Inside the New Head of Headless Commerce

With a renewed focus on headless commerce and how businesses can benefit, we sat down with Mobify VP of Sales Darren Horne to learn more about the headless front-end known as Front-end as a Service.

Q. In 140 characters or so, what is a Front-end as a Service?

It’s the modern, cloud-native way to deliver loosely coupled, customer-facing front-ends across all touchpoints, without disrupting the ecommerce architecture.

Q. Is it a digital experience platform? What are the components?

A Front-end as a Service is not a DXP, but is an essential part of building a DXP, rather than buying an off-the-shelf one. Its purpose is to address the complex challenge of getting amazing digital experiences to market faster and more cost effectively. As a result, a front-end as a service focuses specifically on development, delivery and integration. So the core components are an Application Delivery Network to deploy, host, and manage high-performing front-end apps; developer tools to build, test, and deploy amazing shopping experiences; plus, an API-driven integration architecture to integrate an organization’s choice of ecommerce, CMS, personalization, analytics, third-party platforms, etc.

The key here is choice — companies undergoing digital transformation are choosing best of breed products and want this integration and flexibility in a lightweight, more focused and flexible solution for delivering front-ends.

Q.Why is the front-end so important in the scheme of what’s happening in digital commerce?

We’re in an experience-driven world so companies are wrestling with how to improve ecommerce from the customer viewpoint. The front-end is where omnichannel differentiation happens in terms of providing an innovative, cohesive brand experience.

From a tech standpoint, companies are moving to headless commerce as part of a shift away from tightly coupled, inflexible architectures. They want loosely coupled environments that give them flexibility and cost savings from not having multiple overlapping solutions. This model has been leveraged by the largest companies for over ten years, but it required custom solutions built from scratch. What’s changed is that now most of the application vendors and in-house ecommerce teams wish to support an integrated, API-led approach connecting best-of-breed products. This has opened the market to a much wider audience. But once you’ve decided to move to a headless commerce architecture, you need to define how you deliver the front-end to customers.

Q. How were “heads” built in the past?

In the early days of headless, the choice was to staff up a development team or hire an agency to build a front-end leveraging the APIs to connect the front to backend systems. You could use a CMS or off-the-shelf DXP as the front-end, but then the platform had to take on two roles: backend content functionality (storing, managing, etc. content), while also acting as the presentation layer and displaying all the other backend functionality (commerce, personalization, inventory, pricing, etc.. Good but not great, because you’re not separating your front-end and backend functionality and you lose agility. You can’t easily make changes as technology and customer expectations evolve. As we head to headless, it’s all about making front- and backend changes without having to involve other teams and work through layers of approval. Companies want to build their headless front-ends faster and cheaper, without losing the benefits of a traditional application approach. This includes having confidence on project scope, delivery times, total cost of ownership, scalability, sustainability, security, and agility.

Q. What about Progressive Web Apps? Could I just build a PWA and have that as my front-end?

Building the custom PWA or React front-end alone is not the end goal for enterprises moving to headless. It’s about leveraging the long term value of the API-driven architecture.  For this you want to ensure you have the plumbing in place to support your PWA — or whatever your front-end technology of choice is. It might be a PWA, responsive, a native app, or conversational or immersive app. This is best accomplished by having an integration and application delivery network built on serverless technology that’s highly scalable and pay as you go. The plumbing is surprisingly expensive because a lot of the costs are not apparent at the start. And the requirements for this heavy lifting are consistent across all ecommerce sites. Companies need to focus on their brand experience. I like to think the core of front-end as a service as what makes you an ecommerce retailer, and the experience you build on top of this as what makes your brand.

Q. How does the headless strategy look in the real world?

I’ll give you a couple of examples. A multi-brand retailer here in Canada saw how a front-end as a service approach could move their headless architecture forward by providing a foundation  that integrates content and commerce. The front-end uses a single codebase to serve up a PWA that works across mobile, desktop and tablet, and for all of the different brands. The brands love their CMS, so the company wanted to make it easy for everyone to run their separate campaigns as usual. In the past, the hassles of deploying, hosting and managing the user experiences separately weren’t working. And making changes was arduous. They were also fearful of being able to stay on top of front-end technology with such a small team. Now they can support their different shoppers without hardwiring the experience.

Another global beauty brand in Europe is modernizing its architecture and sees a front-end as a service as being the helm of all their headless backend systems. They could have built the front-end from scratch. But they would have had to build the hosting environment, create the infrastructure for deploying, scaling and securing, maintain the library of components, and build the integrations with the backend systems. This work is intensive and expensive. And that’s before you can even get to the front-end and its requirements for UX and testing.

Q. What’s the future for the front-end in a headless world?

Companies that have broken out of the cycle of having to restart the front-end from scratch during replatforms are going to be deploying frequently and experimenting with all sorts of interesting applications. Lancome’s experimentation with AI and personalization for skin diagnostics is a great example of innovation as a front-end application that they’ve been testing and experimenting with. A lot of the risk is removed in trialing new customer experience technology when it isn’t hardwired. Launching and improving customer experience products are going to be very exciting in a post-monolith world.

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