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Customer Experience

Consistent Brand Experience in the Digital World: Digital Experience Platform Architecture

To offer a consistent and personalized user experience, you need the efforts of an entire organization, not just the marketing, sales, or digital departments. How can you provide them with the tools necessary to meet this goal? Will you need one central platform, or is it better to build an ecosystem? In this article, we’ll discuss three possible ways of achieving a consistent brand experience using a digital experience platform (DXP).

What’s a Consistent User Experience?

The idea of a digital user experience is the holy grail of digital transformation. A lot has been said about how it can make or break any project. What exactly is a consistent user experience?

In short, it’s the opposite of an inconsistent experience. Below are some examples of an inconsistent experience:

  • The name of a given product or service is different on the information page and the order form.
  • An online store’s user account exists next to the complaint account or loyalty program account.
  • A product price differs from in a company’s online and physical stores.
  • A company maintains an information service and a store independently.
  • A call-center employee knows nothing about a customer's online order.
  • The transaction system logs the user out after they click on a link to an information page.

So, we see that an inconsistent user experience has divergent communications and handles the same user interactions differently across various channels and at different stages of the customer journey. In contrast, a consistent user experience provides the same information and ‘feel’ across channels and journey stages.

Why Is a Consistent User Experience So Crucial?

There are three main reasons why the user experience should be consistent:

  • Conversion - Each, absolutely each, inconsistency in the customer journey reduces conversion; it confuses the user and discourages process completion. Just a few inconsistencies are enough to bring conversion down.
  • Retention - A returning customer is the most cost-effective customer. It’s up to 5 times more expensive to land a new customer. Poor user experience at any stage in the customer journey discourages repeat business.
  • Loyalty - A positive brand experience in the digital world translates into customer loyalty. It also leads to a readiness to pay a premium for the product or service, try a new offer, or recommend the brand to friends.

How Is User Experience Related to the Customer Journey?

User experience is inherently connected with the customer journey. Journey stages indicate with which ecosystem elements the user interacts – and thus what experience the user has. These stages depend on the industry specifics and the situation of a given organization: its business and structural model as well as its digital maturity. For most organizations, the following 3-step customer journey model is applicable:

  1. Building engagement - At this stage, the user gets to know the company and its offer, takes in information, compares various purchase options, and reads other clients' or users' reviews. Attractive content (text, photos, videos) from the company’s own site or from other sites like social media is crucial here.
  2. Onboarding - At this stage, the user becomes a customer. This frequently means purchasing their first item. Depending on the industry, the buying process can be in-depth (e.g. checking the customer's ID, as in banking) or superficial (e.g. making a simple purchase in an online store).  
  3. Self-service - This stage sees a registered user who can independently handle the company's platform or ecosystem to satisfy their own needs (e.g. online/mobile banking, B2B commerce platforms, etc.). This is when another significant dimension of the customer relationship comes into play: encouraging customer loyalty through an attractive array of activities and programs.

Why Is Building a Consistent User Experience So Hard?

Based on our experience, we have found three common structural reasons why creating a consistent user experience is difficult. These are:

  • Silos - Large companies are usually organized into silo-like structures. In the context of the customer journey, engagement usually is the responsibility of the marketing department, while onboarding stays with sales or a team responsible for a given customer segment. Self-service belongs to the customer service team (with a strong IT representation when a core company system is in question). On occasions, these will be complemented by an e-commerce team developing the online store under a separate domain and branding. Each of the silos, responsible for its own bit of the customer journey, sticks to its own narrowly defined goals and KPIs.
  • Customer segments - Enterprises usually attend to multiple market and customer segments. Each of them has its own distinct needs and requirements. What is more, the needs of a particular customer segment tend to vary between countries or regions. Each segment and each market represent individual organizational silos. Creating a single solution for such a complex situation poses challenges both for the solution architecture and its implementation.
  • Varied technologies along the customer journey - Looking closer at particular stages of the customer journey, it can be seen that each of them requires a different type of technological support:
    • Engagement focuses on content, published both in company channels and on social media. Content management is aided by specialized systems like CMS, Headless CMS, Product Information Management (PIM), and Digital Asset Management (DAM).
    • Onboarding tends to be a complex multi-step process that must comply with numerous internal requirements and external regulations. The technological pivot of such a solution is usually a workflow engine or a dedicated application.
    • Self-service – when the user can perform complex online operations (orders, contracts, complaints, etc.) – requires integration with internal organizational systems through ESB architecture, services/microservices, or an API. This is an area where upselling and building customer loyalty take place, which expands the range of necessary technologies towards Headless CMS and marketing automation.

