Jeremy Glassenberg continues to explore the embedded trend by interviewing top experts
From consumer gaming to eCommerce and enterprise supply chain, services are re-introducing the idea of bringing third parties into their interface, opening their developer platforms beyond external APIs. We previously posted an introduction to this current trend, and while there’s more to dive into, here are key insights from companies that have proven successful in this space.
We have interviewed leaders on the platform teams of Shopify, Twitch, Wix, Google, and others, and gathered key insights into their approaches to embedded frameworks. From these conversations, we can see that, among B2C and B2B businesses alike, several patterns emerge:
- They adopt a product strategy. These companies have all seen success in embed frameworks by applying the Product process. They defined a problem, validated by data, and confirmed with experiments that embed experiences are a good solution.
- They wait for a critical mass of developers. Likewise, these services didn’t launch embed frameworks until they hit a “saturation point.” In order to gather customer feedback, they all had a sizeable customer base prior to pursuing such a framework.
- They compare technology approaches. They all debated certain technology approaches. Should they use iframes or try something else?
- Their standards are still evolving. Developers building onto their platform don’t yet have the luxury of standards. In other words, when building an app for one of these platforms, the code to integrate won’t be reusable for other platforms. These teams are all thinking about supporting a common standard, but all agree that it’s too early while they continue experimenting.
Though their approaches are similar, all these companies have unique traits. Each is testing nuanced theories with their users and with their developer communities. In this article, we’ll delve into key insights from these platform providers.
Know your Customer: Learnings from Wix
With its push for its Corvid platform, Wix is investing deep and building upon past success in its developer platform. Corvid goes beyond basic iframe integrations, in which partners build simple apps to be embedded in Wix sites. Wix opened a full IDE for customers and partners to build fully-functional web-apps, with both frontend and backend code hosted on Wix.
Jeffrey Aftel, Wix’s Documentation Manager for Corvid, and Ohad Laufer, R&D Group Manager for Wix, discussed this latest initiative with me, along with Wix’s past experiments with their developer community.
Like most successful platforms, Wix as a business believed in having a developer platform for years, supporting the idea in principle. This remained part of their vision, but it was only launched at the right time; when the user base was strong, and when the company gathered enough feedback to determine the right direction of their platform.
Wix tested basic iframe integrations before moving toward Corvid, knowing it to be a larger endeavor that required customer and developer feedback. As Jeffrey stated regarding iframes, they “didn’t want to be boxed in.”
The use of feedback and experimentation is well-reflected in Corvid. Their team shared with me how they had ongoing discussions regarding target personas and use cases. They had a vision for what they called “Visual Basic for the Web.” But should they focus on casual developers to create apps without having to manage their own backend? Or target hard-core developers with their framework? Wix tested both, ultimately leaning toward the latter.
Wix’s Corvid considered a more adventurous service for developers: hosting server-side code. But they understood the risks and determined it a necessity for the type of developers they’re targeting. Not diving too deep here, we’ll note that Wix established clear rules of use, such as a prohibition on crypto-mining. But server-side hosting is an exciting endeavor for many new platforms, with many possibilities once the caveats are taken into account.
Establishing a good experience: Shopify’s key tips
Shopify is among our favorite benchmarks for a solid embed framework. Shopify has deep integrations enabled in various aspects of their interface, integration points based on compelling user experiences, tools to make well-designed integrations easier, and a wide range of SDKs and services developers can choose to utilize. And, Shopify is still experimenting.
Shopify has been working on its developer platform since at least 2011, but invested heavily starting around 2.5 years back when their now VP Product & GM Platform, Brandon Chu, joined. That’s when they began expanding beyond external APIs.
According to Vanessa Lee, Product Director on Shopify’s platform, Shopify’s decision was “a combination of vision and user feedback.” That is, users literally working around Shopify’s UI “due to a need for a more customizable solution.” A great form of validation is seeing not only user requests for a feature, but users actually hacking on your service to make something work a certain way. Apparently, Shopify had the privilege of experiencing that.
