Freeing Up The Front End With Decoupled and Headless Architecture

As multi-channel publishing, or publishing the same content to multiple platforms, continues to increase in popularity and complexity, companies, marketers and developers alike are searching for the best practices to deliver content to as many users they can through as many channels and devices possible. Traditional content management systems (CMS) have certainly evolved to be capable of this, WordPress’ responsive themes give users the ability to edit content from a single interface that presents content according to the device it’s being accessed on.

But how can increasing amounts of content be delivered to an increasing number of channels and devices more efficiently? Say “hello” to headless architecture, an evolution of the traditional CMS that has been garnering a bit of attention in the digital marketing world for its benefits for performance speed and the front-end flexibility it unlocks for marketing teams. 

However, you can’t talk about headless architecture without also talking about decoupled architecture, so let’s hold onto our heads as we dive into the ins and outs of decoupled and headless CMS development. 

Decoupled vs. Headless CMS – Breaking Down The Difference 

Before you can understand either decoupled or headless architecture, you must first understand the relationship between the back-end and front-end development of a web project using a traditional CMS, so let’s start there.

What is a Coupled Architecture?

In a typical web development project, there is the back-end and the front-end where different actions are taking place. On the back-end, which is invisible to the public, content is edited and formatted before it is delivered directly to the front-end of the site, which is what the user sees when they visit a website. The two elements are intertwined, or coupled, and if elements of the front-end design change, there will be changes needed to the back-end as well. The connected nature of a traditional CMS set-up makes it easy for content creators to preview pages and blog posts before they go live. However, this set-up limits where the content can live—just one site or app or system.

This is where headless and decoupled architecture come in handy.

What is Decoupled Architecture? 

A decoupled architecture features separate, but still connected, back-end and front-end operations by utilizing an application programming interface (API). APIs bridge together data from the back-end to the front-end, and provide an interface for presenting data in a consistent and standard format across channels. 

This decoupled system features a primary front-end system for previewing content—like a responsive website—while the API that delivers content allows developers to create apps for other devices which can display the same content. 

A decoupled CMS leverages code and design templates allowing developers to build interfaces for as many channels as they please. This decoupling of systems allows for content to be presented across channels while sharing the same data source.  

What is Headless Architecture?

Unlike a traditional CMS, a headless CMS does not have to have a single front-end for displaying content. Instead, the information created and stored in the CMS is called on via an API to any channel in any format designed by developers. It’s an API-first approach. 

Because there isn’t a front-end, or a “head” of the CMS, back-end content can be managed free of having to focus the way it is presented to the user. Front-end developers are able to use whatever tools they please to design templates to serve as acting “heads of the CMS.” 

In short, headless CMS removes the concept of a single front-end entirely to leave developers up to their own devices (pun intended), and maximizes front-end freedom because none of it is dependent on back-end architecture.

Envision Netflix’s back-end where all of the TV shows and movies that millions of people call on each day are presented across various channels and devices such as a Roku TV or your iPhone. Their headless architecture allows them to reach anywhere within the Internet of Things (IoT) with its familiar UI and near-instant performance speeds. Content can be delivered and presented faster to users, leading to greater conversions and better user experience (UX). 

What Does a Headless and Decoupled CMS Mean For Marketers?

As digital marketers, we must be mindful that the CMS that works for one project may be limiting to another. It’s always circumstantial. The best we can do is understand the opportunities and limitations of each so we know which CMS is the right fit for the right project.

A decoupled architecture gives us front-end development flexibility while maintaining design consistency and allowing for easier experimentation and innovation across channels.  

Need to do a rebranding or site redesign on the front-end? Don’t worry about making those changes to content in the back-end anymore. 

Want to launch a smartphone app? The same content you utilize on your website can be leveraged for that channel, too, instead of managing a separate CMS.

Still want the flexibility of a WYSIWYG editing and tools of a traditional CMS? Decoupled architecture still empower those without a development background. 

With a decoupled CMS, marketers are more empowered to make content changes–specifically how the content is displayed–that does not require development work. Developers are given more freedom than ever to work with their ideal tools and utilize an API to pull in content.

Alternatively, headless architecture allows for the most control for where and how content is displayed, but requires development skills to do so. 

The ultimate caveat for marketers? A true headless CMS doesn’t inherently provide SEO functionality you find with a traditional CMS, and leaves the optimizing up to developers. 

With a missing front-end, the tools and plug-ins marketers seamlessly utilize within WordPress just aren’t there, and severely limit optimizing capabilities until developers create those too. A true decoupled CMS shares this major limitation, but thanks to their preformatted templates, SEO functionality is salvageable and less of a hassle for developers to work around. 

Looking Toward The Future

In a Q&A with Noble Studios, Pantheon Co-Founder and Head of Product Josh Koenig said “The single biggest win from [site] speed is customer engagement,” and if the goal of a headless or decoupled CMS is to more efficiently deliver greater amounts of content to an increasing number of channels, devices and therefore users, site speed and customer engagement will become all the more crucial across the IoT if brands want to stick out and effectively scale to larger audiences. 

Here at Noble Studios, we are exploring the use of decoupled architecture with education clients that offers its services across channels and devices for a growing number of students whose academic success is dependent upon site speed and performance. 

We’ve also used headless architecture for a destination marketing organizations (DMO) that included both a desktop and mobile experience that shared the same data source. 

We developed a progressive web app that featured a “plan your trip” tool that plotted points of interest on a map for users to learn more about businesses and activities in the surrounding area. Pulling from the same data for desktop, we developed a personalized experience meant to inspire users to travel. 

Thanks to the headless CMS, we provided two different experiences for users because of our improved freedom to rearrange and alter content for specific channels and devices.

Further experimentation with headless and decoupled CMS is part of Noble’s mission to follow not just the best practices, but develop better practices that help lead clients into the future of digital marketing and help us be better every day.