Digital Experience Platform: The Promise of a Consistent Experience

A digital experience platform (DXP) can help overcome the above-mentioned structural problems via a new digital solution architecture. In short, DXP offers a consistent and personalized user experience throughout the entire customer journey. DXP stands both for the IT architecture (several elements which comprise a solution) and for the specialist platforms that deliver the necessary functionalities.

Naturally, the technology itself will not solve organizational issues like silos or user data fragmentation. However, the DXP concept, if properly implemented, allows us to focus the efforts of various organizational units on a common goal – the best end-user experience. It also helps optimize all digital initiatives.

To  better understand DXP architecture in terms of user journey stages, a division into three technological layers may be useful:

  • Experience - This is the stage where user interfaces and user-facing websites are created. The most natural tool for this purpose is a CMS platform that has a WYSIWYG website creation mechanism like Page Builder or Studio. An alternative is creating custom-built systems based on popular front-end technologies like React, Angular, or Vue.
  • Structured data - This is where digital resources used in various contexts of the digital ecosystem operate. Usually, this is a product base operated by PIM-class solutions and structured content supported by Headless CMS solutions or classic CMS platform modules. There may also be digital resources like photos and films supported by DAM. User bases managed by IAM (Identity and Access Management) solutions may be also placed in this layer.
  • Processes – This area handles the business logic connected to user support processes. It may be operated based on BPM (Business Process Management) systems, specialist industry engines (including Headless Commerce, the most commonly applied), or a dedicated microservice or service architecture. Campaign management processes that are typically performed using Marketing Automation tools may also be incorporated here. Processes entail integration with internal systems. The actual integration layer is not part of the DXP architecture, although it determines its functioning.

With the above points in mind, three basic scenarios may be considered for the development of DXP solutions: 

  1. Composable DXP, which is based on assembling "building blocks".
  2. Implementing a DXP-class product.
  3. A DXP based on microservice architecture.

1. Composable DXP

This system assumes that a DXP architecture is composed of independent systems acting as ‘building blocks’, with a CMS platform responsible for the entire user experience throughout the customer journey. A logical sequence of such an architecture looks like this:

  • Content Management System – This is responsible for the management of many sites and digital initiatives. It also allows teams to create particular websites or screens based on standardized components/visual widgets, which constitutes a technical implementation of that organization’s design system. Thanks to these functions, as well as those of segmentation and personalization support, a mature CMS system allows marketers to flexibly shape user experiences with minimum input from technical personnel. These properties make CMS platforms increasingly rebrand themselves as DXP systems. For this article, the traditional meaning of this category has been applied.
  • Headless CMS – This is a tool for the development and structuring of content in the omnichannel environment. It may be an independent technological component or a classic CMS platform extension (the so-called hybrid CMS).
  • Product Information Management – This platform supports product information management and multichannel content sharing.
  • Digital Asset Management – This platform manages multimedia files like photos, videos, presentations, and downloadable files. It usually is part of the CMS (that’s it’s the same color green in the diagram above), but it could also be a separate specialist technological component or a PIM extension.
  • Marketing Automation - Tools of this class are highly versatile platforms that align with all the above-mentioned layers. Marketing Automation can be utilized to its maximum potential in managing marketing campaigns, which is why this component was placed in the process area. It’s also included in the Experience area as a base for personalization and handling user interactions (e.g. mailings, marketing communication) and structured data – thus contributing to the customer data model and the digital assets used in marketing campaigns.
  • BPM / Applications / Microservices - This DXP area is the most difficult to define, as it is highly customized. Business process logic can be delivered based on a BPM engine. This is usually in the form of dedicated applications handling a given business aspect or as microservices. An optimal version would be to develop these subsystems in the headless model, leaving the F/E layer to a CMS system. In reality, systems of this class have certain limitations which may require the creation of dedicated front-end applications.
  • Identity and Access Management - This major DXP architecture component is responsible for user authorization and access rights to various DXP ecosystem elements.

