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Going Headless Is Hard – These 6 Tips Make It Easier

Ready for a headless deployment? Not so fast. Make sure you do these things first.

Moving to headless commerce isn’t just a technology change. [Stocksy/Lumina]

Headless deployments are complex — and commerce professionals need to go into the project with their eyes wide open. If a brand doesn’t see the continuous and fast innovation that headless commerce promises, that’s likely because they skipped over key implementation activities. 

In my years of implementing headless architectures for a variety of global brands, I’ve seen a lot of companies make decisions without respect to broader business goals. This happens in businesses of all sizes — startups, mid-size, and enterprises. Based on these common pitfalls, I’ve put together six tips that will help brands see real dollar value behind their headless deployments.

1. Always start with a discovery workshop before your headless deployment

Headless commerce is the “how,” not the “why” to solving operational challenges that get in the way of better customer experiences. The most common reasons brands go headless are:

  • Agility: They want to move quickly to keep up with evolving customer needs and expectations.
  • Freedom of expression: They want to create fast, differentiated digital experiences that set them apart from the competition.
  • Commerce anywhere: They want to meet customers on new channels and touchpoints.

Before any work begins, hold a discovery workshop with a trusted implementation partner. During the workshop, you should define your business goals and set realistic expectations around the role of headless commerce. Remember that you don’t have to solve every challenge all at once. You can add on features and components once you have the foundation in place.

For example, you may want your site to be fast and flexible. But those two things are frequently at odds with one another. As you build a flexible architecture that lets you integrate more third-party vendors, it can have a negative impact on performance. The workshop will help you to prioritize which to focus on first. If flexibility takes a backseat to a fast website in the first year of your implementation, you’re able to set actionable goals with measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) that allow you to come back a year later and say, “We succeeded here, now let’s move on to the next goal.” 

2. Designate a “headless commerce rockstar”

Once your teams are aligned on your goals and expectations, designate an internal champion – or what I like to call a headless commerce rockstar. This is someone who deeply understands your business goals. They don’t have to be technical, but they do need to have an attention to detail.

Headless commerce requires a lot of little architectural decisions along the way, so involve your rockstar in every decision during the project. If you make decisions without respect to your higher-level goals, you could go in the wrong direction and end up having to backtrack later, which requires more time, effort, and money. Your “headless commerce rockstar” provides that gut check every step of the way.  

3. Conduct an audit of your existing tech stack

It’s easy to get excited by headless commerce and make commitments before you realize what you really need. Your headless commerce rockstar should conduct a detailed and comprehensive audit of your current technology.

This is a critical step because if you don’t think about your current tech stack, processes, and stakeholders, you’re likely to overlook something. Down the line, you may need to invest in additional technology or spend unexpected time customizing your solution, which will affect your timeline for delivery. The key here is to know exactly what you’re building from the start.

4. Map out your headless deployment plan

Are you going big-bang and replacing your entire storefront site, or are you rolling it out gradually? For most, a hybrid approach with a gradual implementation makes the most sense. 

A hybrid approach allows you to mix and match your full stack with headless components. You can tackle low-hanging fruit first, such as performance levels, and then move on to more complex components, such as checkout. Doing so allows you to start small and work toward a totally headless architecture over time.  

All eyes are on the initial launch and you want to show results quickly — but you’re not going to be able to do everything all at once. That’s why I suggest launching with your minimum viable product (MVP) for your first release. 

5. Work with the right implementation team

This process will require larger teams with different skill sets. You will need to restructure teams and think about the kinds of expertise you’re missing. Consider if you want to grow those in-house or outsource them.

Some brands have large IT teams and can manage an in-house implementation team. But for many, they’ll need a delivery partner. I see a lot of brands reluctant to commit to a long-term implementation partner, but they can be the key to your success. The skills and experience that they bring to the table are vital to the project. You want an experienced team that knows what they are going up against because, frankly, headless commerce is not all that intuitive.

6. Implement good working practices 

Throughout this process, you’ll work with more teams than you’re probably used to because building a best-of-breed architecture introduces more solution providers . Make sure to have channels of communication in place that bring teams together and enable both real-time and asynchronous collaboration, such as Slack. If you’re working across time zones, it may make sense for some members of the team to work outside standard office hours to have a better overlap with other teams. Solving this early prevents progress from stalling as teams get out of sync or spend all day waiting for vital information.

Involve non-technical teams from the start. You need their feedback along the way because the goal should be to give them autonomy with your site. They need to know how to make updates on their own, without code, so that IT teams can stay focused on innovation. 

After going headless, revisit and optimize your processes to enable that continuous innovation. Individual teams now should have more freedom to work independently towards a common goal.

The last word on headless deployments

Moving to headless commerce isn’t just a technology change. It’s a development model and philosophy change where the customer experience is at the center of everything. If you don’t stop and check yourself against these six areas, you may miss out on the continuous innovation that headless promises.


James Semple is a Senior Architect at Salesforce and currently works with Commerce Cloud customers to help develop and elevate their digital architectures, focused particularly on headless architectures, user experience and front-end technologies. Formerly of Mobify, as a Solution Architect, James has over 20 years of experience in the industry working with giants like Oracle and Computer Associates through to lean West Coast startups in a variety of technical and customer-facing roles. He's passionate about how technology and true digital transformations can play an integral role in improving day-to-day life. When James isn't advising large retailers on their digital future, he's composing music for films and videogames.

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