What is Headless, MACH and Composable Commerce? And where’s the business value?
Across the digital landscape, terms like MACH and Headless have become increasingly common. So let’s try to understand not just what they are, but what they mean for your business, after all, this is not just a technology approach – it’s the foundation for delivering your customer experience.
MACH is a term that has grown out of modern technology providers that have chosen to build their products in a particular way adopting a Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, Headless approach.
These new tech vendors are all cloud-based and each one provides a specific capability: ecommerce engine, on-site search, website content management (CMS), product information management (PIM), digital asset management (DAM), order management (OMS) systems and more.
Microservices are basically discrete functions, each operating as an independent service, that are designed to do one thing very well, and link with others that equally do their bit very well. It means for each function you can build, test, scale or update things without disrupting other services. In simple terms, the train doesn’t have to stop just because one carriage is being fixed or improved.
The API-first integration approach means you can link one capability to whatever you need to better orchestrate data, logic and content and reduce data silos. This also makes things more secure and typically increases speed and performance. You can still customise if you need to, but those customisations are handled in a neat, contained way because the core system (behind the API) is something you cannot touch (which is a good thing, because it avoids creating technical debt – remember all those “Frankenstein”, customised-to-hell systems?)
Cloud-native for you means you just pay the subscription, get regular releases (no more upgrade projects – remember them!) and have the option to swap any of these components out for a better option without unduly impacting the rest of your estate. Being in the cloud also shifts a lot of infrastructure headaches (demand spike auto-scaling, security, performance, uptime) off your hands. It’s important to distinguish cloud-native as being “in” the cloud, not “on” the cloud. Buyer beware – some older established vendors will stick an API over their old system, host it in the cloud and call it headless. This is not MACH, and you will encounter weaknesses in their architecture.
Headless essentially means having a decoupled front-end (what the user or web visitor sees). In the old days, technology was sold as “all-in-one” meaning it tried to cram everything into a single all-in-one monolithic “slab” – all the back-end data, logic, content and business rules mixed up with the front-end user interface. This often gave designers and marketers headaches because the front-end customer experience (design and usage) became constrained. It often meant waiting for development to complete upgrades, waiting for new releases, content freezes, and page templates dictating design limitations. But if you have a decoupled front-end, linking via an API to the back-end headless systems (ecommerce, CMS, PIM, DAM etc) – then you are unfettered – free to deliver that truly polished, first-class customer experience, regardless of the back-end systems.
When you adopt a MACH, headless approach it enables you to “compose” the best mix of solutions and optimise them however you want. You can implement the most appropriate ecommerce engine, the most effective search capability, the best CMS for your needs, the best personalisation or PIM and so on. With a decoupled front-end you can compose whatever makes sense for your business in the back end and keep swapping in or out the right back-end components as you need them based on your growth trajectory – without impacting the front-end user experience.
Working in Channels
Let’s go back to the “slab of technology” old monolithic idea for a moment… and let’s say you need to promote or quickly make available your products or services in a new channel (maybe a new business portal, new retail geography or brand, a mobile app, social platform, voice search, or digital kiosk). In a monolithic architecture, often you will have to create a whole new monolith (slab /application stack) uniquely for each channel – which just multiplies all your admin overhead. Going headless means you can now centrally manage everything and remove duplicated effort – “create once, distribute anywhere” – each piece of content is set up so that it knows how to appear in the right way for each channel.
OK, so a quick recap – MACH is the overall approach, Headless means having the front end decoupled, unconstrained and unfettered – and Composable ties into the Microservices bit of MACH.
Where’s the business value? (And where’s the downside?)
Technology advances and customer expectations are the two main drivers that have brought about this approach. Whether you acknowledge it or not, the customer experience you deliver today, good or bad, is probably your main differentiator – so you need to be confident the underpinning technology genuinely delivers the flexibility and agility to meet ever-changing customer demands.
Adopting this approach means that you can take your customer insight and use it to inform a (decoupled) front-end design (UX and creative) that will never be constrained by your back-end systems, whether for your e-commerce, business portal, website, mobile or any other channel. For e-commerce, there’s more opportunity to sell – you can surface your checkout at any point on the customer journey (chatbot, blog post, social channel) where your research shows there is purchase intent.
In terms of implementation, taking a microservices approach also means you can potentially adopt a slower “strangulation” or gradual extinction of your legacy digital estate – replacing piece by piece what’s there today- which may better suit your budget spreading or internal business readiness.
From a content perspective there is also a huge time/cost saving. The “create once, distribute anywhere” approach removes all that duplicated effort and gives you more agility – serving any channel on any device.
Your IT folk will also be more effective. MACH means having cloud-based systems with auto-scaling that smooth out peak traffic spikes, no more upgrade projects and developers focused less on maintenance and more on value-adding innovation.
So, for any business case, consider all the above in terms of time (=money) saved, potential revenue gains and the advantage of unfettered agility to remain competitive. Equally – consider the cost of doing nothing.
So, what’s the downside? Well, logically, there is none. It’s more a question of your level of ambition (and courage) and weighing this against your readiness. It’s simply a different approach…. which means introducing change will need management and preparation.
Yes, there will be more vendor contracts to set up for your newly “composed” best-of-breed estate, but they’re all in the cloud so you’ll have fewer infrastructure concerns as these vendors are hyper-focused on uptime, performance and security SLAs. (They know you can easily swap out their component for another – very different to those old-style perpetual licence contracts).
Your content editors will need a bit of retraining to work in a new way (many of the newest headless CMS providers have a great authoring user experience) as will your e-commerce merchandisers and marketers – but that’s because you have modern tools to better serve the customer. If you have an internal development team, you won’t need to hire that expensive unicorn (product-specific specialist) because good front-end developers and knowledge of working with API’s will usually get you a very long way.
So where to start on this journey?
Leading brands and B2B players are already on this journey and a guiding partner alongside you can be invaluable. Look for a partner genuinely experienced in this field, that can help you in 4 ways:
- Business preparation and help getting your stakeholders on board
- Understanding the customer experience opportunity – bridging CX insight into digital reality
- Technical assessment and delivery of the new solutions (which may include some POCs)
- How to optimise everything once in place – continuous improvement
A good place to start in parallel is to refresh (or validate) your current customer understanding (research, behaviours and journey maps) because this new approach allows for far more emphasis on the (decoupled) front-end interfaces of your business. Secondly, this customer evidence will also point to the operational dependencies and technology selections that should be prioritised (no more bias or opinion in your decision-making) …. and the right partner alongside you can help with all this.
Our view is that, in a few years, this headless / composable approach will just be standard. That means, to stay competitive, you’ll need more emphasis on your front-end experiences because all the business functionality and performance you need will sit as commoditised components behind API’s. So, it makes sense to start investing seriously in that insight and UX design now.
So, there it is …. hopefully demystified – MACH, Composable and Headless are a significant shift in modernising your business to take it forward and meet the burgeoning customer expectations of the future, regardless of channel or device.
When implemented intelligently and carefully, it’s a great opportunity to provide multi-channel consistency, future-proof your technology, improve business agility and innovate more effectively.
Is a headless architecture right for your business? Contact Profound and ask about our free MACH consultation.
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