22nd September 2020
One of the most sweeping changes to be ushered into our lives in the digital age is the ease with which new products, websites and apps can be created and released. There’s incredible value in the way organisations can leverage technology to address acute, specific or emerging needs of customers quickly. However, there is also a growing issue with the volume of quick-built, disjointed or half-replaced “solutions” now making up the problem that is frontend sprawl.
The cost of doing business as an enterprise today includes managing large, expensive and often immediate problems with the frontend estate. Years into the ‘app for that’ approach to addressing user needs and vying for consumer attention, many companies are looking around their frontend almost wondering where it all came from. More still avoid looking, knowing the answer isn’t hidden among the legacy technologies, siloed applications and loosely aligned teams that make up the average frontend.
Making the most of online
Looking back, it’s easy to track the path we took to get here. The twenty-first century has been defined by multiplatform and mobile interaction, quite notably in commerce. At the end of 2019, Business Insider projected that mobile commerce would account for 45% of the total US e-commerce market by the end of 2020 — and that was before the pandemic pushed even more of our interactions online.
Since the early days of iTunes, global consumers have become increasingly comfortable with the concept and practicalities of trading online and on devices. The past decade saw organisations across all sectors work overtime to make it easy for customers, prospects, employees, members — whoever their ultimate user is — to find and access offerings on the web and on mobile.
Apps abound, and they’ll continue to as long as people keep using them. Consumer spending in the App Store and Google Play rose 23.4% in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019, aided somewhat by the response to COVID-19. First-time app installs were up 26.1% year-over-year.
This abundance is powered, in part, by the rapid growth in the number of available technologies in recent years. While that growth largely enabled tech teams to develop faster, more efficient products and tools, sometimes technology can be like a shiny new toy, tempting organisations to use it in a new app, website or user interface based more on perceived potential than proven performance.
Falling out with the frontend
In responding to the convergence of consumer use and tech availability, many companies made bottom-up technology choices rather than plans for strategic frontend growth. While significant time and budget went into engineering backend systems, very little engineering or architecture was applied at the frontend. The result is the current frontend state, which typically looks more like a collection of disparate web and mobile tools than a designed platform of touchpoints for user interaction.
In the context of a market where the end-user experience is paramount, a creaking frontend ecosystem leaves enterprises ripe for digital disruption. Such a state typically means high maintenance costs, as well as staffing challenges in terms of securing and affording the right skillsets.
Even if the maintenance and staffing issues don’t hold a company back, frontend sprawl will inevitably slow it down. Innovation is an infinitely greater challenge when saddled with technology debt, and even moderate improvements or feature releases tend to be delayed while teams keep the other plates spinning.
Engineering a new approach
While the solution to a fragmented frontend estate does involve technology, tech is not the driver. The real fix is a change in thinking.
The frontend must be engineered as the user-facing function of an organisation’s strategic offering. It must be architected and built for purpose, rather than as a quick response to market or consumer trends.
This means looking beyond the idea of a new app, a patch or an integration. Solving the frontend problem requires a combination solution that addresses technology, skills, processes and support. It requires migration to a new state, but one that is planned according to strategic objectives and with a view toward supporting future services, features or products.
There’s no one way to engineer a high-functioning, future-ready frontend, but there are key principles to keep in mind while you’re doing it. A well-designed frontend architecture will prioritise performance, agility and unified experience for users across all platforms and touchpoints. With those factors set as goals, the logical technology choices will be ones that empower tech teams to build apps, sites and systems that work well together and create a seamless frontend.
We developed our Polaris accelerator for this exact purpose. Polaris enables fast delivery to mobile and web platforms by a single team, using a single codebase that is built on proven, maintained open source tools and the fine-tuned workflows we rely on again and again to deliver for our clients.
Experience has shown that innovation is easier when goals are clearly defined and technology is proven and supported. Fixing the frontend estate may not sound like the most innovative idea, but given the world’s reliance on and preference for online services and experiences, it just may be one of the most original moves you can make.