All the above components are not applied in all cases; frequently, other specialized tools are also used.

There’s an interesting variant of the above-described system. It’s an e-commerce architecture that’s used whenever there’s an attractive, rich, and versatile product presentation that cannot be attained with e-commerce engines. This architecture will then look as follows:

  • PIM is delivered via a Headless Commerce platform.
  • The Headless Commerce shares services / API with the Experience layer.
  • IAM is replaced with a user management module from the Commerce platform.

The above architectures, irrelevant of the variant, are optimal for companies that:

  • Offer complex services and products or require complicated purchasing processes.
  • Need an ample communications and marketing framework as well as a lot of flexibility.
  • Run multiple digital initiatives, i.e. services, stores, landing pages, brand sites.
  • Are present in many geographical and industry markets.
  • Manage numerous brands.
  • Have various customer segments requiring individual treatment 

In the above instances, a mature CMS platform integrated with all DXP ecosystem elements is a powerful way marketers can shape the user experience.

Composable DXP

Advantages:

Disadvantages:
  • Composable DXP utilizes technological components that are best tailored to organizational needs.
  • It can be implemented step by step, adding and integrating each element.
  • Companies can retain existing investments if some elements have already been implemented (e.g. e-commerce or CMS).
  • Technological components can be replaced without replacing the entire solution, which allows it to grow organically and adapt flexibly to the business environment.
  • The target architecture may be complex and require numerous integrations between technical components.
  • Multiple implementation projects must be managed at the same time.
  • It is hard to discontinue.
  • Various product roadmaps and technological trends must be tracked.

2. Implementing a DXP Class Product

Another approach to implementing solutions that support a consistent user experience is applying a ready-made, out-of-the-box DXP class platform. Such a platform covers most of the functional components presented in the first variant of a composable DXP. However, they are in a single product which, despite being a monolith, stays open to integrations. CMS, e-commerce, and Marketing Automation products are all geared towards DXP, which makes the category and its products highly heterogeneous.

Here is how Gartner sees the current DXP category:

Source: Gartner report: Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms

And Forrester's view of the same area is: 

Source: The Forrester Wave™: Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs), Q3 2021

Most products presented in both tables originate from CMS (WCM) platforms or related areas – Adobe, Acquia, Episerver, Sitecore, Liferay, Bloomreach, Magnolia, Kentico, etc. Some come from e-commerce (like SAP or Oracle) and are strongly connected to ecosystems developed around ERP platforms. Salesforce's offer is, on the other hand, built around their CRM system.

As in a composable DXP, the recipient group of these products is almost identical. And like composable DXPs, there are advantages and disadvantages:

DXP as a Monolith

Advantages:

Disadvantages:
  • It reduces the number of implemented tools and simplifies their integration.
  • Maintenance is easier and done on one platform.
  • Only one implementation project is needed.
  • It effectively outsources the tracking of new technological and market trends.
  • There’s strong vendor lock-in; the entire digital ecosystem depends on one tool.
  • The entry barrier is high: all ecosystem elements are implemented simultaneously.
  • Implementation is lossy, as usually all the existing digital ecosystem elements are replaced.
  • Some platform elements may not be optimal or top of their class.
  • Upgrading is difficult; the entire platform must be upgraded.
  • License costs are generally high.
  • There’s a risk of getting stuck in a technological "dead-end street".
  • It’s a difficult way to innovate. 

