Composable: Expanding Beyond Headless

October 05, 2021
EVP, Technology

Headless and composable are hot topics in digital, but what exactly do they mean? 

In the simplest terms, headless is a system with a decoupled back-end and front-end. Composable, on the other hand, is a comprehensive approach to consolidating headless initiatives—ultimately bringing agility to the digital experience (DX) infrastructure. Think of composable as the big sister of headless digital experience architecture. 

Let's take a closer look.

What Is Headless?

Headless, or decoupled, refers to any system where the front-end and the back-end are connected by an Application Interface (API). It is a pretty broad definition that can be applied to a lot of solutions, like Ajax, web apps, PWAs, IoT, or native apps. 

Headless makes sense; it is a great way to deliver snappy user experiences by reducing the amount of redundant data being sent during an experience. By separating content and presentation layers into separate back-end and front-end systems, headless architecture lends itself to high-performing applications—but it doesn’t inherently address business agility. That is where composable becomes interesting.

The Composable Approach

If we think of headless as a system with a decoupled back-end and front-end, then decoupled can be thought of as an infrastructure that concurrently supports multiple front-ends and back-ends. We can simplify the introduction and management of services by taking a Packaged Business Capability (PBCs) approach, where we separate business functions into logical service APIs. 

For example, an organization needs a system that can deliver responsive web experiences and email. This organization might initially be driven by a commerce system, a CMS, and a search. But as the organization grows, it needs to start to separate systems by region: for example, a new commerce system in EMEA.

A composable approach simplifies this by supporting multiple commerce capabilities. By treating a new commerce system as a new PBC, we can replace just the system needed in EMEA. By going the PBC route, the organization can have multiple commerce systems that drive the same middleware and front-ends.

Essentially, composable is a higher-order headless where experiences can be assembled from pools of back-end and front-end resources. 

This approach is customer-first. When a supporting capability (like a commerce system) changes, the user experience is unaffected because there are no changes to the front-end code. This makes sense since we only want to modify the front-end systems when the business wants to update the customer experience.

What are some of the principles of a composable architecture?

  • Front-end agnostic. Omni-channel: can deliver experiences across many channels.
  • Back-end agnostic. Omni-capability: can use multiple capabilities/services.
  • Vendor agnostic. Portability: new capabilities can be added and retired while maintaining the customer experience.
  • Capability Management. Duplicative Services: can orchestrate multiple similar capabilities.

A composable architecture can deliver isomorphic experiences; experiences that are identical in structure while having the ability to cross different, sometimes redundant, systems.

A Composable Analogy: Farm to Table

Let’s break composable down into some chunks that are easier to remember using an analogy: farm to table. 

Farm: capabilities or services
Pantry: the middleware layer where APIs are normalized
Kitchen: the authoring layer
Plate: the delivery channel
Table: the customer experience

We start on the farm. Much like sourcing raw ingredients like wheat, eggs, or corn from a farm, we begin our composable approach with packaged business capabilities (PBCs) that have been defined by business teams to deliver a raw capability like search, content, commerce, and customer profile.

As we move our ingredients from the farm to the pantry, we store and label them in an organized and consistent manner, making our ingredients usable for cooking. For example, we may take tree bark from the West Indies and grind it to powder, then put it in a jar marked “cinnamon” that we can add to a recipe. Likewise, we normalize the features and APIs of our PBCs for consistency so they are available to craft experiences.

When we’re ready to start cooking, we head over to our kitchen, where we are able to take our packaged ingredients from the pantry and create a delectable dish. Similarly, we author content using components that are wrappers for the data we get from our PCBs. These are the building blocks of the content we will deliver.

I’m getting hungry. We’re ready to plate our creations and combine all of our dishes into a delicious meal—just like we’re now able to take our assembled components and deliver them to their intended channels.

Time to eat! And to wrap it all up, whatever our event at the table is—be it a wedding, a birthday, or an anniversary we are serving our snacks at the bar, appetizers at the reception, and our 6-course meals in the dining room—is equivalent to that of our customer experience. Our farm-to-table approach for both our meal and our composable commerce results in an exceptional experience. 

Composable: The Future of Digital Experience

Trends in headless technology have offered breakthrough improvements in customer experience but implementing headless as isolated projects limit the total business impact. Composable provides business agility, speed, and reliability by combining efforts logically at the infrastructure level. 

Composable requires more initial planning but brings greater long-term savings through process optimization and flexibility. With composable, you can manage the true value of decoupled systems and create the best-in-class solutions for your business—making composable the future digital experience.