience in accomplishing their tasks by using these tools to perform their intended purpose is the concern of DX.
DX is of particular import with tools used primarily by developers, as with the AWS example above. However, DX also extends to other, less obvious, systems and tools and this is why DX is more powerful than it may initially seem—its reach is wider than anticipated.
Take a less obvious example of DX, Twitter. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Twitter is sending messages of 280 characters or less, which is indeed its primary purpose for its end users. However, in addition to the tools that exist to send tweets, Twitter has an API (application programming interface), which is integrated prolifically into various other software applications. These other applications are coded by developers, which means the developer must, at some point, interact with the Twitter API. The Twitter API can then also be said to have a developer experience.
Keeping Twitter in mind, it should be easy to conjure countless other, less obvious, DX candidates. Basically, if a digital tool, platform, or service includes an aspect used by developers, it has DX. Facebook, Instagram, smart home technology like Nest and Ring – all of these have APIs. This vector will only continue to grow as we continue to digitize our lives, collect more data, and invent new types of services to work with that data (AI, ML, etc.). It is likely these systems and tools will expose data or functionality in one way or another. If a developer has to build something to interact with one of these tools then DX exists and likely needs to be optimized.
Why Developer Experience (DX) is important
DX is significant because it can affect the usage and adoption of your digital product. The more elegant the tool is, the easier and faster it is to use, the more people (developers) will use it. Additionally, an argument can be made for a second, more esoteric, value provided by good DX: building things of quality is important to the folks who do the building. Doing good work is more inherently rewarding to the builders – but that’s a discussion for another day.
From the perspectives of a developer and product owner, tools with sound DX are powerful because they facilitate faster and easier work. This advances a positive downstream effect for your product. For example, when building some software, given the choice of two API’s to convert speech to text and the autonomy to make the selection, a developer will likely pick the option with better DX. The developer understands that superior DX typically leads to an easier and faster implementation path. Consequently, this typically provides cost savings for whoever is footing the bill. Increased implementation speed also means delivering business value (features) to end users of the product more quickly. All wins for the product.
Here are some examples of how good DX enables faster development:
- Working with a tool that has well written, well organized documentation, makes it easier to learn and faster to find answers.
- Quality and consistent APIs speed development by reducing cognitive complexity.
- Having canonical examples of real world use cases that outline best practices, accelerate the learning curve and encourage quality code as adoption proliferates. As an aside, countless times over the years I’ve seen some bad block of code show up on an official piece of documentation, leading to it propagating via copy/paste into production applications. This is a result of bad DX.
- Curated learning paths for developers new to the tool also speeds up onboarding, and again, encourages adoption as well as proper usage of your tool.
- Having a place where users can ask questions and get well informed answers helps to promote exploration and new use cases for your tool perhaps not even originally considered.
The inverse of all of this is true as well; bad DX adversely impacts developer speed and cost. Poorly documented and disorganized APIs are familiar to most developers. When using a tool, maybe it’s nearly impossible to find a useful example or user guide, or an API is poorly documented and inconsistent. These types of negative developer experiences extend implementation time and costs, and increase team frustration. They ultimately steer developers towards other, more elegant, options. In worst case scenarios the dissonance of the implementation process emerges in your end user application as disjointed UI or UX.
The Risks of Neglecting Developer Experience
Neglecting the focus on developer experience (DX) can pose significant long-term risks to the success of your product. While the consequences may not be immediately apparent, poor DX can gradually accumulate negative sentiment, leading to a loss of ground to competing products over time.
When developers encounter a tool that is frustrating and seems disconnected from their needs, discontent begins to surface on various platforms such as social media, forums, and developer chat platforms like Discord. This negative word-of-mouth spreads rapidly within the close-knit developer community, resulting in your product being labeled as overly complex and developer-hostile.
These frustrations inevitably translate into tangible losses, as developers migrate to competitor products perceived as more developer-friendly. Regardless of your product’s core capabilities, users will gravitate toward alternatives offering superior ease-of-use and integration support.
The consequences of neglecting DX compound over time, akin to a creeping tide. Tasks that should take days extend into weeks, and projects that should take weeks stretch into months. Meanwhile, your developer community diminishes while your competitors’ communities flourish. By the time the damage becomes apparent, regaining lost ground can be a challenging endeavor.
The key lies in having the foresight to recognize that developer experience shapes the long-term trajectory of your product. Products that successfully win over developers today will continue to reap those rewards well into the future.
The Security Upsides of Good Developer Experience
Prioritizing developer experience not only enhances usability but also yields dividends in product security. Inconsistent or complex interfaces can lead to shortcuts, ignoring security practices and introducing vulnerabilities. User-friendly tools act as a safeguard.
For example, poor API documentation may drive developers to rely on outdated resources, increasing the likelihood of insecure code snippets. Similarly, an overly complex SDK configuration may lead to skipping crucial security features, creating a barrier compared to quick prototyping.
Frustration with tooling can breed animosity, diminishing developers’ attention to security. Convoluted interfaces can make engineers feel their time is wasted, resulting in less effort on quality, vulnerability-free code.
The key insight is that developer experience plays a pivotal role in security outcomes. Well-crafted tools serve as the first line of defense. Soliciting security feedback during design, understanding workflows, and progressing developer experience and security in tandem create a positive cycle.
Developer Experience (DX) in a nutshell
Let’s go over what we’ve covered so far:
- DX can be defined as a sub-genre of UX concerned with the developer persona and their experience using tools, services, libraries, or other developer-specific aspects of systems (any and all systems!)
- DX, like UX, can be said to be positive or negative depending on the ease of using a tool for its intended purpose
- Any tool, library, service, platform, etc., used by developers has a developer experience, including tools not specifically built for developers (like Twitter, Google Assistant, etc.)
- DX is important because of its relationship to usage and adoption – i.e. the easier a tool is to use to achieve its purpose, the faster people can use it to accomplish their work, and the more people are likely to use it for this purpose (adoption)
Developer Experience and Your Product
Like a flywheel, developer experience gains momentum when deliberately invested in over time. Each small improvement encourages more adoption, makes the next round of enhancements easier to justify, and compels even more usage.
The first step is acknowledging developer experience as a cross-functional responsibility – not just an engineering concern. Whether through an internal role or an outsourced partner, someone needs clear ownership over DX strategy.
From there, build bridges between product, engineering and CXO decision makers to align on developer experience objectives and guiding principles. Define what success looks like from the developer perspective.
Then begin incrementally addressing friction points through developer surveys, ride-alongs, design sprints and rapid prototyping. Even small touches to documentation and onboarding make a difference when battling for the hearts and minds of talented developers.
The products that will thrive amid accelerating software complexity are those that start taking developer experience seriously today. It’s the hidden lever that reliably supercharges adoption and amplifies network effects over time.
With cross-functional commitment to understanding and championing the developer perspective, you gain a perpetual advantage that compounds returns well into the future. Your developers happily pave the way.