This variant may be optimal for companies that want to dive in at the deep end, replacing most of their already-implemented CX tools.

3. Microservice-Based DXP

The trend of decomposing huge monolithic platforms and switching to microservices results from the understanding that the business logic they follow is indispensable in new applications. This is caused both by the emergence of new communication channels (e.g. mobile, social, voice, augmented reality, etc.) and companies evolving towards the omnichannel model, which also creates new digital touchpoints for user interaction with the organization.

This architecture can be illustrated as:

As far as the front-end applications are concerned, the following cases should be outlined:

  • PWA/SPA Storefront – This is usually a JavaScript framework based on popular technologies (such as React, Vue, or Angular) and written with e-commerce applications in mind. This type of framework is a good base to quickly build a dedicated solution fast and is particularly efficient in largely repetitive B2C scenarios.
  • Custom Front – This is a fully dedicated solution written in a scripting language; React is currently a popular choice. It works best with specific usage instances, e.g. B2B commerce, self-service applications, banking and finance, and service companies with complex processes. In React, visual components representing a design system are implemented and later reused by developers to create new applications. These are coherent with the entire digital ecosystem and can bring down implementation costs.
  • CMS – Building a customer experience layer based on a CMS platform is the most mature and versatile solution for marketers. In this option, it is key to create reusable visual components that are integrated with microservices. Tools like Page Builder, Form Builder, or Studio can build particular pages or digital solution screens. At the same time, using classic CMS functions like Site Management lets marketers create new services, stores, and digital initiatives. This type of front is efficient wherever rich customer experience is crucial for conversion, retention, and customer loyalty - particularly for service companies and experience-driven commerce.

Microservice-based DXP architecture can certainly compete against classic monolithic e-commerce platforms and make them the first victims of the trend. That is another reason why Headless Commerce products have become so popular.

Yet, the biggest threat posed by microservices is to ERP systems. ERP systems have "locked in" business logic that’s crucial to shaping user experience in digital channels. It usually involves product information, prices, promotions, stock levels, logistics, payments, etc. The digital revolution makes it necessary to "lift out" this logic from the ERP to a new layer that’s closer to real usage instances in the digital world. This logic will not be emulated in a new monolith (another likely trap). Instead, it will be in a microservice architecture which, along with front-end applications, will become the core of the digital transformation of companies. Efficient implementation of microservice architecture signals a reduction or even decomposition of ERP systems into specialized domain systems (finance and accounting, logistics, stock management, production planning, etc.) of the systems of record class.

Microservice architecture is optimal for the biggest companies that have the right scale, have developed omnichannel models or multiple digital initiatives, or that operate diverse business models (B2B, B2C, B2B2C). Additionally, they should be ready to switch to a continuous model of application development that supports the cooperation of multiple developer and IT supplier teams. Such a transformation requires high engineering and architectural competencies as well as well-organized software development processes.

Microservice-Based DXP

Advantages:

Disadvantages:
  • It provides flexibility in shaping the digital ecosystem.
  • Technological components are reusable and easy to replace.
  • It can easily adapt to new technological trends.
  • Microservices allow the simultaneous operation of multiple developer teams and IT suppliers.
  • It reduces the role of ERP / core systems.
  • There are lower licensing costs.
  • Vendor lock-in is less of a risk.
  • Implementation can be phased. 
  • There’s a high barrier to entry due to the new model of architecture, production processes, and software maintenance.
  • Implementation is lossy; existing digital ecosystem elements will be replaced with the new architecture.
  • There’s a need to manage multiple teams and suppliers.

Each organization needs to figure out its own way of delivering optimal experiences to customers, breaking down silos, and conducting a true and thorough digital transformation. This can only be achieved with a clear goal in mind and by developing tools and ecosystems to match the adopted key objectives.