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Ecommerce, Digital Transformation • 16 min read

Beyond features: finding the best E-commerce platform for your needs and purposes

Steven Coymans | 01-12-2020

Having an abundance of options when deciding on an e-commerce solution is great of course, but this doesn’t exactly make selecting the right platform for your business any easier. It can be quite challenging if you aren’t too familiar with the subject, especially with all the product features and non-functional requirements to consider. Some capabilities, like security and the general customer experience, are more dependant on a correct implementation and less on the core capabilities of the platform itself. So how do you choose between built-in features versus third party tools for specific functionalities that can be added afterwards? Let’s start by taking a closer look at some of these features.

Rating features of competing E-commerce platforms

It may be tempting to start your road to discovery by collecting and categorizing lists of features per platform. And although this may give you some idea of what to look for, you’re still only scratching the surface. Two systems may come equipped with the same feature, but that doesn’t automatically mean the usability of this feature is comparable.

Let’s illustrate this with some examples:

  • If a platform enables ‘multichannel sites’, does this mean that you can set different prices, assortments, and promotions per channel? Can you create different checkout functionality? Or, the other way around, is it possible to create a one-off promotion, and publish it to multiple channels?
  • If the application has a feature to create custom workflows, does this mean new workflows be implemented on the fly, or does this require development?
  • If the system offers content management features, can an editor create a new page layout by adding components to a grid? If so, how intuitive is this process?

The main differences are often found in the details:

  • Which features are available to a business user, and do add-ons require effort to implement?
  • How intuitive is the user interface of these features?
  • To what extent is the final setup still configurable, and how specific are the options?

Unfortunately, high-level configuration features that are geared towards a business users often have complexity as their trade-off. Offering a business user full flexibility in multiple dimensions, while at the same time keeping the interface clear and intuitive, is no easy task. Systems that manage to accomplish this are usually more expensive as a result. So decide for yourself if ease-of-use is simply a luxury, or actually important for your business. Will business users really keep making changes regularly, or can you get away with configuring everything with a bit more effort but less frequently? This also leads to the question where your investment is best put to use:

  • Do you prefer a flexible system with high license costs, and a lot of business focused features (a high-end top tier system)?
  • Do you prefer a less complex and less expensive solution that requires more development effort to get exactly right, with potentially more control over specific end states (e.g. a headless implementation with a basic management layer)?

This question is not just relevant when deciding on an e-commerce platform, but for all choices concerning IT systems with a rich user interface. User friendly features for backend configurations tend to be more expensive. The more you can configure, and the more intuitive the user interface, the more expensive the tool generally is. So, to phrase this question differently: should the solution be optimized for easy and fast development, or for optimal control by a business user?

Which features do you really need?

While it’s certainly helpful to have a good view on what’s currently available in the market, always base your selection process on what you actually need. Start with questions such as:

  • Which features do I already have and what needs improvement?”
  • Which new features will drive business value?
  • What will I need next year, and the years after that?

If you ask your organization to come up with requests, you should expect a very long list of wishes that you will need to filter somehow. And don’t forget to manage the expectations of your employees too. To make things easier, you can group these requests per domain – product management, B2B specific features, or personalization – and make a Gap analysis. What do I have, what’s still missing, and where are the biggest gaps?

And then the final question: how much business value is there in bridging any potential gap? Beware that business value can be a broad and somewhat vague term. It’s not just about the financial results. Customer satisfaction, effective processes, and a rewarding work environment (employee satisfaction) are important metrics too. In the long term, these will also result in a better bottom line.

Asking these questions to structure and analyze your requirements will reveal what’s important in an e-commerce solution that’s perfect for your business. It forces you to look at the bigger picture and avoid getting distracted by single features. Certain features might look sexy on the box, but could end up with little to no use, and certainly won’t lead to any substantial business value. At the same time, this selection process doesn’t guarantee that the solution you decide on offers every single thing that you need from the start. As previously mentioned, ensuring the solution is flexible and adaptable is still important. It has to be able to grow with you.

Features vs implementations

There is another reason to be cautious about focusing too much on the feature list. You don’t want to run the risk of confusing product features with implementation results. Certain features are best to implement afterwards, such as a custom frontend experience or one-click checkout (storing the payment credentials of your customer in a secure way), taking into account that some systems make this easier than others. In reality, most of the actual functionality needs to be developed and implemented afterwards anyway. Important features often rely on data that comes from your back-office integrations, such as up-to-date price and stock information, or your offline order history.

In the end, it’s always a tough choice. What if one solution comes equipped with a strong Search offering, but a competing offering allows integration of a third party Cloud Search product that’s an even better fit for your business? Making the best choice for your business isn’t always as straightforward as you’d like, but that’s what we’re here for.

Maintainability: out-sourced vs. in-sourced

Another consideration that should guide your choice for a specific solution relates to the process of maintenance and continuous development. How the e-commerce platform is maintained and enhanced after its deployment depends on:

  • How you view the key competences of your organization.
  • The Strategic value of the platform in your organization.
  • Whether there is ongoing structural development work.
  • The match between the required expertise and your employees’ skills.

If you plan to run and maintain the platform internally, make sure you have access to experienced employees or the option to further invest in training your employees. A good tool without the resources to look after it won’t lead to success. Equally undesirable, if you’re contemplating a partnership, is a vendor lock-in. This is a risk when using proprietary software, or when there are unfavorable conditions in regards to portability or adding custom code.

Total Cost of Ownership (TCA)

Last but not least, the solution not only has to fit your ambitions but also your budget. Carefully take all financial requirements into account:

  • License costs: upfront and recurring, in a growth or downscale scenario.
  • Hosting and maintenance.
  • The impact of an upgrade, and how much development work is involved.
  • Initial development and implementation costs.
  • Expected recurring costs for improving and adapting.
  • Training costs, for both current and future employees.
  • How much time do employees have to spend with the system, and how much of this time is recurring manual work?

Of course, all these costs have to be weighed against the expected return on investment. 

As discussed, selecting your brand new e-commerce platform demands an analysis of many functional and non-functional attributes. As an organization, it’s easy to miss important features that could prove to be essential. Or to be mesmerized by certain gimmicky features, that impress at first sight but fail to deliver any substantial business value. Product demos can demonstrate what a solution is capable of, but sometimes features that aren’t showcased (and may be missing) turn out to be the most important ones.

If you want to know what to expect from an e-commerce solution, following these steps is recommended:

  1. Create a (semi-)complete list of functional and non-functional requirements that are important for your business case
  2. Describe your top 5 value-adding requirements and ask the vendor(s) for a Proof of Concept (POC). This way you ensure the showcased features are relevant to your business, you’ll get a rough idea how difficult it is to implement them, and how intuitive the user experience is.
  3. Ask advice from an agency that has experience with multiple solutions, before entering negotiations with a solution vendor.
  4. Request some references you can contact yourself. First-hand experiences with the solution, vendor, and implementation partner are extremely valuable.

Osudio can support you with all these steps: 

  • We’ll gladly use our experience to draw up a tailored, relevant backlog (list with requirements) and can advice you on the non-functional requirements.
  • We can propose a matching solution, ranging from all-in-one solutions to a collection of best-of-breed components running on future proof architecture.
  • We can define a PoC or an MVP, validating you’re on the right path for the right solution.
Read more about our Solution Evaluation workshop where we help you find the right solution for your business. With 25+ year experience in E-commerce, and many satisfied B2B and B2C customers before you, we can guide you in making the best decisions for your organization.

 

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Steven Coymans

Head of Commerce

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