As the owner of a digital product, you know that the requirements for your product will evolve over time. This creates a challenge in how to build a product platform that can scale over time to accommodate new features, different user loads, and changing technology standards. Frequently, this challenge is not addressed appropriately. Without a long-term product platform strategy, platforms will either need to be rebuilt from scratch prematurely, or they become stagnant and ultimately relegated to legacy products. This is often further driven by the pace of business transformation, accumulation of technical debt, and shortcuts taken during the original inception of the product.

Another common quandary today is the speed at which supported devices and peripheral applications (commonly referred to as application endpoints) must change. Traditional product design is device-centric, but today’s marketplace requires companies to be device agnostic. In the age of omnichannel engagement, a single platform may have to accommodate a myriad of endpoints, including responsive desktop websites, progressive web applications, native mobile apps, React Native apps, and smartwatch applications. This is equally true when we think about internal facing endpoints, such as CRMs and other business systems, extending across the entire value chain. It is critical that a modern product platform is built in an adaptable and scalable way to allow for any new devices and clients that will be introduced in the future.

I will outline three key paradigms that may be utilized when planning your product platform strategy for scale. Implementing these paradigms may increase your competitive advantage, business resilience, improve risk management, and increase your capital for growth.

1. Understanding the Lifecycle of the User Experience, Application, and Data Layers

When planning for the long-term, product teams need to consider that their applications are typically built in a way that allows separating them into discrete components, each with its own purpose and lifecycle:

The three distinct components of digital products: UX Layer, 1-3 year life cycle; Application Layer, 3-5 year life cycle; data layer, 5+ year life cycle.
The three distinct components of digital products.
  • User Experience Layer
    The user experience layer of an application entails all the display logic as well as any endpoint/client-side application functionality. This is the part the end-user sees. It must adapt to the rapidly evolving browsers, devices, and UX paradigms. In the example of a ridesharing platform, this would be the driver and rider mobile apps, as well as any account management or administrative web interfaces. The life cycle of this layer is 1 – 3 years.

  • Application Layer
    The application layer typically contains all business rules and logic, ideally embedded within an API-first architecture. This codebase will primarily live server-side. In the ride sharing example, this would be the logic that handles user authentication, assigns riders to drivers, calculates travel costs and durations, and handles the data transfer to all endpoints. The life cycle of this layer is 3 – 5 years.

  • Data Layer
    The data layer contains the application’s data, which typically resides within a database or other data storage system. In the case of the ridesharing platform, this would entail all rider and driver data, ride history, and payment information. The data layer’s life cycle coincides with the business that it serves; as long as the data is relevant to the business, the data layer will need to be maintained and supported. Consequently, the life cycle of the data layer is often 5+ years. The most adept enterprises take the approach of data-as-a-service, consolidating and organizing their data in one place, then making it available to serve new and existing digital initiatives. This unlocks data from legacy systems to drive new applications and digital platforms, without the need to disrupt existing backends.

By looking at your applications from this angle the door to modularizing your scaling requirements opens. For example, having the foresight that the user experience layer will likely be replaced within a couple of years, you wouldn’t want to expend comparable resources establishing your user experience layer for scalability as you would for the other layers. Conversely, the selection of the data layer must allow for substantial growth and change in content, laying the foundation for your platform to scale.

2. API-first approach

One of the most useful developments in modern software design is the emergence of API-first software architecture. Historically APIs were created as an afterthought to existing products that were tightly interwoven jumbles of front- and back-end systems. An API-first architecture strategically decouples them from the onset. This allows teams to quickly create experiences and products which work across a multitude of devices and other end-points.

In API-first methodology, all components of the platform are primarily connected via APIs, using API calls for data transfer. Designing an API involves consulting with stakeholders to collaboratively design the API specification before determining and developing the various applications that will consume the API. A major benefit to this approach is that organizations obtain valuable feedback in the preliminary stages of the platform’s design. This is beneficial in developing a service that delivers value to all of the API’s eventual consumers across the platform. Further, it ensures that consistency is administered across the platform, which is crucial considering the variety of clients/devices that will potentially connect to the API.

The components of API first application development.
API first application development.

There are two ways to approach API service design, each with its unique implications on application scalability:

  • A single generic API
    A generic API is written in a way that provides access to the most data possible without imposing specific business rules on data access. This provides long-term flexibility by covering the data needs for as many business use-cases as possible. Typically, it is also easy to build, and in some cases may even be automatically generated depending on your data entity model. The downside is that a significant part of business logic is shifted to the client/device, making it more difficult to maintain consistency of that business logic across clients. The client essentially embeds business logic in the user experience layer.

