The Real Challenge Facing Headless CMS Platforms (and the Web Design Industry in General)

By Pete Czech

The Real Challenge Facing Headless CMS Platforms (and the Web Design Industry in General)New Possibilities Group

I’m treading on dangerous ground with this week’s blog post.

This topic is sure to offend many of my fellow agency owners, especially those in the web design community. But sometimes the most difficult conversations need to be had, and this is one of those subjects that can’t be ignored any longer.

We’ve all heard the hype surrounding the headless CMS methodology, and that hype has a ton of merit. Indeed, this new technology has distinct advantages over the traditional, integrated approach that most well-known CMS platforms take. In fact, in our e-book, The CMS of the Future, we cover the technological concept of a headless CMS in depth, including how it compares to its monolithic ancestors and why we believe that it should be the preferred architecture of CMS platforms going forward.

Of course, as with any new technology, there are problems with early adaptation. And when it comes to headless systems, the biggest hurdles are economic and logistical in nature, rather than technological. With that said, I want to be clear: Headless architecture is the way of the future. It's the thinking of the past that we have to overcome.

The real problem is that the vast majority of agencies developing websites today are not actually employing properly trained designers and developers. Headless CMS platforms require actual development skills to output a valuable and intuitive customer front-end experience. This leads to less competition amongst agencies, and higher hourly development rates. Honestly, hourly rates aren't a great metric for pricing anyway, and data now proves that in the enterprise, headless is in fact much more cost-effective.

Let’s face it: The economics of the business of web design aren’t geared toward creativity. Instead, they are geared toward sameness and subpar technological choices, oftentimes choices that saw their days of being innovative pass by many years ago.

To clarify this claim, let’s dig a bit into the types of “developers” available today.

We’ve written about this on our blog many times in the past and summarized our views on the types of agencies that are available for hire when it comes to website design and development. As we have been preaching over the years, the era of off-the-shelf CMS platforms has ushered in an age of sameness, of complacency—and worst of all, it has brought about a generation of “developers” who simply can’t develop so much as a “Hello World” statement.

“Sameness” is a word we use a lot around our agency, because it can’t be avoided. The amount of agencies actually crafting creative user interfaces is dwindling. If you are reading this, you have some level of experience around web design. Do you agree? When was the last time you saw a design and thought, “Wow, they really moved the needle”? It’s increasingly rare. 

How did this all happen?

First, many marketers have driven their web projects with two major requirements. One is a site that converts well, which makes total sense. What’s the point of a web property that doesn’t? In fact, today’s data analytics give such tremendous insight that working without statistical direction is insane.

And what about the second requirement? Often, it’s the ability for marketers to change content quickly and easily with as little technical knowledge as possible.

This latter condition is the reason why platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla. and their offshoots are such major players now. They’ve simply made it too easy to achieve that requirement. It requires almost no skill to set up an installation of WordPress, configure a theme, and then change color schemes, logos, and simple branding. In fact, most decent web hosts will install these systems for you when you open an account.

Thus, an entire generation of website designers and so-called “developers” have no idea what is under the hood, much less how to make these platforms do what they need them to do. Their experience rests with installing plugins, flipping a few switches, and wondering why their Zaps don’t always work perfectly.

The web design industry is inundated with “experts” who, in reality, have no idea. And who suffers? The clients and the end users.

Clients don’t know what they don’t know; they assume that an agency or freelancer is qualified, so they put their trust in them. Little do they know that the agency knows about as much about web development as they do.

And the users? Well, they are trusting shoddy work with the personal data they hand over whenever they fill out a contact form or make an e-commerce transaction. Yikes.

But there is one person who suffers even more. It’s the CMO or the CEO who greenlit the building of their site on unsecure, outdated technology. Because when the site is inevitably compromised or an investor or customer notices that it has the same design as another site, the consequences go all the way to the top. Examples of this are in the news on a regular basis.

This off-the-shelf platform phenomenon has led to a growth in small firms that label themselves “digital agencies.” Agency Spotter estimates there are 120,000+ agencies in the United States today. In the world, they estimate 500,000! This is an insane amount of companies making a claim of expertise.  

And lest we forget, that number includes the offshore resources that sell dirt-cheap “design” and “development” services. You know, the $500 “custom” website design that comes back to you littered with spelling errors and compatibility issues, almost completely devoid of any thought to customer service or client education.

All of this adds up to a serious problem. The technology that is easiest for a novice to use, offering the fastest time to market, is also the weakest in its native form from almost every point of view. Only perceived simplicity and economics can allow a platform like WordPress to be so dominant—it is entirely too flawed to succeed on any other comparable metric.

The biggest problem with WordPress, for example, is safety and security. Everyone knows that it is a security nightmare. There are 9,000+ known vulnerabilities as of today. This alone should make it a disqualifying candidate. However, the sheer ubiquitous nature of the platform has created a marketplace wherein website design clients can price shop for the lowest cost, in some cases spending hundreds of dollars on a project that a skilled developer would have (rightly) charge tens of thousands of dollars for.

So, what can be done?

I believe the first thing is education. Agencies of true developers and craftsmen need to step up and begin educating their client base on the differences between the old, monolithic technology and the new wave of CMS options. We must work to tell clients of the true risks of these integrated systems: security, lack of flexibility, inherent sameness. And we must work to defend our craft. The theming industry, after all, has slowly choked custom web design experts from doing what their talents allow them to do: skillfully create interesting and groundbreaking designs.

In this era of corporate earnings blowing through the roof, the problem isn’t that the budget for agency work product isn’t there. Indeed, it is. The issue is that the value of a properly developed solution—secure and safe from malicious deeds, built on technology suitable for an enterprise—isn’t realized by top-level executives that are making the buying decision.

That, coupled with the fact that today’s marketers were raised in the WordPress era, has led to the infiltration of the enterprise environment with these sub-par platforms.

We must act now to stop it.

It is our belief that the latest technology in the CMS space, such as headless or decoupled architecture, can truly usher in a new era of creativity for content delivery across the Web. The flexibility of these CMS platforms allows true craftsmen to build creative, groundbreaking front-end experiences across a variety of platforms.

The question is, can we make the market care?

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