March 23, 2021 | 5 Min
Building a frontend: Entirely self-built versus Frontend-as-a-Service
When merchants are thinking about changing the technological platforms for their eCommerce business and decide to go for a headless software architecture, they’re inevitably confronted with another fundamental architecture choice to make. While headless CMS and eCommerce platforms focus on offering excellent solutions to manage data and processes in the backend, there’s one thing that none of them deliver, and that’s a frontend.
However, the frontend is the crucial component in your technology stack that makes interacting between your customers and your online store even possible. The frontend is the digital storefront and creates the entire user experience. It’s the head for your headless eCommerce architecture, so to speak. The frontend is your opportunity to stand out from other brands and build strong relationships that create loyal customers.
Being confronted with this situation, enterprises have another choice to make: As they need a frontend, does it make more sense to develop their very own, bespoke frontend from scratch, or would buying and adapting an existing Frontend-as-a-Service platform be the better option?
Both approaches have their merits, so we’ll dive deeper into the pros and cons of each of the two options.
Creating your own path: Developing a bespoke frontend
Not every company has to constantly change the storefront of its online store. If enterprises operate in such a static situation, once a solution is built with all the individual requirements implemented right from the start, then building a bespoke frontend is the right decision. This could apply to companies whose business isn’t subject to seasonal or other frequent changes. Or companies whose customers don’t expect continuous improvements to the user experience by adding new services or features. And even if the software architecture doesn’t change frequently and there are no plans to add microservices or other components to the company’s own IT landscape, a home-built frontend is a good decision.
The biggest advantage of a fully self-built solution is indisputably the maximum individuality in the frameworks and tooling. Developers can choose exactly what they want to work with and how they build their stack. When licensing and adapting a standard frontend platform, some parts of the framework are provided, and developers have no choice but to work with them. So it’s understandable that companies often prefer to build their frontend themselves and not limit their future options. But to create great experiences on top of headless services, frontends need to handle many things that are invisible to the end user. Just some of them are:
Orchestrate data from several headless services including caching
Handle templating and interactive elements
Manage deployments and rollbacks
Hosting and delivery of the actual site
Considering long-term consequences
However, there are wide-reaching consequences of deciding to build a frontend from scratch that many enterprises aren’t aware of.
For every change that needs to be implemented in the frontend, the marketing and eCommerce teams have to write a ticket to the IT department. In turn, a continuously growing proportion of the enterprise’s IT resources are blocked to make small daily changes to the digital storefront instead of focusing on developing new features and functionalities that add value to the business.
And with every change, the legacy code of the frontend solution becomes more complex. In the worst case, this means that companies have to invest more time in maintaining the existing software solution than in implementing innovations. At the same time, new developers often have to spend days or even weeks familiarizing themselves with the project until they’re able to further develop the frontend.
Last but not least, the stability, security, scalability, and compatibility with standard microservices are increasingly at risk with every new feature. Without dedicated resources and expertise in this area, a business (and its customers) could be harmed.
Plus, frontend projects that companies implement themselves often waste energy in the wrong places. Because developers start from scratch with every frontend project, it’s not uncommon for a project to take 500 developer-days – and the result at most is average. This means that enterprises can’t keep up with the innovation speed and competitive pressure of well-resourced trendsetters in the industry, such as Amazon or Google, by a long way. They have to focus on only creating what every other frontend has already created, and that takes a lot of time.
Frontend-as-a-Service: Faster time-to-value
Any frontend solution ultimately exists to realize the highest business value by increasing overall eCommerce revenue. So, getting any frontend solution up and running quickly, while opening the road to fast and flexible, continuous improvement, and keeping daily maintenance efforts to a minimum, is what we call “value-driven development.”
This is particularly interesting for companies that work in highly seasonal areas, constantly have to react quickly to changes in the market or new customer expectations, or have to defend themselves against disruptive competitors.
The Frontend-as-a-Service approach is also interesting for companies whose employees want to implement changes to the frontend quickly without having to use IT. Companies that are continually expanding their IT infrastructure and always want to use the latest solutions for themselves, or those that are limited in their IT resources, should also consider buying a standard frontend platform and then building on top of it.
Taking the pre-paved road: A Frontend-as-a-Service
Enterprises that opt for a Frontend-as-a-Service instead of developing their own frontend from scratch, take out a license for a ready-made basic framework, and many functionalities delivered ready to use. Developers can build on top of this basis and realize their very own and individually designed frontend. This increases the speed of development and new storefronts can go live in a matter of weeks. It also means that developers and businesses can focus on creating amazing digital experiences for their customers and innovating new ideas.
Using a Frontend-as-a-Service also ensures that all standard functions comply with current industry standards from the outset, which can then be individually optimized, giving companies the peace of mind that their sites are secure and stable. Some Frontend-as-a-Service providers also come with Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that guarantee the availability of sites for their users.
And while many enterprises fear being locked into a software solution, the common technology basis of a standard frontend solution ensures using a technology that’s constantly updated to remain state-of-the-art while also offering connectors to other solutions should more than alleviate this fear.
Fast time-to-market as important value creator
Standard frontend solutions also benefit from a faster time-to-value for the business. Business value is created by a great customer experience that inspires the user and ultimately makes them want to buy. With online shops and eCommerce businesses becoming more sophisticated and well-tuned towards their customers’ requirements, offering an exciting digital shopping experience goes far beyond having a smoothly functioning checkout. What used to be important differentiators of a good online store have now turned into mere eCommerce hygiene factors. Users simply expect good cart and checkout functionalities and are increasingly less willing to accept suboptimal user experiences when it comes to online shopping.
In classic frontend projects, however, there are often only a few developer-days left at the end for optimizations. By far the majority of time is spent on developing and maintaining the basic need-to-have functionalities as well as the security and infrastructure of an online shop.
Instead of focusing on features and functionalities or even new business models that create outstanding digital shopping experiences and additional business value, far too much effort is spent on re-inventing the proverbial frontend wheel and making sure it keeps on turning. But these features come built in with a Frontend-as-a-Service, so developer time can be spent on creating business value.
Built to last: Future-proofing your frontend
Another major advantage of a Frontend-as-a-Service platform is that developers who are new to the project don’t have to study the source code of the home-built solution first. They can quickly find their way around because the Frontend-as-a-Service platform is based on common market standards. Moreover, such a solution is set up for the future. New API-based microservices can be integrated faster than entirely self-built frontends. And even the source code remains clear and easy to grasp thanks to the modular structure.
All in all, companies lose a small portion of extra freedom when they decide on a Frontend-as-a-Service project, and they also face higher costs initially. But on the other hand, the project has a secure future, uses resources in the right places, and can also prove its business value faster.