Agile vs Waterfall Development in eCommerce – Which method is right for you?

This post is written for the Marketers, Managers, Directors, and/or Owner-Operators of eCommerce sites who are responsible for implementing eCommerce initiatives throughout the cooperation with a development team. While much of the conversation on the Agile vs Waterfall development debate has been focused on software development, and to a lesser extent, the initial building of eCommerce websites, I want to focus on the ongoing, long-term growth of eCommerce platforms.

As a starting point, it’s worth touching on what a typical eCommerce journey looks like. Everything begins with the highest-level understanding of your customer profiles. You want to build out your site so it engages with, converts and retains your most profitable demographic. That is, the customers who spend the most money, the most often, and who share their experience with your product to their networks. They are your best customers, the largest source of your revenues and your brand advocates.

  1. Who are they?
  2. What do they care about?
  3. What do they want?
  4. How do they engage with content online, or with your content?
  5. Where are they on social media?
  6. How do they like to shop online, and what engages them?
  7. What type of user-experience would they prefer to travel through?
  8. What design would resonate with who they are as a person, as a shopper, as an individual brand identity?
  9. How would I attract these shoppers, covert them into customers, and then retain them for a lifetime?

Its About Lean Principles

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There are dozens of other questions you’ll have to research and try to answer. Some of your answers will be right, some of them will be wrong. At the end of the day, you’ll never know. It’s because of this reason that you should build out your eCommerce site lean. This is one of the best practices you can leverage when starting your eCommerce journey. Your initial strategy for a build should leverage best practices in design, user experience and customer service combined with a high-level understanding of your most profitable customer profile and without any unnecessary developments, unnecessary bulk or anything built on assumptions.

Its About Turning Data into Action

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Everything you do after you launch your eCommerce site is about gathering data on your customers, turning that data into insights as well as hypotheses, and then coming up with actionable ideas for growth. You’ll radically simplify your eCommerce journey by letting your customers tell you what to do. They won’t do it explicitly, but very subtly they will tell you, through their behaviour on your site, what you can do for them to offer a better shopping experience. By picking up on these cues and improving your site to offer customers a better experience, they will spend more money, more often, and accomplish even more goals that you put in front of them. In other words, your eCommerce journey is never over.

You must be defined by your flexibility and scalability. You need to recognize that the only way to future-proof your platform is by tapping into research and data and creating actionable ideas for growth. If you have already reached this point, then you have likely started to create:

  • A short and long-term roadmap for platform development’s/builds
  • A wish list of things you want your want in the future
  • A laundry list of things that need to get done (things that need to get fixed or improved)

Because you are being asked to drive and own the revenue goal, it’s your responsibility to not only, map out these developments (which are the by-products of actionable insights or hypothesis) but create, manage and streamline the process to get you there.

So what will you choose, Agile or Waterfall?

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Waterfall Development

Much like the construction of a building, Waterfall is about mapping out a very detailed, very complete plan for the construction of a certain project. It requires very detailed research, planning and analysis phase at the beginning of a project. All of the steps are laid out, responsibilities are assigned and timelines are put into place. It might help to compare it to the construction of an apartment building.

The planning phase is massive and the steps are pretty well laid out from the get-go. The system itself is not built for flexibility. It was built to streamline and simplify a long-term plan of action by getting everything planned from the beginning, and then mapping out all the steps that take you towards a goal. Just like the creation of an apartment building, the planners and developers almost refuse any changes after the project has commenced because everything has been mapped out from the very beginning.

The success of Waterfall development is largely depending on the planning process as well as in a setting that is extremely structured and rigid. In the eCommerce sense, Waterfall development is separated into large phases or releases. It usually begins by sitting down with your development team and mapping out a roadmap for developments or fixes. Everything is separated into phase 1, phase 2, phase 3 etc. Each phase contains multiple items or fixes and usually takes several months to release. Because releases are usually quite substantial, there is often a lot of time spent fixing bugs or making adjustments so that the implementation can run fluidly.

Since each release could take months, any new phase begins with reevaluating everything that was planned for the new and upcoming phase and making updates as necessary. Any new ideas or required developments that come up visually and literally placed at the top of the funnel where they slide down in multiple large phases until they are released.

