Going Headless: It’s Not All or Nothing
In recent years, headless commerce has emerged to satisfy brands’ hunger for greater freedom of expression and the ability to enrich the customer experience. The promise: you can compose the dynamic frontend you’ve always wanted, free from the restrictive templates that make every monolithic site look and feel the same. E-commerce managers can test these finely tailored customer experiences, from landing page through checkout, to find the ideal customer journey.
This is in contrast to the more traditional, all-in-one, "monolithic" platform approach, which features a built-in frontend and makes it somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and impossible to change the frontend without also changing the backend. The monolithic approach tends to work better for new businesses looking to secure quick wins and reduce time to market, but it’s not too long before they begin to feel restricted by their platform’s templates and tools. And as shoppers, we all feel the banality of these monolithic sites, where every e-commerce experience beyond the homepage is a cookie cutter copy of every other site. Headless gives brands the ability to break their shoppers out of “template jail.”
That’s the promise, but realizing it is filled with challenges. For starters, migrating your entire frontend is hard. You don’t know how long it will take (it will be longer than you hope) and you get absolutely none of the headless benefits until the migration is done. Your existing frontend is kept on life support for the months your team is consumed building that new headless frontend. Even if you hit all your key project dates and go live, there’s still likely to be many things that you’re not able to include in that initial launch, leading to a new frontend that takes years catching up with the unloved but understood monolithic site you’re leaving.
The good news? It doesn't have to be all or nothing. It’s possible to achieve many of the benefits of going headless without taking the full plunge. How? Consider these tips:
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t be driven by the instinct to look at going headless as a big bang, “rip and replace” (and wait) event — particularly in the current market, where every second counts and you likely have fewer engineers than you did last year. Waiting on your resource-strapped team to rebuild your entire site would take way too much time and require too big of an up-front investment.
- Adopt an additive strategy where, instead of wholesale replacing your monolithic frontend, you choose one critical headless capability at a time to add to your frontend. Instead of replacing your whole site, replace that element in your product pages that just isn’t working for your shoppers. This incremental approach focuses your team on achieving meaningful short-term milestones. In this way, you continuously add capabilities and progressively migrate off the monolithic system until your entire backend is broken into microservices or different best-of-breed vendors. This approach also means you'll have been delivering value to your business throughout your migration.
- Consider dedicated front-end composition platforms that implement additive strategies while allowing the entire team, not just developers, to help bring new functionality to the site. A hallmark of these platforms is that designers, e-commerce marketers, and developers can work in parallel without waiting on each other. Therefore, you can deliver new experiences to your existing site more quickly, getting the benefits of going headless without the headaches.
Let’s look at a common scenario. Say your ambition is to serve customized product detail pages built on data from a new personalization vendor you’re implementing. Your monolithic stack gives you only minimal control to change the customer journey, so you investigate a headless re-platform to give you the control you need. Reimplementing your entire site would take a year, so you opt to task your development team with only replacing a subset of your product pages to reduce the time to value. This gets you to value quicker, with an end result that’s typically more polished since your vision isn’t solely dependent on what’s always too small a team of developers.
The decision to go headless (or not) isn't itself monolithic; there’s more than one way to do it. Don’t try to do everything at once. Focus on doing a little bit at a time, and take advantage of new design tools that unleash front-end creativity and agility while transitioning to your ideal e-commerce stack at your own pace.
Ryan Breen is the chief technology officer at Zmags, an API-driven agile storefront tool.
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Ryan Breen applies two decades of experience to his role as CTO. Throughout his career, he's scaled successful high-growth SaaS businesses, building teams and products in fields ranging from web application performance management to mass communication and mass production. Ryan was previously the Director of API Management at Cimpress, the parent company of Vistaprint, where he oversaw the growth of the foremost SaaS platform in the Mass Customization industry. Previously, Ryan served as Chief Architect of Everbridge where he designed a mass communication platform with the most mission-critical requirements imaginable, and as co-founder and Chief Architect of CloudFloor, an early innovator in multi-cloud workload optimization. Earlier in his career, Ryan was widely recognized as the leading authority on web application performance management, when he served as VP of Technology at Gomez, a web performance and experience management company. Ryan is a Duke University graduate and holds 7 US patents.