When it comes to retailing online, merchandisers need to pay close attention to their digital commerce architecture. That’s because it forms the foundation of their system. All of the content they produce will be based on the digital commerce architecture they choose. So they must make sure that they pick the right architecture for their needs.
And picking the right digital commerce architecture can be harder than it appears. There are many different approaches to selling online. In fact, Gartner has recently released a research report about The Three Approaches to Digital Commerce Platform Architecture and How to Choose Among Them.1 In it they compare commerce-led, experience-led, and API-oriented methodologies of digital commerce architecture. You can read the whole report to get the full explanation of those three approaches as according to Gartner. I encourage you to download it—it’s fascinating and a real eye opener. Even if you’ve been in the commerce space for some time like me, you’re still sure to learn something new. But what I’d like to do here is take a more granular look at customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture and discuss important aspects from my perspective as a technical evangelist to the commerce developer community.
What is a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture?
The first thing we all need to agree on is the answer to the following question: What is a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture? The answer is this: at the heart of a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture lies a digital experience platform (DXP). And let me tell you why that is important. When you go to market with a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture you are emphasizing a total immersion of the customer’s relationship with your brand. In some of the other configurations, the commerce, content marketing, customer experience, ERP, CRM, and other engines do not fully share customer data, which can lead to a disjointed customer experience between the commerce engine and the others.
But with a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture, all commerce content is fed to the outside world through the DXP. There are several advantages that come from feeding commerce content through a DXP. First of all, with all commerce content coming through the DXP, it enables management of that content with very fine-grained control. In conjunction with personalization, the DXP can feed the right content to the right person at the right time based on their previous interaction data. And if you want to try out some new content, you can set up an A/B test with your new commerce content and see how it performs against control content, for which the customer engagement and conversion data are known quantities. Overall, a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture will enable you to deliver rich experiences for your customers across all your channels—from mobile to desktop to the Internet of Things.
Use cases for customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture
When you consider a customer-experience-led digital commerce architecture, you’re not just getting a digital commerce platform. Commerce is the end goal, but overall the story is about the entire digital customer experience. It’s all about creating rich user experiences everywhere. For example, give the in-store sales reps the ability to access a customer’s interactions with the online store (e.g., products viewed, abandoned carts). That way they will know which products the customer has looked at and which they’ve come close to buying. Then they can use this contextual information to help influence the customer’s decision about whether to buy or not. Perhaps, there are some unanswered questions or there is an objection that needs to be overcome. And a particular annoyance of mine, contextual data like this can help eliminate sending offers to customers for items they have already bought, or for consumable items they have bought recently.
Experience-led digital commerce architecture provides unified customer experience
While I’ve already touched on the disjointed customer experience that can result from a non-customer-experience-led digital commerce platform, a DXP-led digital commerce platform can provide the exact opposite outcome. In that situation, the DXP-led digital commerce platform unifies the customer experience. Specifically, it provides a complete, holistic view of the customer regardless of where they interact with your brand, including across brick-and-mortar storefronts, on Android and iPhone mobile apps, and tried-and-true traditional commerce websites. Based on all the customer interactions across these digital and physical commerce sites, the DXP will feed all this information directly into your commerce engine. In that way, it can help you create a dynamic, consistent customer experience across all touchpoints.
Digital commerce platforms, microservices, and monolithic systems
A key trait of a customer-experience-led digital commerce platform is how it leverages microservices. In large part, microservices for digital commerce platforms are a response to how legacy monolithic systems were constructed and operated. In order to better understand that, let’s take a brief look at monolithic systems.
Like their name implies, monolithic systems are large scale and uniform: one single, gigantic system. All the different functions are part of the same vast application, and these functions are tightly coupled with dependencies woven throughout the system. This makes them good for getting to market quickly, but over time the disadvantages start to become apparent. As the system grows it becomes more and more difficult—and expensive—to test and release new features without affecting unrelated features. This difficulty is because of the tight coupling of the features.
Consequently, microservices-based architectures have been gaining popularity recently as a way to mitigate the problems this tight coupling introduces. Developers establish microservices by pulling individual features or functions out into their own independent subsystem, each responsible for a single purpose. This enables a developer to make changes to one subsystem with the confidence that it won’t have any knock-on effects to any of the others. The system appears as one piece to the end users, but behind the scenes the microservices communicate with each other through API calls to provide this appearance of uniformity. Overall, the system as a whole becomes much more stable due to isolating all the subsystem elements in this manner.
How microservices enable a scalable approach to digital commerce platforms
A microservices-based architecture allows developers to tailor their digital commerce platforms to perform precisely to their specific needs. For example, in the face of an increase in the number of requests for anonymous shopping activities (e.g., users viewing products) the scaling of the digital commerce platform can be targeted to deal with this precise scenario. On the other hand, if it’s Black Friday or just a sustained high level of transactions, then the digital commerce platform can be scaled to process lots of customer orders through its associated ERP. The secret to success is the microservice ability to individually scale out each subsystem separately and only as much as necessary. This means the actual footprint of the solution can be precisely tuned to company requirements.
Extensibility and digital commerce platforms
With microservices developers can take advantage of the isolation this architecture provides. That allows them to extend each subsystem individually, reducing the amount of testing required, and allowing them to iterate much more quickly. This increase in productivity enables them to add to, or extend, the platform in a much timelier manner. Meaning they’re much quicker to react to any outside influences or trends, allowing them to create connected customer experiences across a multitude of channels far quicker than the competition. For example, you can extend the digital commerce platform to track customer interactions across email, print, social, mobile apps, and non-core websites like microsites or partner/dealer sites.
B2B digital commerce architecture
Essentially, everything I have discussed so far has implied B2C commerce. However, digital commerce architecture has as much applicability to B2B commerce. The commerce functionality will differ between B2C and B2B digital commerce platforms, but the architectural considerations will be the same—most of the time. Customer-experience-led digital commerce platforms will still surface content through a DXP. But you will need to flesh out the functionality of the commerce engine for B2B scenarios, such as organizational data, repeat orders, and more complex pricing rules. In the end, a shift toward fine-grained control of commerce is coming for both merchandisers and marketers.
1Gartner: The Three Approaches to Digital Commerce Platform Architecture and How to Choose Among Them, Mike Lowndes, 28 Sep 2017.
Rob Earlam is a Sitecore technical evangelist for commerce applications. Find him on Linkedin.