Chris Horn: Get your head around ‘headless’ commerce

Lurking behind the techno jargon is a uniform set of tools for marketeers and creatives

The original ecommerce technologies were built with websites. Potential customers would leaf over products using their web browser, while a database connected to the backend web server detailed the available products and registered orders.

The original ecommerce technologies were built with websites. Potential customers would leaf over products using their web browser, while a database connected to the backend web server detailed the available products and registered orders.

 

I was intrigued to recently read an analysis predicting the strong growth of “headless commerce”, a segment of online consumerism of which I had not previously been aware. Online commerce has blossomed during the pandemic, but I wondered what demand could there be for decapitated products? Had Dullahan emerged to canter across Amazon and other global online bazaars, mortally intimidating consumers to purchase or else?

Like most other professions, we software technologists elevate our occupational swagger with creative terminology. A software system is sometimes described as “headless” if it neither omits a visual graphics component nor has finger-touch or mouse-click support. While it has the main body of a software system, there is no “head” to directly respond to human control. In situations where direct human co-operation is unnecessary – such as standalone components, embedded controllers, and pay-as-you-go compute engines in the “cloud” – then discarding the graphics and interaction support can save cost. On the other hand, software which expects human dialogue – such as word-processors and spreadsheets – clearly are unable to run “headless”.

So, how can there be “headless” ecommerce? Surely ecommerce requires humans to market to, to persuade and to hustle? An ecommerce system has several parts: inventory management, shipping fulfilment, payment card requirements and so on, in addition to the actual presentation of content to allow consumers to browse, compare and order products.

“Headless commerce” would seem to imply that while there is a “body” which handles the usual back-office tasks of inventory and financial processing, there is no “head” to dialogue with consumers and encourage them to buy. This seems paradoxical: why have a commerce system that can process orders, if there is no way for consumers to browse and place orders? And how can there be such demand for “headless commerce” technology?

Tailored content

The original ecommerce technologies were built with websites. Potential customers would leaf over products using their web browser, while a database connected to the backend web server detailed the available products and registered orders. With the move to smartphones and tablets in the noughties, this approach was still possible because web browsers can also run on smart devices. However the content has to be tailored for the small screen sizes, as compared to traditional web content.

But then smartphone apps rapidly became an alternative to the revamped and older browser-based systems. Today, even more consumer channels have appeared: domestic voice-controlled systems, public kiosks, smart watches, and virtual reality systems. For vendors with multiple branded products to market, across various consumer devices and channels, extending their original web and app-based commerce systems has become unwieldy.

Hence “headless commerce”. Or more accurately perhaps, “polycephalic commerce”. Not Dullahan, but Cerberus. Rather than a monolithic and complete system, instead a “headless” ecommerce backend serves up product content and can take and process orders, without regard to the family of “heads” – front-end devices – in actual use.

In turn, specialist developers can tune the presentation and interaction software to the vagaries of each device. New device categories can be added, without contagious bugs and errors leaking back into the backend core or impacting the existing working system.

But despite the hype, headless ecommerce has issues. It is good software engineering practice to separate concerns, with an interface between the backend producing content, and the numerous potential devices presenting that content in their own styles. But for a marketing team, “headless” presents challenges. In a monolithic system, you can experiment with changes to the layouts and description of the products that your ecommerce system promotes, and immediately see the effect on the screens presented to consumers.

Degree of integration

Even better, you can present slightly different screens but for the same products to different consumers, and then experiment to see which layouts and styles produce the more impactful results. But with “headless”, since the backend and frontends are built by different software teams, there may not be the same degree of integration. The traditional marketing design, administration, and campaign tooling may not be as seamless, or may even be absent.

But, dear marketing friends, fear not. The Gartner group, an industry commentator, has identified the opportunity to innovate a new software category. Gartner’s “Digital Experience Platform” (DXP) category is “an integrated set of core technologies that support the composition, management, delivery and optimisation of contextualised digital experiences.” Interpreting the jargon, a DXP system solves the dilemma of “headless commerce” by restoring a uniform set of tools for marketeers and creatives, even though the underlying system is no longer monolithic.

As I noted, we software technologists elevate our occupational swagger with creative terminology. I think “polycephalic commerce” has a nice ring to it. And – unlike “headless” – since the “body” would then in fact be attached to several “heads”, the complete entity would presumably keep both software developers and marketeers happy. It could even be abbreviated to “PC”. But then, I’m not a Gartner analyst.

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