Why the DXP experience is broken and how to build a better one

Many enterprises still rely on digital experience platforms (DXPs) despite discontent with the experience they offer. How can enterprises create a better digital experience?

Michael AndrewsPublished on Feb 16, 2023

Your digital experience is never good enough. The experience your organization delivers will determine a large part of your customer’s perception of your company, including their willingness to use your products and services and their loyalty to your brand. A poor experience will hurt your sales and customer retention. Given its importance to revenues, no business should feel satisfied with the status quo of their digital experience. There are always opportunities to improve it.

But what are you trying to improve when you evaluate your digital experience delivery? Crafting the right digital experience involves many dimensions, which is why you should be wary of those trying to sell a “solution” to your digital experience challenges.

Digital experience can be hard to pin down. It is commonly defined as the digital interaction between the user and the organization. That definition is accurate as far as it goes, though it’s prone to misinterpretation.

The problem arises when there’s an overemphasis on the contribution of digital technologies to the interaction. The experience gets defined as a technology problem, leading some people to believe that the more technology you have, or the more expensive the technology, the better the interaction will be.  

A preoccupation with technology can cause enterprises to overlook key factors shaping how digital interactions are created and received. Techno-centric discussions about digital experience might not even talk about people at all.

Spoiler alert: an experience without people isn’t an experience. People aren’t optional.

Interaction and experience are bigger than technology. Interaction design considers and addresses the emotional responses of users in addition to their behaviors. People are central to whether digital experiences work.

Interactions involve expectations – and uncertainty. They are more complex than a transactional footprint of user requests and responses. Digital experience can’t be reduced to an engineering specification.

Identify what is blocking the experience. Digital experience should reflect how easy it is for different stakeholders to achieve their objectives. If the experience isn’t easy for everyone concerned, it isn’t going to be successful.

Prioritize quality when you consider how technology should support your digital experience. Your goal should be to access better technology that supports better interaction.

Why folks complain about the DXP experience

When vendors try to dictate the experience, the experience will be ham-fisted. Teams have difficulty trying to change what the vendor has decided. Frustration follows.  

We see this problem acutely with the DXP category of CMSs.

Experience can’t be purchased as a packaged solution. For years, major CMS vendors have sold the idea that a single pre-built platform could deliver the right digital experience. Enterprises relied on one or more DXPs, which defined the options they had to provide services to customers online. Each year, they would write a check to their vendor for a million dollars (or more) for a license to use these DXPs. Sure, it was expensive, but the DXP promised a long list of features – seemingly everything you’d need. It provided a monolithic, all-in-one solution.

By describing their CMS as a “DXP”, vendors promoted the false impression that their platform automatically supplies the right experience, offering user satisfaction out of the box. DXP vendors avoid talking directly about the essence of experience: how stakeholders feel their expectations are being met and whether they are satisfied. They focus instead on the features their digital platforms offer. Don’t worry about the experience – it’s taken care of already.

The reality is starkly different. DXPs suffer from a widely recognized problem: they’ve provided a disappointing experience for every stakeholder who has had to interact with them. The digital experience platform has failed to support its central purpose: the experience.

The root cause of DXP’s problems is its flawed assumptions about how experiences are created.

Digital experience isn’t a checklist of features. It’s not just what happens but how it happens that determines success or failure. Like a theater performance, it’s the byproduct of a production. It depends on people and processes, in addition to technology. All these elements need to work in harmony to support how successfully users will interact with your organization.

Digital experience isn’t monolithic. It doesn’t live in one system: it depends on the interplay of many elements. Just as digital interaction is not a single event, digital experience does not arise from a single implementation decision. The experience will be continuously shaped by many factors.

Digital experience is about the quality of the digital interaction as much as it is about its scope. When your technology gets in the way of your people and processes, the experience will be a pain for everyone.  

The digital experience is multifaceted. It encompasses a range of more specialized experiences that influence the people, processes, and technology involved in digital interactions. It is driven by the collaboration of different roles. If the needs of different stakeholders and how they do their jobs aren’t accounted for, the experience is going to suffer.

People need to be in charge. Employees don’t like feeling like they are cogs in a platform. They want to be able direct decisions rather than have decisions imposed on them.

Friction is the enemy of digital experience. A platform that tries to do everything becomes too big to manage. It loses the flexibility to control issues with precision. A gap develops between what people want to do and what they can do.

