Simplicity: the right path to a profitable and sustainable e-commerce platform
How much functionality is actually used on an e-commerce platform?
Well, according to a Standish Group survey, the number sits at an outstanding 30%. So, why are we wasting effort on features that aren’t even used? With this in mind, I would like to share my interpretation of one of the twelve agile software development principles:
“Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential”.
Based on learnings from past e-commerce projects, this has been broken up into ‘Implementing Simplicity’ and ‘High Business Value Prioritisation’.
The widely known ‘K.I.S.S’ (Keep It Simple Stupid) acronym helps sum up this principle. However, here are some high profile figures that do a slightly better job:
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” (Leonardo Da Vinci)
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” (Peter Drucker)
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Albert Einstein)
Having been part of hundreds of features implemented on e-commerce platforms, there are general commonalities which don’t follow this principle. For example, a developer will often take pride in building the most complex solution to suit the client’s business need at hand — no matter how big or small. A business analyst might choose to purchase an extension that solves the client’s business need, but doesn’t allow the platform to be upgraded easily. A project manager may simply agree with the developer and business analyst and not realise the client’s business need can, in fact, be solved by a simple, already existing, platform configuration. All of these examples lead to increased technical debt and higher website maintenance, which prevent high business value features from being implemented at the right time.
How do we get around these shortfalls?
There is caution required here, because we want to ensure that quality is maintained whilst building a simple solution. Many clients like to use the term ‘future proofing’ when explaining how they would like a feature built. However, this again goes against the agile principle of ‘Simplicity’. What they are referring to is their want to build in functionality that they may need or want in the future. Given that micro and macro environments have increased the rate of technological change exponentially, it’s likely the requested functionality will become obsolete in the future and therefore never used. Our software development teams must build simple solutions that are easily maintained and are required right now. This leads into part two…
High Business Value Prioritisation
What features have the highest business value?
Answering this question really depends on who you ask, but here are some typical examples:
Marketing Manager: “the product images should be high resolution and display crisply on all devices.”
IT Manager: “our infrastructure should be robust and performance optimised during high traffic periods.”
Technical Architect: “our codebase should be regularly refactored to ensure code hygiene.”
Ecommerce Manager: “We want to implement mobile-first responsive design.”
Quality Analyst: “ We want to have automated test scripts.”
There is no silver bullet or ‘Back to the Future’ almanac that determines the highest value business features required at specific points in time, but there is a place to start. Here are ten e-commerce commandments to assist all decision makers in determining their highest business value items:
1–5 Customer Experience
1. Pre / post purchase journey
2. Brand and KVP (key value proposition)
3. Finding products
4. Configuring products
6. Code quality
These commandments can place decision makers on the right path to a profitable and sustainable e-commerce platform. They can also help ensure valuable features are being added to the backlog. For example, if there are inconclusive discussions around two features, and no one can decide upon a priority, then each feature can be weighted against the above areas to determine the ultimate business value. However, the commandments alone aren’t enough to ensure high business value features are chosen, it requires close collaboration between all stakeholders (e.g. IT, Marketing, Logistics, Finance, UX, Developers, Business Analysts etc) when making these decisions.
In order for clients to have fun backlogs, full of high business value features that optimise their websites, we should maximise the amount of work not done. It’s important to remember that keeping things simple, using this approach, means simple is far from stupid.
- Build what is needed for right now.
- Build simple solutions that are easily maintained.
- Use the ten e-commerce commandments as a guideline to best practice.
- Ensure close collaboration between all stakeholders during prioritisation.