The Pinnacle

Stories and ideas from Big Blue Digital.

Headless Technology: The Key to Greater Scalability and Flexibility

A 'html & CSS' textbook, sitting next to a laptop and notebook, shot from above.

We're living in a multi-device world.

Jump on public transport and you'll see,
  • Someone using an ereader

  • Someone fiddling with a tablet

  • Someone checking their smartwatch

  • Someone looking at their phone

And the digital billboard outside has just captured the attention of the person near the window.

These channels are being used non-stop, and often simultaneously, by your customers.

That's a lot of content.

So how do you manage it all?


What is a headless solution?

If you divorce the presentation layer of any website or application from the content, that is a headless approach.

The 'head' is the presentation layer (the front end of the website, where the user interacts with the design and functionality).

A 'headless' approach then, is just separating the head from the body - not because you don't need a head, but so you can have multiple heads.

And headless isn't just for content. It is also the trend in ecommerce, where products and checkouts and other selling capability can be 'decoupled' from the main selling platform. 

What is driving this headless evolution?

Brendon shared his thoughts on this recently.

Because headless approaches give you the power to mix and match your systems and solutions, for Brendon this evolution is all about SaaS companies rediscovering and leveraging their niche. It's through collaboration that we'll get the most out of technologies.

From a development perspective, we're seeing well supported, mainstream technologies catching up to the capability of people out there building advanced solutions.

We are continually finding the limits of existing content management systems. We regularly build custom extensions, or advanced integrations, to get the ideal solution to a client. Often, the original CMS was chosen to deliver the extra functionality that we're plugging in, but our clients' needs have pushed the edges of what is possible.

A headless CMS starts at the point of plugging in the systems you really want.

If things change - you grow or evolve or even scale back - you plug out one system and plug another in.

For a deeper understanding, let's step back in time. 


The traditional hosted CMS

A traditional system is one that is hosted in-house or on-premise, on physical servers.

In an ecommerce setting, this is still the (costly) go-to for many online stores.

This approach came with large IT investment, in the set-up, running and maintenance of the physical hardware as well as software.

Here, more staffing and more specialist skillsets are paired with limitations in terms of flexibility and scale. This is an environment that moves slowly, where innovation can be stifled and growth requires high investment.


The cloud-based SaaS CMS

This is where most sites are now.

Now in the cloud, the demand to manage physical servers has been removed from businesses.

The management of content, design and development all happen in the same back-end interface.

These are often all-in-one solutions, with attachments like email marketing and ecommerce options.

It is more flexible on-premise, but you are often locked into what the software can - or cannot - provide. This means sometimes the cost gets higher as things are added on or productivity is compromised because 'that's just how the platform works'.

Change happens much quicker. In this environment, people's skillsets have widened. Content creators and marketers need some (basic) development skills but overestimate those skills and things can go bad, fast. Content, design and development can become interdependent, all happening in the same area, with each forcing delays for the other.

Now replicate this work across multiple locations for every separate website, app and interface.


The headless CMS

The biggest change driving people to a headless approach is that it's not just about a website anymore.

It is about the content and the different ways it can be presented to the user - where the user needs it the most.

It also allows options to plug in different technologies to suit your business needs, rather than being locked into one system. It's a flexible, endlessly scalable approach.

In this environment, once the initial investment has been made in setting up the content model, and plugging this into the front end interface, work can continue independently until a new content type needs to be added. Even a complete redesign - as long as the content model remains the same - can happen without any interruption to the content production and publishing process. It's no surprise that we think this is a more efficient approach, which we discussed in more detail last week.

Options include Cockpit, Directus, Contentful and Kentico Cloud. We ourselves used Kentico Cloud to design a new system for CruiseCo Collections, one of Australia's leading cruise travel providers. In the ecommerce space, BigCommerce have announced their WordPress plugin. We imagine this is just the first step to a completely 'headless' ecommerce future, making them a perfect partner for merchants who want scalability and flexibility. 


But is it for your business?

For most medium to large businesses - or even small businesses with high volumes of content - headless should definitely be a consideration.

A headless approach would suit,
  • Small to medium-sized businesses and enterprises, who are looking to have a cross-channel or cross-class content structure (that is, people focused on delivering to multiple interfaces).

  • Companies or organisations that have huge amounts of repeatable content (so lots of products available in several different places) for example, the travel space.

  • Businesses who use similar or repeatable information across multiple pages, such as venues listings or product pages for example.

  • Organisations with complex workflows or multiple people who are creating, editing, approving or publishing content at any given time, and want to reduce the risk of interference with the design or functionality (developer's work!).

For those reading who manage online stores, as mentioned above, decoupled options are emerging (breaking the shopping cart form the ecommerce system and placing it on a website). This is a growth area and definitely one to watch.

Our caveat. We would not recommend a headless approach to those businesses who have a more static approach to content; either because things do not change as regularly, or because there is not space to invest heavily in intensive content management.

If you are in small business, with only five or six pages of information, or you don't have access to a strong development team, a more simple self-managed site (like Squarespace) would likely be a better fit.

If you are beginning to think that this style of technology may serve your business, we invite you to book a call with us. We're passionate about finding efficiencies in your business, and always deliver platform agnostic, even-handed (if slightly passionate!) advice.


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