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Cyclops v Hydra – How headless fixes the multi-head problem

May 31st, 2019

By John Williams, CTO, Amplience

Headless architecture as a concept has evolved into the next big thing. As with previous hyped up technology shifts such as HTML 5, responsive design, big data, AI, etc, we are being bombarded with a maelstrom of new acronyms and jargon, many of them meaningless or even worse misleading. The latest pseudo technology phrases I have heard recently include: ‘Cloud optional’, ‘head optional’ or ‘API first not API only’, which masquerade as an improved ‘hybrid’ version of a true multi-tenanted cloud headless API driven system - apparently giving you a choice of using old world technology. In fact, the reality is that you would be buying a Frankenstein version of a monolithic platform trying desperately to get onto the latest bandwagon. This battle between the legacy monolithic platforms and the new cloud systems is distracting us all from the real goal of what headless is all about: to deliver fantastic consistent user experiences across every touch point in a customer journey.

The rise of the Monolithic Cyclops

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For some time, we technologists have been working towards faster, more agile and better ways of architecting and developing user experiences. From the very beginning of software engineering we have been taught to separate the abstract world of software development into meaningful components. This has ranged from functional and data separation to object-oriented design. Service-oriented architectures (SOA) promised further and even better separation that would increase reusability, accelerate development and reduce maintenance with the purpose of joining up user experiences. SOA came into its own during the hype of Omnichannel customer journeys (I hate that phrase) as the service-oriented approach helped systems to join up user experience at a system level. The problem was that despite the intention, the initial implementation of SOA was way to complex (e.g. SOAP), didn’t really address the monolith as it often sat underneath like a fancy data layer, and furthermore required an even more complex ‘Orchestration’ layer (enter the Enterprise Service Bus ESB). This might be all fine and dandy for complex financial banking systems, but the rest of us were left with a multi-levelled monolith that was difficult to scale and a nightmare to maintain.

The Hydra emerges

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While this was all going on the macro environment changed. User experience went from primarily web to mobile, and the younger generations of customers now expect more from every interaction with an organisation. This requires real consistency. Device innovations and the maturing of technologies such as Voice Recognition and Augmented Reality (AR) are opening up new ways of interacting. The rollout of 5G will only accelerate the situation, as IoT will come into its own. This will require customer experiences that span a variety of devices, touchpoints and applications that we can only imagine.

Despite all this great technology, the only thing of importance is the user experience as a whole. Customers will try out voice or AR for novelty value and interact with your web and App experiences, but unless these experiences consistently deliver real value through the UX, customers will become frustrated and move on. Don’t be fooled into thinking these experiences are limited to standalone digital channels. For those of you who have physical presence, customers are expecting the same consistency of offer and content in stores as on the web. We are seeing many retailers wishing to distribute their consumer facing digital content into their shop associate assistant Apps and even looking how this can be brought into Point of Sale.

Cyclops tries to fight back

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The initial counter to this was the emergence of responsive design, but this only addresses the pure dedicated web channel and is completely useless for native and non-consumer facing channels.

Although responsive did bring a much-needed energy boost to the previous monoliths we previously developed, these titanic singly-focused cycloptic platforms are incapable of providing a consistent user experience across so many diverse channels. We are all becoming tired of lethargic, clunky experiences in native Apps where web views have been used to reuse HTML. Try making your HTML content from a web CMS do voice and you will know what I really mean.

Customer experience has evolved from the bimodal digital Web/mobile and physical store/direct of yesterday to the complex multi modal architecture of today. It requires a consistency of content, functionality and experience that the monolithic Cyclops, developed from on-premise Web CMS, Commerce and marketing platforms, are just not able to deliver.

Hydras become unstoppable

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Then a beautiful thing happened. A trifecta of cloud computing, RESTful services and JavaScript application frameworks (Angular, then React and Vue) arrived. These things combined and have evolved into what we see as headless architectures today. In user experience terms, what is of the upmost importance regarding headless architecture is not the fast agile development, TCO, scalability, better SLA and continuous improvement, but the capacity to enable the hydra approach to technology, to propagate as many heads as required while still providing the consistent customer experience we all expect.

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