For those who require immediate fixes, wish to launch a new release quickly to counter a competitive threat or respond to new developments, Waterfall development is a tough process to be in. The long-term vision of a Waterfall process requires everything to be prioritized according to its impact on the long-term viability of the platform.

As you can see, in a fast and ever-changing environment like eCommerce, Waterfall development has many pitfalls.

Agile Development

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Agile development is a fast, flexible and versatile method of development where developers work in “sprints” to accomplish goals in short timeframes, spanning 1-2 weeks.

While there is a still a roadmap of developments and implementations that is mapped out along a continuum, they are separated into very short buckets so that tasks can be updated, changed, or prioritized on the fly. Testing is less rigorous because each release is small, allowing you to control most of the variables. In fact, Agile development grew out of the Waterfall method after developers recognized that its processes weren’t effective in constantly evolving landscapes.

For the person who owns the revenue goals of an eCommerce site (Marketers, Managers, Directors, and/or Owner/Operators), Agile development fast tracks the value and results produced via your developments. Goals are hit weekly, or bi-weekly, and there is a constant loop of planning, testing and launching. In an evolving landscape like eCommerce, this means that new developments can be capitalized on quickly. Marketers/Directors who are planning large campaigns can put a hold on development to focus on speed and performance. There is less risk in trying new things or A/B testing strategies because each development is small and setbacks are limited. In addition, since most sites work on version control (where you can revert to a previous version of the site if something goes wrong), there is ample value in Agile development.

The adaptability of Agile isn’t limited simply to eCommerce as a landscape; it’s equally applicable to the individual in charge of the platform (or its marketing team) as well as the business in general. Business needs change all the time, especially in eCommerce, which requires a versatile strategy that can adapt to evolving or changing business needs. Directors can change their mind about a particular element for development, or go in an entirely new direction. For example, resources might be constrained and require delays or stalling entirely. Customer needs may change, and therefore requiring a different strategy. Whatever the reason, Agile development gives merchants the ability to change, alter and shift development plans with much more flexibility and ease than the Waterfall method.

More importantly, for those who work with a development agency, resources like developers and project managers theoretically specialize over time and can perform projects faster and much more effectively than generalists. At the same time, and of special importance, they get exposure to best practices and most likely spend their time learning their specialization at a far greater level than generalists. In this sense, every time you explore a new feature, idea or development, your agency has likely built it, or something similar, for another client. As a result, they can guide you on the best practices to pursue, identify the land mines to avoid, or alternatives to explore.

Agile development is wonderfully beneficial in an environment where there is an open communication line. Every “sprint” with the Agile method starts with an update on the plans for development, as well as a free flow and exchange of ideas regarding the strategies and developments being pursued. When direction changes and management seek to pursue a new strategy, the agency can echo their experience with the strategy to determine whether the direction is a good one, or what alternative might work best. It can then be mapped out and pursued in the fastest, most flexible environment possible. In other words, each new sprint for an agile framework involves walking, and talking through the planned developments to make sure that all technology is aligned with marketing, short-term goals are aligned with long-term ones, and best-practices have been explored on both sides; all within a system that is fast and flexible should anything change on either side.

The Changing Landscape of Commerce

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We live and work in a landscape that changes daily. New strategies and opportunities are emerging all the time. We hear of new technologies that promise ramped growth. However, growth is not the only thing we are concerned with anymore. We are hyper-focused on countering competitive threats, finding new and innovative ways to acquire customers and exploring strategies that foster increased customer loyalty and retention. We search for ways to bolster margins while decreasing costs. We are more than ever accountable for the risks we take daily, monthly and quarterly. All the while we are trying to optimize processes and increase productivity. Dropping the ball on any of these, means missing critical business goals, which can be devastating in today’s ultra-competitive environment. Growing your business means reacting to changing environments and circumstances. Even more importantly, it means actively planning and expecting to encounter a change in environment or circumstance and having the structure in place to react appropriately.

Remember, there will always be events or changes of circumstance, which will affect the strategy and business process of the day. Will your process structure be able to handle them quickly and effectively?