Building custom front-end digital experiences in today’s retail environment is the stuff from which nightmares are made.
That’s what a director of e-Commerce for a multi-brand company told me recently when we met to discuss his new headless architecture. The idea of building out a brand new, custom front end for one brand was daunting enough, he said. But keeping digital experiences in sync for several brands and markets while implementing multiple other new platforms — all with a medium-sized tech team that has a million different priorities? “That’s just insane,” he said.
While hundreds of different front-end frameworks with which to build web sites have evolved over the years, e-Commerce architectures are a lot more complicated now. To build modern digital experiences, the front end must operate independently from backend services. This ensures that changing or removing one system doesn’t grind everything to a halt.
From an architecture standpoint, headless is becoming the norm. What’s now in question is, what will be the de facto head of headless commerce?
Powering native applications, Progressive Web Apps, Accelerated Mobile Pages and other hot new technologies, as well as experimenting with new services and deploying or rolling them back faster, is not like building a traditional web site. On top of the initial build, there is maintenance. Extending to new touch points like native apps means maintaining and synchronizing separate codebases. Any future touch points have to be explored and built from scratch. In the past, front ends could be built on top of e-Commerce or content management systems, either on-premise or in the cloud. The nightmare scenario starts with building and maintaining a custom hosting environment, with all the DevOps practices that surround it. There is setting up, maintaining and improving deployment and testing automation, as well as keeping up with the latest trends, best practices and services.
You also have to continuously update the build to incorporate new APIs, and research and test how to best apply these APIs to a retail environment. Deploying and scaling modern front ends globally across smartphones, tablets and desktop computers in a repeatable manner with complex concerns such as server-side rendering, caching and master data management is not trivial. Building in resiliency and constant monitoring across DNS, CDN and multi-region deployments requires experience and effort beyond using public cloud/Platform as a Service.
Continually monitoring underlying systems for security patches and vulnerabilities and rolling out patches quickly across the hosting environment is a lot of work. When you add in the fact that a custom approach requires building and maintaining complex integrations, along with the challenges of auto-scaling for peak holiday traffic, you begin to understand the likelihood for a nightmare scenario.
To build differentiated front-end digital experiences without the risk and inherent lengthy timelines of the past and stop the insanity, a more rational approach is to have a separate layer to drive the front-end experiences. This approach has become known as a front-end as a service. It provides development tools, release management and cloud delivery of the customer experience to web sites and native apps on any digital screen. Ideally, it has tested building blocks to create a wide range of front-end experiences from the same codebase, and it’s already integrated with e-Commerce and content management systems.
A front end as a service can be thought of as the head of the headless stack and the launchpad for modern digital front-end experiences. With a front-end as a service, product, commerce, digital and IT teams can work together to spin up new digital experiences quickly and cost-effectively. Developers spend their time continuously iterating on their front-end creations, without having to restart from scratch. They are looking towards using reusable components, reusable integration architecture and serverless technologies to reduce operational overhead. In this way, developers can focus on the stuff developer dreams are made of, like delivering business value through front-end customer experiences that drive digital transformation for their companies.
An e-Commerce veteran with more than a decade in leadership roles at innovative e-Commerce technology companies, Drew Lau has led and advised successful e-Commerce projects around the world with brands such as Symantec, Time Inc and Debenhams. Lau is passionate about the Web as a platform, API architectures and data-driven insights. Lau leads the Mobify team in charge of product strategy and roadmap, with a key focus on leadership, team development and technology partnerships. Outside of work, he’s always stumbling upon the next big surprise in music, fatherhood and travel.