Organizations large and small have been moving to trade over the web with gusto and fervor in the post-millennial age of cloud, data empowerment and mobile ubiquity. But the next age of e-business and e-commerce will be more exacting, more connected and more inherently digitally architected.
What factors should a business now working to lay down its electronic trading roadmap for the rest of the decade think about in terms of the software and data toolsets, architectures and technologies that it will need to use on its journey to market?
Let’s just go online, no… wait a moment
If a previously terrestrial-only business is under the impression that it can buy a chunk of cloud services, rustle up a few web-facing frontends, sort out an electronic payment mechanism and whack up a CLICK HERE BUY NOW logo on its website, there may be a wake-up call coming. The results of this approach will typically be haphazard, at best non-optimized and at worst destructive to the business itself.
Modern organizations attempting to present and operate a functional, flexible and profitable modern e-business technology proposition have to do a little more homework. The reality is that progressive e-commerce/retail companies must continually innovate their digital ‘properties’ (i.e. the public presence that any company presents on websites, mobiles, electronic kiosks and other media) in order to appeal to their customers, differentiate themselves from their competitors and stay relevant.
But there’s still a big challenge to overcome says Julien Lemoine, co-founder and CTO of search and discovery API platform company Algolia. In the workplace itself, there’s a fiery battle playing out between the business side (e.g. product managers, merchandisers, sales leaders and others) who want to have the ability to fine-tune their offerings to iterate the e-commerce storefront and stockroom fast — and, the IT department who need to be able to provide all the services and functionality demanded.
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In Algolia’s experience, there’s a specific dynamic playing out here.
The business team wants fast change to sell new and changing products and services quickly. At the same time, the technology team doesn’t want change which might cause the existing system to break. There is a consensus though of sorts i.e. the business team wants the ability to make those changes happen without every request turning into an IT project — and, the technology team doesn’t want a new project either. So where do we go?
Effective e-commerce is the bread & butter of business
“The start of the problem is the fact that there is so much competition between different e-commerce websites out there – and Covid-19 has of course amplified the issue. Vendors in every industry using the web as a sales channel know that people will click away within a couple of seconds if they don’t get a seamless and frictionless experience. E-commerce websites need to be ‘pixel perfect’, so if a catalog of products and services (and related purchase offers) is always changing, then an organization needs to be able to engineer the backend in a way to ensure that every change can be brought about effectively with minutes, perhaps even faster in the future. This is why we can now say that effective e-commerce has become the bread & butter of business,” said Algolia’s Lemoine.
The technology proposition the Algolia team has built is designed to address this exact dynamic and offer essentially composable e-commerce. It’s what Lemoine calls the road to the API economy. This is the type of essential flexibility that enables product and engineering creativity in the software development team to actually help the business to perform better – a theorem and stance posited by Jeff Lawson in his book ‘Ask Your Developer’.
What that means in non-technical terms is a means for organizations to orchestrate and finesse their e-commerce mechanics through pre-defined composable building blocks of technology that can be connected to via Application Programming Interface (API) technologies, which act as a kind of glue between application functions, data services and device operating systems.
In terms of how modern e-business should work, Algolia says it realizes that online businesses not only have to understand how to iterate and change quickly to serve new purchasing offers, they need to think wider still. This is not just a question of knowing when and how to stick promotional offer banners on a website, it’s also a question of understanding the multifarious ways in which users themselves will search for a product.
Users… the (almost) infinite variety of search
“If a company is launching a new smartphone tomorrow, you would think that potential customers would visit a vendor’s site and search for ‘smartphone’ and things would start out in a relatively simple manner. But that’s not how it works,” explains Lemoine. “People search with typographical errors; people get the name of the product wrong; people search with voice and mispronounce various words; people search with idiomatic conversational terms like ‘I need a new device to chat more’ when they are using the new breed of smart-speakers; and people might just say ‘get me connected’ and not even mention the need for a new smartphone,” clarified Lemoine.
He suggests that all of these (above) nuances exist and that these realities form the basis for how his company has built an enterprise search technology that goes beyond simply looking for products in a catalog and offering a price and shopping basket.
To take another example, let’s say that (in normal times) you are on vacation in Greece, Florida or Thailand (other holiday destinations are also available) and you need cold drinks, some self-catering items and some sunscreen. Many users may simply type ‘supermarket’ into a maps application. So this is why Algolia insists on the flexible API route to search being the sensible one i.e. online maps are smart, but they don’t necessarily have enough backend engineering to know where the nearest sunscreen vendor is. Being able to provide that search element as a unit is now (to use the expression again) part of the modern bread and butter of business.
“It need not be a map, it might be some other application of any kind. It need not even look like search – I mean, it can simply look like a type of app functionality that allows a user to select from a number of options where the results are delivered in the a proprietary format and style of the app itself. It doesn’t matter. All these functions need intelligent enterprise search behind them if they are going to work effectively and keep users happy,” said Lemoine.
Algolia’s development team has built a technology that claims to be broad enough to understand search from a multiplicity of different angles and perspectives. Lemoine also remindd us that sometimes people won’t actually search for a product or service to buy — instead, they will often use online resources to look for ‘how to’ guides.
He suggests that it makes far more sense to provide ‘how tos’ and purchase results in one place. That way, people who want to buy can find out how something works before they buy it. Then, people who have bought something can find out how it works afterward and, potentially, because their needs are fulfilled, they actually buy more.
Coming full circle
Can we come full circle here and get to a point where we have happy business team players who can sell how they want to sell, happy software engineers (okay, slightly less traditionally irascible and crabby) who get fewer user requests and hassles… and, ultimately, happy customers?
The Algolia team think we can be upbeat about the e-commerce of tomorrow. Okay, they would be, that’s their job. So what’s the justification and validation point? Lemoine suggests that an investment into flexibility and power in the intelligence mechanics of e-commerce can manifest itself at the upper level as a more frictionless experience for the user.
“Websites at this level start to be able to over-deliver. What I mean is, not only do the customers get what they want quickly and efficiently; they also opt for cross-selling offers and opportunities (batteries for a product that didn’t include them, for example) that they may have otherwise missed. This is the point where websites really start to act like real world stores i.e. supermarkets put chocolate and chewing gum near the checkout areas for so-called ‘impulse buys’ and websites can start to emulate that kind of higher-level finesse as well,” concluded Lemoine.
What have we learned here then? We know that (even before Covid-19) the shift to online sales was on a fairly steady (if not quite often exponential) growth path. The mechanics of taking any commercial proposition to market now are inextricably tied to the quality of the e-commerce technology proposition behind it if the sales coffers are to ring sweetly.
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