A man stands at the crossroads of two roads

Should I make my website decoupled, headless or go with a traditional CMS?

As a front-end developer, several questions regarding some flavor of a decoupled CMS have landed on my desk over the last few years. After implementing a handful of decoupled projects, I feel I now have enough experience under my belt to share when it can be a great business strategy, when it can cause more problems than benefits, and overall thoughts on headless CMS vs traditional CMS.

Understanding the Different Flavors of “Decoupled”

“Headless” and “decoupled” are often used interchangeably, yet there are a few key differences I’d like to highlight.

“Decoupled” simply means the separation of the front-end code and the back-end code. In theory, this principle is not complicated, but the integration is where it gets interesting. Imagine a front-end built in React that could read content from a WordPress or Drupal site.

In a “headless” setup, the primary focus is on delivering content solely through APIs, without any predefined presentation layer. Imagine data that might need to be shared to mobile kiosks or digital signage across multiple locations.

The reality is many projects can have both decoupled and headless elements, and most flavors are somewhere in between.

Understand Your Business Needs First When Thinking Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS

A Decoupled or Headless approach may not be suitable for all projects, but with intention and the right business case, a decoupled web development project could save your team from a lot of manual content entry and provide your audience with a seamless experience.

To determine whether decoupling aligns well with your business, consider the following questions when thinking about headless CMS vs traditional CMS:

  1. Do I need to send the same content across multiple websites? (e.g. share one blog article across multiple websites)
  2. Do I have a front end that is a melting pot of multiple data sources, including a CMS? (e.g. mixing data from a CRM like Salesforce and content like newsletters)
  3. Do I want to be able to send data from our CMS to something other than a website, like a digital sign or even Alexa? (e.g. sharing weather and closure alerts for a school district)
  4. Do I have a team dedicated to both the front end and back end to support this type of technology?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, a decoupled solution could truly benefit your business.

The Technical Reality of a Decoupled Build

As Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you are interested in pursuing a decoupled build, it will require keeping up with the pace of this fastly evolving technology.

Here are some key points I typically discuss with a client before helping them make their choice:

  1. You must have a team with the right technical expertise. These are advanced principles that require experience across multiple development disciplines. If you do not have a strong in-house team or a strong agency partner, you shouldn’t pursue this path until then.
  2. You will need to manage two code repositories and release cadences, as well as separate hosting environments for each. You will also need to coordinate all of this in flawless harmony to ensure the back end and front end can speak the same language.
  3. It’s only performant if you make it performant. This ties into the first point regarding having the right team. When comparing headless CMS to traditional CMS, headless websites aren’t necessarily more performant by default, though they do have some bells and whistles that help. True performance is born from great intention from the developers in controlling their bundle sizes, what dependencies are exposed to the project, and trimming down the data to only what is absolutely needed.

Healthcare & Education: Prime Candidates for a Decoupled Architecture

Healthcare and educational institutions are often great candidates for a decoupled build. The lens that I have when it comes to managing content for organizations is from my early years as a developer working for my hometown school district, which served over 60,000 students and seventy schools. Maintaining the content between that many user experiences was a real challenge and ultimately hindered the experience of students, teachers, parents and everyone else involved.

As I look deeper into healthcare systems, I see the same challenge: healthcare organizations strive to serve a broader community while managing a multitude of vital information sources. The complexity is substantial, and if it falls out of sync, the impact is not only a bad user experience, but someone not finding the care they need.

My Vision For a Decoupled Healthcare Experience

How do you know if you should use a headless CMS or a traditional CMS for your organization? Here’s a brief, high-level example that could be part of an architecture plan for a healthcare system focused on delivering a meaningful user experience.

While the specific technical requirements depend on the organization's business needs, this example illustrates the potential benefits of a decoupled system for a healthcare organization.

  1. Use React (or another JavaScript framework) to develop a front end with a parent theme from the main healthcare organization. This allows child organizations such as hospitals to quickly build upon the theme, ensuring brand consistency while establishing their unique identity.
  2. Employ a CMS like Drupal to centralize shared resources such as news, events, health publications, facilities, and doctor information. This repository houses all non-patient-specific content, which can be shared across various applications such as hospital websites or digital signs in the lobby.
  3. Integrate third-party services like health insurance provider APIs for real-time insurance eligibility verification. Combine this data with your Drupal repository on facilities, services, and doctors to enhance the search experience on your React front end, simplifying user access to care.
  4. Distribute Drupal content and taxonomies, such as doctors' details and facility information, to an Electronic Health Record (EHR) System and other internal tools needing standardized data. This ensures seamless data integration between public-facing websites and internal systems, with editors having a single point of update for information.

Next Steps When Considering Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS

For those considering a decoupled approach, here are actionable steps to guide the headless CMS vs traditional CMS discussion:

  • Evaluate your business needs. Determine if a decoupled architecture aligns with your goals for content management, user experience and scalability. Don’t do this in a vacuum. Interview the other stakeholders in your organization so you can make an informed decision.
  • Assess your team's technical chops. Gauge your team's proficiency in front-end and back-end development, along with expertise in API management. If not, maybe an agency partner makes sense.
  • Perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Factor in aspects like development time, maintenance, server costs, and potential ROI from improved user experience and operational efficiency.
  • Develop an integration plan. Outline a thorough strategy for integrating your front-end application with back-end data sources and third-party services. Consider methods for data synchronization, API communication, and security protocols.

If you find yourself with questions or needing clarification on any of these steps, feel free to reach out to us! We're here to assist you while you assess headless CMS vs traditional CMS as you make these decisions for your organization or prepare to implement them.

Madeline Jensen is a light skinned female with short curly brown hair, brown eyes, glasses wearing a red and black flannel shirt smiling at the camera
Madeline Jensen
Frontend Team Lead

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