This feedback is ongoing as Shopify continues to expand its developer program. At Shopify’s recent Unite partner and developer conference, Shopify announced a slew of new features, including extensions for Shopify Point of Sale and Shopify Checkout, enabling developers to create reusable components of pages, and improvements to Appbrige (basically, tools to help developers of embedded integrations interact with Shopify’s UI easily).
Technology considerations: iframe vs alternatives
When asked about a key point of contention regarding iframes, Vanessa noted that, while Shopify continues to allow iframes, new initiatives are testing alternatives. While iframes aren’t being discarded, the performance and security concerns have encouraged others to test other options.
At the Unite conference, we could see more webhook-focused integrations. In checkout, a partner providing a loyalty program to consumers could receive a notice of a checkout event, and return some text, in a format expected by Shopify that Shopify will present itself. This limits the partner’s UI involvement but still allows for a consistent, and simple integration for many partners, that fits well with the workflow.
Other experiments include standard form objects to create basic interfaces without having the full freedom, and risks, of iframes.
When discussing new opportunities, we asked Vanessa what she thought about moving toward a standard. “It’s too early – we’re still experimenting.” This was something we heard consistently, as platforms continue working with iframes while testing other options.
Make integrations as simple and powerful as possible: Tips from Twitch
Among the various aspects of Twitch’s platform is a thriving ecosystem of hundreds of “extensions” to embed in their gaming communities. As with the other ecosystems reported here, this began with a vision to enable a better experience for users through partners, and patience – opening up a platform only after achieving a strong user base.
Twitch’s technology is less “experimental” at its core: they primarily rely on iframes as overlays in their interface.
However, Twitch proved how to really build a solid embed framework around iframes. Rather than only asking a partner for a URL to embed, they allow developers to host their front-end code on Twitch.
Although that’s not unique to iframe-based platforms, Twitch took client-side code hosting a step further. A common challenge with loading an external URL is one’s dependency on the reliability of a partner’s servers. Twitch decided that they can better manage hosting for reliable service from integrations, and encourages partners to provide client-side code on Twitch, rather than host integration code themselves.
According to Twitch Developer Advocate, Jonathan Bulava, they encourage partners to use their own URL only to test applications. Once they’re ready, Twitch hosts the partner apps on Twitch’s own CDN, so partner developers “don’t have to worry about performance.”
And what if the partner can’t run their code entirely server-side? Twitch understands that this doesn’t work as a solution for 100% of partners, but provides good coverage, and a good start upon which to iterate. In many cases, a simple API to store/retrieve data can do the trick.
Other Usability lessons from Twitch
Twitch is also a fan of building tools on top of APIs to cover common use cases. This can make development easier for partners, and also give apps a certain level of consistency with the Twitch interface.
Twitch’s platform includes native elements, so viewers can see a “follow” button or other objects that appear the same across different integrations.
Twitch also includes in their API library quite a bit of event-catching, giving apps context around the environment where they’re positioned. Is a user watching a game in dark mode? In light mode? If so, the app can make adjustments based on these aspects.
Twitch’s Developer Community Focus
All this comes from, you guessed it – listening to users and developers. According to Bulava, Twitch sees developers on their platform as “a class of creators,” and wants to make sure they work with a supportive community. “You’re not going to come up with every great idea for the community, so you want a community itself.”
Twitch also started light with its platform and expanded after a bit of experimentation. After first achieving an active user base, they enabled chatbots to interface with users. From there came the idea of “extensions” with an official way of letting people build in their experience.
Basically, there’s a pattern of success in companies that are high in customer-empathy, developer-empathy, and usability.
In chatting with team members at Twitch, Shopify, Wix, and others, it was clear that they all see positive results, and more opportunity, in these frameworks. They’re all continuing to experiment, but so far have identified key points of success, and perhaps over time, form additional integration standards.
Security, customer-usability, and developer experience are all coming up as key issues to those who are running successful developer platforms. And they have learned plenty from customers and partners already.