  • Specific APIs (microservices)
    By writing an API that covers specific business rules the application logic can be embedded in the API. This allows the client/device to primarily handle the user experience layer and remain a de facto “dumb” client/device. The drawback with this approach is that different clients might require the API to be modified to meet their specific needs, or new APIs to be created for new endpoints.

Ultimately, either approach may facilitate a successful migration to an API-first platform.  But, keep in mind that it is advisable to dialogue with your team at the onset to determine which API-first platform option best aligns with the projected long-term requirements of your platform.  

3. Five Pillars of Product Platform Strategy

When planning for a new digital product platform there are many technologies to consider. To ensure a solid foundation for your platform to scale from, we evaluate them in five categories:

  1. Performance
    Depending on your platform requirements, the platform’s systems should have high availability while being cost effective and resource efficient. Modern cloud hosting environments offer a variety of solutions that work better for some cases than for others. Find the right combination, and you can achieve exceptional performance at a relatively low cost. 

  2. Scalability
    Is there variability in your expected user load? If so, how well can the systems adapt to the changing user load? If you have a customer-facing application that will encounter heavier demand over time, this will be of more concern than if you are serving an internal, predictable user base. When you do need to scale the platform’s systems, you want to ensure this can be performed with minimal downtime.

  3. Maintainability
    Over time, your systems need to be maintained to remain competitive with technology standards and security needs. Depending on the system operations (SysOps) and development operations (DevOps) capabilities of your team, you will want to carefully consider if managing the platform systems yourself is the right choice. You may determine that relying on a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provider is a sage decision.

  4. Compatibility
    As your platform grows how easy is it to add new applications and components? Adopting an API-first software architecture will further ensure modularity. In particular, a microservices approach lends itself well to adding future application functionality without the need to edit the core application code. This means new functionality can be added without the risk of introducing bugs into the existing application.

  5. Security
    Following security best practices, such as the OWASP Top Ten, should be requisite, yet there are  a multitude of factors that come into play when approaching security for scale. For example, maintaining your own authentication system may make sense if you are starting out, but in the long run, do you want to be responsible for the personally identifiable information (PII) of all your users? Outsourcing such important responsibilities to a company specializing in authentication security, such as Auth0, could be a better choice for future scalability. When protecting against DDoS attempts and other hacking threats, a service such as Cloudflare can offload responsibilities from your team and future proof your products are they grow in popularity.

The approaches outlined in this article provides an overview of how our team at Emerge helps ensure our clients’ product platforms are designed and developed in a way that allows for future scalability. You can see an example of our product platform strategy at work in our case study for the Mercedes-Benz CLA Instagram Campaign. If you find yourself needing a hand with your digital product platform strategy, feel free to reach out.  We’d love to talk.

When creating a mobile app or web application, do you have a strategy for how the static content in the application is managed? An app can contain a myriad of static content that wouldn’t make sense to load dynamically from a database or server each time the content is viewed. Some types of content that fall into this category can include:

  • Home screen content
  • Inline content blocks
  • Navigation labels
  • About us page content
  • FAQ sections
  • Video sections
  • Product information that isn’t stored elsewhere

This is a challenge our clients encounter regularly, and we love helping them solve this problem.

Why should you use a Headless CMS?

Traditionally, a mobile app or React application will have its static content embedded directly inside the application code. For apps geared toward traveling users or display kiosk applications that need to run locally, this is particularly true.  While embedding content is the most straightforward and easily implemented method, the downside is that any content update will require a code change, testing, and a redeployment. Options such as loading content from an XML or JSON file exist, but these still require some technical proficiency, and potentially a redeployment if the files are still embedded in the codebase, or a server setup to host the files elsewhere.

Our clients are better served if the content can be edited directly by the content owner responsible not just for the message but the users experience, be it the product manager, the marketing department, or someone at the helpdesk. Fortunately, a new breed of content management systems is specifically tailored to address this need. They’re called Headless Content Management Systems (CMS).

A Headless CMS provides a content management interface, much like a traditional CMS such as WordPress or Drupal. But instead of outputting the content onto a website, a Headless CMS makes the content available via an API to your web or mobile application. The application can then subsequently display content loaded in realtime from the CMS, or cache the content and permit it to be displayed offline without loading times.  This is particularly advantageous for large assets such as video files.

The difference between headless CMS data flow and traditional CMS data flow

While there are both self-hosted and cloud-hosted products available, we typically recommend our clients look at hosted products (CMS-as-a-Service). These provide the benefit of eliminating ongoing management of a CMS installation and hosting. Forget constant version patches to your open source CMS; this is all automatically handled by the CMS provider. Ultimately, long-term costs and expended effort are minimized while reliability and security are maximized.

