eCommerce Philosophy from Buzz Lightyear
Who doesn’t love the Toy Story movies? You remember the scene: Buzz Lightyear has recently figured out he can’t actually fly. But with those wings and some newfound confidence he saves the day by flying Woody to safety. As they soar across the room Woody shouts, “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!”
What most people don’t realize is the profound wisdom Woody and Buzz Lightyear are teaching eCommerce developers and architects. Toy Story dug deep into the playbook of eCommerce to show the world the importance of failing with style, a lesson that’s important to learn during every eCommerce platform implementation project.
Is Failing Really a Failure?
When speaking with clients we often hear things like,
“We must have zero failure. We need perfection in our systems to best serve our clients and shareholders.”
The hard truth is that technology systems will inevitably fail in some way at some point in time. It’s an undisputed fact. Hardware failures, human error, fiber cuts, natural disasters, or high traffic will occur, and with that, some aspect of the technology will fail as a result. It’s important to accept that fact now.
Failing with Style
When delivering this dose of reality, people in the room sometimes get uncomfortable. They start fumbling for the phone number of an eCommerce consulting firm that makes them feel good about themselves (and possibly tells untruths in the process). This is the time to refer to Buzz and Woody and explain our number-one goal as technical architects and eCommerce experts: we fail with style.
A Case Study in Failing with Style
A few years ago we had a client whose website recently launched. Their internal marketing team mistakenly released a promotion on Thanksgiving Day instead of Black Friday. It was a simple error that could’ve happened to anyone. What they didn’t realize is they had the industry’s best price on one of the most sought-after products that holiday season.
Tens of thousands of consumers rushed to the website to place orders, the excitement reaching a fever pitch. Sales spiked uncontrollably; so much so that the company’s order management system (OMS) couldn’t handle the volume of orders. Within a few hours there were over 30,000 orders rejected by the OMS.
The client called on Thanksgiving night in a total panic. They were convinced the loss of 30,000 orders would become headline news the following day. Luckily for me, I was so drugged out by the extra helping of turkey that my response was calm instead of panic.
Why was I so calm? Because back when we first implemented the client’s eCommerce platform, we had engineered the system so if a failure like this ever occurred, it wouldn’t affect the client’s profitability, shopping experience, or ability to complete orders.
That Thanksgiving night, we made a few adjustments to the system and over the next 12 hours the system was able to push those so-called missing orders into the OMS. Disaster was averted.
This eventual outcome taught me the lessons of failing with style.
Keys to Failing with Style
- Never believe that any system will be up and running one hundred percent of the time. Design your eCommerce platform so it can still operate when dependent systems aren’t working. For example, real-time inventory lookups should be able to continue with style even if the service doesn’t respond.
- Use batch-based processing whenever possible for key activities like order export. This allows data to be reprocessed when systems are back online—and keeps clients out of headlines.
- Prepare systems that rely on external for down time such as ratings and reviews. Front-end pages should know to omit problem data from the page upon any failure. Customers won’t think twice about a missing review, but they’ll be frustrated and abandon a site that has broken data on the page.
- Test for failure. Most companies test for high traffic and load levels before launch. To fail with style means to test for random disconnections of various services with an eye on seamless user experience.
The greatest reward for properly engineering your systems for failure is boredom. If you do this, your eCommerce department will sound like crickets during peak usage or third-party services failures. Failing with style allows you to fix problems without emergency meetings, PR departments, and stress from management.
Implement these techniques and your website can grow to infinity and beyond!
Tony Schwartz is a senior Demandware technical architect at Lyons Consulting Group (www.lyonscg.com). He has led eCommerce platform implementations for top retailers such as Columbia Sportswear, RadioShack, True Religion, Eastern Mountain Sports, and more.