Losing Your Head? What Headless Means for Your eCommerce System

It might sound like something out of a gothic horror novel. But Headless Commerce is one of the hottest trends in eCommerce technology right now. 

According to business magazine Forbes, eCommerce software companies invested $1.6bn in headless technologies in 2020 and 2021 alone. Why? The simple answer is that headless tech has earned a reputation for delivering better digital experiences. 92% of enterprises believe as much.  

So what exactly does ‘headless’ mean? And how does it make such a big difference to the customer experience you are able to deliver through your online sales channels? 

What is Headless?

Headless is a phrase coined to describe a particular approach to web application architecture. Or, in layman’s terms, how you design the software build of websites and other online platforms (like mobile apps).

If you think of any kind of application you use online, you can broadly break it down into two parts. There is the part you actually see and use as the user – the interface, all the visual elements and other forms of content, and all the things you can do to interact with the platform (clicking through to different pages, scrolling up and down, communicating with other users, sharing your own content, selecting products and purchasing them etc).

Collectively, this is all known as the front end.

But this isn’t the be all and end all of how web applications work. Behind the scenes, there is a lot more going on. There are servers, operating systems, virtual machines and containers which host and run all the assets you can see at the front end. There are databases. There are management tools and automated workflows that keep everything running smoothly and in sync.

This is like the engine that keeps a website running. In web development lingo it’s called the back end.

Traditionally, the front end and back end of a web application were all coded as part of the same software programme. This came to be known as monolithic architecture, because it often resulted in big, complex and at times pretty unwieldy pieces of software.

With monolithic development, you don’t get a lot of flexibility. Once you build your website, tweaking something in the front end to provide a better user experience becomes a major task, because you have to alter the entire source code. Every change has a knock-on effect for the whole programme, so you have to test everything thoroughly for even the most minor of changes.

Headless is a development approach that overcomes this issue by separating front end from back end. It treats them as two completely different programmes. These days, it’s not uncommon to have completely different teams of developers working on the front end and back end, using different coding languages.

Once you have your front-end and back-end programmes built, you connect them together using application programming interfaces (APIs) – special software protocols that allow different applications to communicate and work together.

So although you have ‘chopped off the head’ of your web app by separating the front-end code from the back end completely, you still get a coherent, working website thanks to APIs connecting the two together again.

How does headless benefit eCommerce?

The big headline benefit of headless architecture is flexibility. In contrast to monolithic applications, headless makes it easy to make changes to the front end without worrying how your tweaks will impact the functioning of the whole platform.

As far as user experience (UX) is concerned, it’s mostly the front end that matters (although efficient and consistent performance at the back end is important, too). If you want to make improvements, say, to on-screen design or navigation or if you want to add new tools and features to your website, that all happens at the front end.

By separating front from back, you can make these changes much more quickly and easily. Headless provides a stable foundation for continuous improvement and innovation in UX.

This is advantageous for any web application. But one word explains why it has proven particularly attractive in eCommerce – omnichannel.

The original eCommerce platforms could be described as single sales channels. Back before the days of mobile apps and social media, before Amazon Marketplace was the force in online retail it is today and before Google Shopping was a thing, running a web store was relatively straightforward. You listed your products on a single website. You had one checkout and payment system. Everything happened in one place.

Single channel eCommerce suited the monolithic architecture approach. But as new sales channels started to emerge, its inflexibility became an issue. Adding, say, a mobile app to your web store required a complete replatform. Or, you built an entirely separate system, and had it running in parallel to your website, in two separate silos..

Headless, by contrast, allows you to build a single back end ‘sales engine’ with all your product data and then spin up front end sales channels more or less at will. With a headless approach, it’s easy to have multiple online storefronts (for different countries and regions, say), mobile apps, social selling, marketplace listings etc all connected to the same commerce engine.

As a business, that streamlines operations, avoids unnecessary duplication of effort and captures data in one place for complete 360-degree visibility. It gives you the agility to respond to shifting trends and sell wherever your customers are likely to buy, all the while maintaining a consistent approach across channels. And you can choose the best-in-breed platforms for each channel, mixing and matching with different service providers to get the optimum blend for your business.

By separating content management from the backend, you also free yourself from any technical restrictions on creative output, freeing you to focus on unique and engaging experiences across different channels.

The same applies to new technologies. As new browsing and purchasing experiences come online – think buying through smart voice assistants, AR product sampling and immersive VR shopping experiences – vendors face constant pressure to keep up with the times and show a willingness to innovate to provide the best customer experiences possible. Headless provides the necessary flexibility.

Interested in finding out more about how a headless eCommerce platform could take your online business to the next level? At Key Element, we offer end-to-end solutions from UX prototyping to eCommerce system development to API integration. Get in touch with our team to find out more.

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