IT faces high expectations for building and supporting omnichannel digital experiences. Simultaneously, web developers hold an evolving toolkit of architectural approaches to deliver content. One such framework gaining mindshare is headless, a style that decouples front end user experiences from back end application logic.
Legacy options for content delivery can be somewhat cumbersome in that they don’t apply well to scenarios beyond websites. On the other hand, a headless framework uses web APIs to communicate with clients, making it a more adaptive model to support new devices and use cases.
WPEngine recently released global research on the state of headless. Below, we’ll review the top findings from The State of Headless: A Global Research Report. I also met with Matt Landers, developer relations manager, and Jason Bahl, principal software engineer at WPEngine to discuss the evolution of headless and its future implications for developers.
What is Headless?
First off, what is headless? Headless decouples the front end from the back end, thus separating the user interface (UI) from the data and code that powers it. The headless movement represents a shift from traditional content management systems (CMSs) such as WordPress, Squarespace and Wix.com. These platforms are less extensible, as they intrinsically unite the back end with user-facing representations. Traditional CMS is “typically not that easy to scale,” noted Landers.
Headless challenges the status quo by offering more flexibility. As headless adopts API-based content negotiation, it could essentially deliver highly personalized experiences to any connected device. This could help support emerging platforms, like mobile, voice assistants or augmented reality (AR).
Simply put, headless is “a CMS that is not responsible for rendering the site,” Landers explained. “What attracts people to headless is component-based architecture and the ability to build isolated components,” he added. For example, a headless framework could include an author bio component that is reused in any custom style across devices. By deploying to a CDN, headless could enable high-speed performance, as well.
Headless Adoption Surges
Interest in headless is increasing across the board. Currently, 64% of enterprises surveyed adopt a headless approach, representing about a 25% increase from 2019. Furthermore, headless use is expected to grow: over 90% of organizations not currently using a headless setup plan to evaluate a headless option in the coming year.
The strong interest in headless likely represents a growing necessity for large enterprises to support various digital channels in a consistent manner. In fact, 92% of organizations credit headless with delivering a more consistent content experience, the report found.
Benefits of Headless
A key benefit to introducing headless is the decoupled nature of the approach. This makes it possible to support multiple platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, connected kiosks, smartwatches, voice assistants, AR and virtual reality (VR) from the same source.
Respondents also cited additional benefits to adopting headless such as increased performance, quicker time to market and rapid innovation. These positive attributes make sense because, with headless, applications only request the data they need. Therefore, headless could certainly facilitate more dynamic applications and custom-tailored user experiences. If used effectively, headless setups reduce bloat to create fast-loading digital experiences that further the SRE agenda.
Tech Choices and Use Cases
An average organization is spending $2.6 million on their headless implementation, found the report. So, what are they spending it on? Well, some common headless frameworks and SaaS platforms include Contentful, GraphCMS, Atlas, DatoCMS, Cosmic, Netlify, Sanity.io and Prismic, among others.
While the report didn’t query respondents on their exact headless stack, it revealed a general satisfaction with headless solutions, with relatively high net promoter scores (NPS). When selecting a headless provider, respondents tend to consider performance (41%), e-commerce (35%), scalability (33%) and APIs and extensibility (30%).
Though headless spans many use cases, e-commerce is clearly a primary use case for the headless stack, with 51% of respondents adopting headless to support e-commerce. Other top use cases for a headless approach include a website (52%), IoT (47%) and progressive web apps (40%).
Drawbacks of Headless
Though headless provides impressive malleability, it does require a shift in thinking, and implementors must inevitably overcome certain drawbacks. API security, for example, is at stake as API attacks and threats increase.
Headless could also require additional administrative burden in terms of data integration and upkeep. With headless, instead of using plugins, IT must enlist front-end developers to integrate data and build front-end behaviors. Debugging a decoupled front end and back end can also be an added development burden. “There is an opportunity in the headless ecosystem in general to mature the experience for the content publisher,” describes Bahl.
Future of Headless
Within today’s remote economy, most acknowledge that digital experiences are now crucial to supporting business at large. In fact, 92% of organizations believe digital experiences are vital to their organization’s success, found the report.
Headless architecture promises to retain a stable back end to support these escalating digital demands — especially useful considering the ever-changing nature of front end clients. On that note, the report found that 32% and 31% of respondents adopt headless for VR and AR experiences, respectively. Therefore, the headless approach appears to be a valuable technique to future-proof current investment against emerging digital trends.
The State of Headless: A Global Research Report, conducted by Vanson Bourne between January and February 2021, surveyed 400 IT/technical employees with knowledge of headless. For more insights, you can read it in full here.