How We Think About Platform Extensibility at BigCommerce

By Karen White 6 min read

Across the Product and Developer Experience teams at BigCommerce, we have a lot of conversations about our guiding principles and what the future of the platform should look like. We’ve come together on some common threads that are driving product decisions, many of which depend on our partnership with the developers building on BigCommerce.

In this post, we want to share some of that product philosophy: about building an open platform, complete API coverage, and enabling tight integration with other technologies. We’ll talk about how those ways of thinking are represented in some of our recent product releases, and we’ll also gain perspective from BigCommerce partners TA Digital, who are developing on the cutting edge of the BigCommerce APIs.

Open vs Closed

Historically, there’s been a defined boundary between platforms that were closed and those that were open. Open represented the freedom to switch out elements of your tech stack without being locked into an opinionated system and the flexibility to extend a platform to fit your needs. Closed provided security, convenience, and continuously deployed enhancements.

Over the last several years, that conversation has shifted, and those definitions are no longer as finely drawn. The ability to self-host and modify the source code of an application becomes less important — and less desirable even — when you have the access points to mold a SaaS product into exactly what you need.

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BigCommerce APIs provide access to 90% of platform data, as well as the ability to integrate third party services, like shipping carriers, deeply into the platform. We’re at the outset of extending that same level of flexibility and native integration to other areas, like tax rate providers, payment gateways, checkout, and channel integrations. We think the goal should be to provide the security and stable infrastructure of a SaaS platform, while bringing in the flexibility that used to be reserved for open source hosted solutions. If SaaS used to be synonymous with “black box,” that’s an association we want to change.

We’re making that shift guided by three core ideas:

  1. APIs are first-class citizens. API completeness and API-first product development are values that are shared across the product organization.
  2. Ecommerce is our only focus. We integrate with solutions that are best in their class rather than absorbing ownership over those solutions.
  3. We give our partners the tools to innovate outside of our platform. The success of our customers depends on enabling partners to extend BigCommerce.

In the next section, we’ll expand on each of those key points.

1. APIs for the win

Complete API coverage is all about choice — and giving developers the ability to use BigCommerce in whichever way makes sense for them. As a product organization, that also means thinking about the value that APIs provide for our users.

At BigCommerce, we’ve been investing in the foundational APIs to support a modular way of building stores, opening the door to fully end-to-end headless builds. By exposing all of the ecommerce functionality of the platform through our APIs, BigCommerce becomes an ecommerce engine that can go anywhere and work alongside any framework.

The reason that a modular system of development is so important is that enterprise retail brands have workflows and technology preferences that are already deeply embedded into their organizations. If a business is satisfied with the tools that they’re using, we don’t want to replace that stack — we want to work alongside it, doing what we do best — powering ecommerce.

Nate Stewart, Head of Product Strategy at BigCommerce says it best. “When you get to larger companies, who may have thousands of people working for them, it gets to a point where we can’t change the behavior that they’re already seated in. And we shouldn’t have to — we want to say, What tools do you love to use? What’s your process now? Is ecommerce a pain point because the tools that you use were never built to power ecommerce natively, and you just need an engine to power it? Cool, that’s what we do — 100%.”

While compatibility with existing tools is one consideration, Joseph Brannon, the Global Commerce Practice Director at TA Digital, points out that decoupling also allows brands to innovate in a market where consumer behaviors are shifting quickly. “As the consumer touch points continue to expand, I think brands are going to need to be in a position where they can pivot quickly on the experiential layer, without disrupting the commerce layer.” That flexibility is supported by APIs that allow programmatic access to every key system of the platform.

Read What is Ecommerce? and how to build great eCommerce experiences? to learn how you can build a comprehensive ecommerce strategy.

2. From All-in-One to Specialized

With BigCommerce, you can spin up a fully functioning store in a matter of minutes. Deploy a new BigCommerce store, and you instantly have a set of features that give you a beautiful storefront, optimized for ecommerce — you can even make your first sale within hours. There’s value in that all-in-one package, but it isn’t right for every use case.

Our goal is to ship a product that works on two levels — for the business user who wants to quickly get started with a full-featured store, and the enterprise organization, whose needs look very different. On both levels, it’s important to stay true to our core purpose. Doug McIlroy, the inventor of Unix pipes, once said, “Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together.” For us, that one purpose is ecommerce. We want to be the best solution for ecommerce and work together with other platforms that are doing their one thing and doing it well. The ones who will benefit are our users, who can bundle together the CMS, frontend framework, and features that make their brand successful selling online and beyond.

We’re not the only ones thinking this way. There’s been a growing preference for headless in recent years, as API ecosystems mature and technologies like Gatsby and Contentful emerge. The common theme is that different applications become data sources united by connectors, each bringing a specialized function to the whole. “When we go to solve something, we should say, what platform has most of the functionality I need, so I have to develop less?” Nate says. “The future becomes BigCommerce being the standard for how you interface with commerce, and that’s all we want to focus on.”

3. Enable Partners to Move Fast and Innovate

Building an open platform is meaningless without the partners who extend it.

TA Digital is an agency specializing in enterprise-grade, experiential digital commerce. They’ve built multiple headless BigCommerce integrations, most recently releasing their BigCommerce for Drupal Advanced Connector. The decision to combine Drupal and BigCommerce was based on two factors: in-house content management expertise and the need for both CMS and commerce solutions that were powerful enough for enterprise.

“As brands mature, they’re going to want to bring in richer sets of content management, with capabilities like personalization and A/B testing, driven by analytics, and the ability to target customers in unique ways that you just can’t do if you’re in a monolith-type system,” says Joseph Brannon. “Decoupling those concerns makes a lot of sense in the market, from our point of view.”

Sam Faragalla, Drupal Architect at TA Digital, began researching the approach for TA Digital’s Drupal connector by exploring the source code for BigCommerce for WordPress, but was able to quickly take the integration to another level. While there are substantial differences across the two platforms, “Drupal is similar, like WordPress, based on PHP libraries,” Sam notes. In under 45 days, TA Digital built a feature-complete connector that included capabilities, like wish lists, that were not yet available in BigCommerce for WordPress.

TA Digital’s success building their Advanced Connector validates an approach: that by prioritizing open APIs and making investments in headless, BigCommerce becomes a commerce layer that partners can deploy across frameworks and CMSs, creating modern digital experiences.

Learn about the key features of the TA Digital BigCommerce for Drupal Advanced Connector.  ||  Talk to our team of experts who will increase conversions by helping you select the right Digital Commerce platform for your business.

Summary

Here’s what we know: the future of ecommerce is not a closed ecosystem. Building every possible feature into the core platform and then putting a wall around it is a strategy that’s short-sighted and holds us back.

Instead, we want to focus on building the best commerce solution on the market, strengthening core functions like a catalog, checkout, and customer management. We include building APIs in our “definition of done” for shipping new features, so every part of the platform is covered through our APIs. And we work alongside our partners, who use open APIs to unlock use cases and capabilities outside the scope of the native platform.

Let’s keep the dialogue going. We want to know what you’re building and how we can make it better. Get in touch via Twitter @BigCommerceDevs or drop us a note in the comments section — we’d love to hear from you.


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Over the past 20 years, TA Digital has positioned clients to achieve digital maturity by focusing on data, customer-centricity and exponential return on investment; by melding exceptional user experience and data-driven methodologies with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we enable digital transformations that intelligently build upon the strategies we set into motion. We are known as a global leader that assists marketing and technology executives in understanding the digital ecosystem while identifying cultural and operational gaps within their business – ultimately ushering organizations toward a more mature model and profitable digital landscape.

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Karen White

Written By

Karen White