How to Explain Headless to a 5-Year-Old

People visit websites to learn about products and efficiently buy them. Standard ecommerce platforms have limitations that cause challenges in the buyer’s process. If you’re hearing the word “headless,” your customer’s online experience has room for improvement and could be limited by your current ecommerce platform’s capabilities. These limitations can apply to any significant platform depending on your needs: Shopify, Adobe, Salesforce, etc.

Remember that “Head” equals “User Experience,” or UX. In other words, “head” is what you first see when any webpage loads.

Takeaway: Most websites do not need a headless approach because standard platforms work just fine and they are improving all the time! If someone — even an employee — is trying to sell you a headless approach, be persistent in your questioning about why it is required; there may be a more straightforward way to reach your goals. In most situations, simplicity will save you money.

How Does Headless Work?

Instead of using the off-the-shelf design system built into a standard ecommerce platform, the headless approach takes the “head” (the UX) off your ecommerce site and replaces it with one of two things:


  • A Digital Experience Composition (DXC) platform or Content Management System (CMS) software allows you to pull together data and user interface components to create a personalized experience for your online customers. This is probably the most straightforward way to go. Using a CMS is often the simplest way to start; if more flexibility is needed, a DXC might be required.
  • Some agencies will recommend creating a completely custom front end based on CSS, JavaScript and/or HTML and hosting it on Amazon Web Services. However, this has a high degree of difficulty.

Takeaway: When a more customized, dynamic or faster user experience is needed, these systems can be beneficial. If you the extra complexity and functionality is not required, however, website infrastructure is simpler and cheaper without them.

How to Explain Composable Commerce to a 5-Year-Old

Composable commerce takes the headless concept and applies it to the entire digital infrastructure. The vision of composable commerce is that each major function is provided by one piece of software or service that does that one and only thing very well.

Because ecommerce can incorporate hundreds of software solutions, there isn’t only one way to be composable. Rather, composable commerce should be considered as a set of principles for each element of your technology infrastructure:

  1. Each element does only one thing well and isn’t responsible for too many things at once.
  2. Each element can be independently upgraded without disrupting other aspects.
  3. Each element integrates easily with the others. (APIs and Connectors are commonly used for this.)
  4. Each element performs well and scales automatically based on the volume of work it is tasked with.

Takeaway: The principles of composable help you design a website that is flexible and easier to upgrade and maintain long-term. In the short term and medium term, it can be risky, expensive and difficult to migrate to this approach. 

If you don’t have a trusted IT leader in your organization, then a trusted consultant or agency partner can be your guide on this journey.

The primary goal is simple: a user experience that is highly performant and easily maintainable for years to come, even as uses needs change.

What is the Headless or Composable Salesperson not Telling Me?

Here are some facts about ecommerce to keep in mind when considering all options.

  1. A platform on its own does not generate revenue or profit. An organization does. This means people, processes and technology must work together to achieve results.
  2. Any new platform comes with new problems that your organization is unfamiliar with.
  3. Moving from one platform to another is fraught with risks. It is typically something experienced VPs of ecommerce or Chief Digital Officers attempt only once or twice in their entire careers.
  4. It is not unusual for revenue to decline after re-platforming, whether due to Google traffic redirection, employee training, promotions or customer behaviors.

Despite these facts, if your organization struggles to provide the experience customers demand, you must navigate these tricky waters and carefully plan next steps. 

What Else are they not Telling me About Composable?

Even if you need to take a headless or composable approach, there are other things the salesperson may not be telling you up front. Rather than risk scaring you away at the onset, it’s easier to gradually reveal cost and complexity as the project progresses.

  1. Your existing cloud-based ecommerce platform may need to be “composable enough” to support specific needs. It’s best to interview multiple agencies and consultants to get a balanced view of the situation.
  2. The composable approach is best suited to companies with development teams.
  3. Composable can still work if you don’t have developers, but you will need to retain an agency to ensure the system works reliably and improves over its lifetime. This could be a hefty monthly retainer that induces sticker shock.
  4. Now that you are off of your standard cloud-based platform, you may need a more sophisticated serverless hosting infrastructure. These systems incur costs based on your data and user requirements.
  5. Integrating between different components in your composable architecture may require purchase of specialized connectors or even hiring specialized agencies to complete the data integration.
  6. Security and data needs get more complex if the infrastructure is composed of software from different vendors. This may produce extra cost and effort from your teams or require hiring outside specialists.

Takeaway: Enterprises moving to a composable infrastructure may require 12-18 months, and you need to be aware of additional costs that can arise.

What Should I do Next Regarding Composable Commerce?

Supposing you are at the beginning of your composable journey, my advice is to create a high-level plan that prudently outlines all necessary vendors and costs to avoid surprises.

“Measure twice, cut once” is a good motto for what you are about to embark on. Companies can spend millions of dollars without realizing any serious returns as their IT projects fail. Companies that have successfully made the transition can be rewarded with lower maintenance costs, flexible upgrade paths, enhanced user experiences and growing revenues and margins.

Good luck on the journey!

Rick Watson founded RMW Commerce Consulting after spending 20+ years as a technology entrepreneur and operator exclusively in the ecommerce industry with companies like ChannelAdvisor,, Merchantry, and Pitney Bowes. His work today is centered on supporting investors and management teams incubating and growing direct-to-consumer businesses. Working with private equity firms, Watson performs ecommerce, technology and digital marketing due diligence on acquisition candidates and creates ecommerce growth plans for post-acquisition growth strategies. Watson also hosts The Watson Weekly podcast where he shares an unbiased, unfiltered expert take on the retail sector’s biggest news and players. 

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