There’s barely anything you can’t buy online today: clothes, books, or electronics can be delivered to your doorstep just like food, medicine, and even cars. E-commerce companies – whether B2B, B2C or D2C – have to keep two factors about this development in mind if they want to stay competitive in the long run.
For one, the importance of online shops and experiences is constantly growing. For another, only rudimentary online shops are no longer sufficient to satisfy customers’ expectations. Consumers want an online shopping experience that is as easy, intuitive, and smooth as possible. Pages should load instantly and be optimised especially for mobile browsers – a dedicated app would be even better –, the search function should return relevant results, and there should be a range of payment options available. Customers’ tolerance for inadequate experiences is low – in the worst case, they are so disappointed that they move on to a competitor.
For businesses, this means that they need to prioritise their e-commerce offering and, above all, the customer experience. What’s crucial here is the right software architecture. Many companies are still relying on an entirely monolithic e-commerce system, which has often been developed in house as well. Within that system, a whole range of functions are combined in a common code base, for example the shop itself, a product information management (PIM) system, a content management system (CMS), and a data asset management (DAM) system, and everything is run in one process.
Despite advantages like low complexity in the interaction of the individual components and low latency, a purely monolithic architecture is considered outdated today. For example, the development and implementation of new features, like a configurator to personalise products, often takes months in that kind of architecture because the code base needs to be changed and the entire system needs updating.
Such a system doesn’t lend itself to a state-of-the-art user experience: once a new function has actually been implemented, it could already be outdated. Furthermore, organisations can’t simply try new things in terms of design to evaluate how the changes are received by the customers. This is key to being able to continuously improve the user interface, however. In addition, software problems often affect the whole system, causing it to fail – a major nuisance for the business and the customers.
SPEED IS THE DECISIVE FACTOR
That’s why companies should rely on a more modern architecture for their e-commerce applications: microservices. The many small services, each of which is only responsible for one task, have been a software development trend for quite a while. Looking at the example of an online shop, one such individual task could be the product search or the shopping cart. The goal is that the microservices perform their tasks perfectly – and that new functions, channels, and technologies can be added with the greatest possible flexibility. That way, businesses can adapt their user interface more quickly to the expectations and needs of their customers.
However, in reality, it often doesn’t work quite es easily as it seems at first glance. After all, most companies won’t decide to build a brand-new online shop from the ground up using only microservices – and it isn’t necessary either. Instead, they will evolve and partially replace their organically grown system with microservices. This process itself can be very time-consuming and take months or even years. The first step that a company needs to take is a thorough audit: what is their business strategy for the online shop? Which legacy systems are already in use and how do they communicate with each other? Which functions should be set up as microservices? The bigger the system landscape, the more difficult it may be to get a 360° view.
During the implementation phase, companies also need to consider that in e-commerce, they might be working with three different speeds dependent on the area: in the front end, everything must run lightning fast, and real-time and historical data needs to be combined to offer customers the best possible experience. Even small glitches, like personal product recommendations that are no longer available in the size the customer last ordered, can leave a bad impression. On the other end, fulfilment systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or logistics solutions, work relatively slowly in the background. In between are systems with a medium operating speed, such as payments solutions.
In this e-commerce of the three speeds, the challenge for businesses is to connect the legacy solutions – which possibly were also added to the system at different times – and the new microservices in a way that they can communicate flawlessly and continue to operate at their specific speed.
A HEADLESS APPROACH IN E-COMMERCE
“Headless” is currently one of the buzz words when it comes to microservices and e-commerce. It means that – unlike with traditional shop and content management systems – front and back end are now completely separate. Furthermore, all front-end components that are microservices work independently and are only connected via API. As a result, companies can choose the technologies best suited for a particular task and scale them as needed and independently from the back end. In addition, time to market is short so that businesses can react fast and flexibly to changing customer expectations.
A great advantage of headless systems is that organisations can connect multiple front ends with the same back end. If, for example, you want to offer an online shop in various countries, you don’t have to set up an entire new shop for each local language. It’s only a new front end that needs to be developed – by you or a trusted partner – which can be customised to the respective target group and/or cultural area. And individualising the various front ends is an effort that e-commerce vendors should put in. Although there are some off-the-shelf solutions, these are usually not sufficient to fulfil all demands that businesses and their customers have. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the right way to go.
Instead, companies need a highly performant solution which can also integrate SEO and analytics tools, for example, because most customers still find their way to the online shop primarily via search engines. And A/B testing can also only work in a useful way with those integrations. It gives businesses the ability to experiment with different designs, new functions, touchpoints, and more to continuously adapt and improve the user experience of their online shop. On top of that, they can also track precisely what attracts their customers and how as well as what influences the length of their visit or their buying decision.
A Google Analytics integration, in particular, can take up to six months – at the end of which Google may have made new changes, which the e-commerce vendors have to incorporate again. However, with a microservices architecture, they’ll now have a platform that makes it easier than before. Especially considering the discussion around tracking and the question of what comes after cookies, it’s key for companies to already future-proof their systems today to be able to implement upcoming changes quickly and ensure ongoing lead generation.
Of course, using microservices also comes with some challenges that organisations should be aware of. Since microservices need to request information from databases of other microservices, latency can be higher, and these short delays can stand out negatively. A remedy can be caching, with the result of a query being saved and reused again and again.
In a decentralised structure with multiple databases that might be managed with different technologies, there may also be inconsistencies with your data. Data consistency is essential, however, to run transactions correctly and completely. A solution: microservices can notify about events when their data is changed in any way, and then services dependent on them can update their data as well.
Monitoring a distributed microservices system can be a challenge as well, due to its complexity. Besides the microservices themselves, their interaction with other services also needs to be monitored in order to identify the cause of errors or a loss in performance as quickly as possible. Continuous real-time monitoring can be of great value here.
Online shopping is booming – as we know from our private lives and from observing the trends around us. Furthermore, the potential of new technologies and approaches like metaverse, blockchain, augmented or virtual reality might still be in the early stages, but in the next few years, they could fundamentally change the way we interact with brands and boost the shift towards digital.
Even today, an intuitive, clear, and readily available online shop is key to attracting customers and keeping them engaged. After all, they have more options today than ever before. With a headless microservices architecture, companies can set up their online shop in alignment with their customers’ needs, add new functions flexibly, and react quickly to new developments. Such an architecture gives businesses the opportunity to create a user experience that fully meets the expectations of a modern online experience, including a user interface that keeps being updated and optimised, in line with Continuous Delivery.
As long as e-commerce businesses are keeping an eye on potential obstacles right from the start and are looking for appropriate solutions, the road towards a modern flexible online shopping experience is clear.
This article was adapted from the German version, the original of which was first published under a different title in t3n Magazin no. 69.