How to Evaluate which Headless CMS to use

When evaluating a Headless CMS for an app project, we typically start with the following criteria:

  • How is content managed in the CMS, and how flexible is the data structure?
    Depending on the content in the application that our clients need to manage, we will want to find a CMS that allows matching the data types to the required content structure. If data types are complex and change frequently, we prioritize a user-friendly type of builder. If there are relationships between content types, we look for a CMS that has strong options in that area. This criteria is as unique as content requirements.

  • How is the data accessed?
    The most common data-access standard is via RESTful APIs, which provides a flexible foundation for most projects. In addition, some Headless CMS solutions offer SDKs or starter projects to jumpstart development, which can save time by providing CMS specific API connectors out of the box. Another rising standard is GraphQL, which reduces roundtrips between the app and the server. GraphQL also minimizes the amount of data transferred to the absolute essentials. If you are using third party tools and frameworks that are built around using REST, you’ll want to stick with a CMS that uses RESTful APIs. If your project is more greenfield though, GraphQL might be able to reduce your development effort and provide better performance.

  • Can file assets be managed and served from the CMS?
    Some apps include media assets, such as images and videos. In that scenario, the CMS needs to include an asset management module, as well as the ability to store files through the CMS in a cloud storage environment. Different Headless CMS solutions have varying limitations on these parameters. We ensure that the offering is aligned with the app’s content requirements. We are mindful to assess limitations such as size limit per asset, total storage amount, and included bandwidth.

  • How many records does the CMS allow?
    Some Headless CMS solutions have limitations on the total number of records that can be stored in the CMS. Depending on the specific use case of our projects this is something we are diligent to examine. One such example would be a database of property information that is batch uploaded into the CMS, which could consist of tens of thousands of records. Given that Contentful allows 5,000 records at the $39/month price level, and 50,000 records at the $879/month price level, this could be a deal breaker based on the project needs and budget.

  • Is a content delivery network (CDN) built into the CMS infrastructure?
    If the content is accessed and displayed in realtime from the Headless CMS, having a content delivery network available can save a few seconds in lag time. This is particularly true if an application we are working on has a global reach. For example, Contentful is hosted in the AWS US East data center, so a CDN would accelerate load times for users outside of the continental US.

  • How strong are the support resources and how big is the development community?
    Given the vendor lock that’s part of working with a Headless CMS, it is critical that we are confident the requirements of the application can be achieved with the selected solution. Having solid documentation and community support (Slack, forums, etc.) is key to this.

  • How old and established is the company?
    The oldest players in the Headless CMS industry were founded in 2013, but it seems that there are new Headless CMS providers emerging every month. We significantly study a company’s track record before making a recommendation, and would only recommend a younger company if the technological benefits outweigh the risks.

  • Is there a status page to shows uptime history?
    Building on the track record requirements, we look for transparency around platform uptime and frequency of issues. We’ll review a solution’s system status page for transparency of information as well as issue history. Good examples are https://www.contentfulstatus.com/ and https://status.graphcms.com/.

Our favorite Headless CMS solutions

Based on these evaluation criteria, the Headless CMS products that we are recommending the most to our clients are:

  • Contentful
    One of the oldest and most established players in the Headless CMS industry, Contentful checks the boxes for most of our projects with ease. From our experience we consider them the current market leader, which is also reflected in the strong community support available. We particularly appreciate the variety of code repositories on their Github account, which includes SDKs for several programming languages.  As mentioned above, they do have limits on the number of content records stored in the CMS, which many other providers do not, so look out for that if you anticipate storing a large amount of data in the CMS.

  • Prismic
    Like Contentful, Prismic is one of the older companies in the space. They offer a full-featured account for a single CMS user for free, which can be perfect for smaller or experimental projects, or anyone wanting to try a Headless CMS for their product. Even Prismic’s entry level paid account is only $84/year, undercutting most other mainstream competitors. Their team has also created a myriad of starter project libraries and SDKs that cover everything from Angular2 to .NET.

  • GraphCMS
    This solution is the first Headless CMS to use GraphQL instead of a RESTful API. We consider GraphQL superior to REST, but it is still a newer standard and in some cases the interconnectivity with other systems might be a limiter. GraphCMS’ entry point on pricing is a little higher than the other providers listed here (starting at $588/year), but if GraphQL is something you can take advantage of, it very well can pay for itself.

If you would like to view more Headless CMS options, including open source and self-hosted solutions, headlessCMS.org is a great resource.

As you can see, headless content management systems have come a long way and established themselves well in the CMS world. Consider leveraging one of them to empower the content owners in your organization and reduce load on your development team for content updates. If you find yourself needing a hand on getting started with your mobile app or React application project or are considering a Headless CMS, feel free to reach out. We’d love to talk.