The packaged solution approach of DXPs imposes constraints on many dimensions of the experience, including the:

  • Authoring experience
  • Developer experience
  • Content experience
  • User experience
  • Customer experience
Experience dimensionDXP drawbacks

Authoring experience

How easily authors can provide the right content

  • DXPs have complex UIs and require extensive training and sometimes specialized roles to simply set up content for publication
  • Rigid templates and complicated publishing processes prevent authors from developing truly customer-centric content

Developer experience

How agilely developers can configure resources to satisfy complex and changing requirements

  • Developers are burdened by the maintenance effort of DXPs and by the difficulties in customizing the DXP’s setup, extending its functionality, and implementing modern frontend frameworks with it

Content experience

How readily delivered content matches what customers need in terms of relevance, precision, and clarity

  • The page-centric architecture of DXPs results in long pages, poorly targeted information, and a longer time-to-locate relevant details

User experience

How effectively the UI design matches user expectations and preferences in terms of ease, speed, and coherence

  • DXPs provide clunky widget-driven frontend UIs that are slow to load in browsers and deliver a disjointed user journey

Customer experience

How seamlessly information and messages support the customer journey across different channels

  • Because DXPs have limited ability to support omnichannel publishing, customers encounter uneven, inconsistent, or missing information as they move between channels

All these issues conspire to spoil the experience. They limit options, add extra work, and cause delays, resulting in unhappy authors, developers, and customers.

DXPs are relics of the era of individual websites and have strained to keep up with changing needs. Today, enterprises must plan the digital experience in terms of how customers interact with all their products and services across multiple channels. They need options that provide greater breadth and flexibility.

Digital Experience in the Stack

The widespread dissatisfaction with DXPs has led to an alternative approach, broadly referred to as composability.

Instead of buying a monolithic solution, enterprises can assemble their own. They decide the ingredients they need to build the right digital experience for their customers. They stop treating the digital experience as if it were a commodity.

Digital experience is too complex and varied to expect a pre-built solution to adequately address each firm’s unique requirements.  

Enterprises can offer a better experience when they unbundle the capabilities supporting digital interaction, allowing them to choose and configure the best options that are available. Instead of relying on a pre-packaged digital experience platform, they can design their own digital experience stack to provide the interaction capabilities that provide the best possible experience.

You define the experience, not the vendor. When you think about it, why would a vendor know more about the experience that you need to provide to your customers than your organization does? The truth is, DXP vendors don’t understand how good experiences are made – they aren’t experts in digital experience, despite pretenses to the contrary.  

A stack allows you to break free from the hubris of vendors who want to decide how experiences should be constructed.

Your content – what you communicate to customers – will anchor your digital experience. In an experience stack, a headless CMS will provide the foundation of the enterprise’s experience ecosystem. Instead of using a tightly configured platform set up to support a handful of websites, a stack approach plans for how content should support all the products and services offered by an enterprise.

A major benefit of implementing a stack is that enterprises can decouple their content from their UI design and the delivery logic. Content can be reconfigured to address various scenarios without requiring it to be redesigned, as happens with monolithic solutions.

No single tool (or API) is responsible for the digital experience. A stack will distribute responsibility for supporting the digital experience. It removes the expectation that a single tool will necessarily provide everything that would be useful.

For example, personalization is an important contributor to digital experience, but no one personalization approach or method will deliver what’s needed in all cases. The same is true of many other dimensions of the digital experience: one tool won’t rule them all.

A stack supports the principle of separating concerns. It brings focus to the contribution of distinct capabilities, allowing teams to understand how staff, processes, and technical implementations should work together to deliver the optimal outcome. Enterprises choose tools and services not just for their advertised functionality but because they support their staff and integrate easily with their operational processes.

The experience framework can be modular. The guiding motivation for adopting a stack approach is to enable the experience and allow it to flourish. Unlike an all-in-one solution, a stack does not prescribe how the experience will work.

Because stacks are open, enterprises have a multitude of options to select and extend supporting services. The experience is never frozen because the composition of the stack can change and evolve.  

Broadly viewed, the stack is composed of three layers:

  1. A resource foundation layer, providing the needed content, data, assets, and business processes
  2. A middle layer, responsible for the coordination of foundation layer resources and preparing them for delivery, as well as evaluating information signals generated by customers
  3. A delivery layer, providing information and functionality to customers in the user interface

Digital interaction happens on all three layers, and each influences the aggregate digital experience.

The resources are mobilized and adjusted in the foundation layer. All the enterprise’s resources must be ready to address a broad range of specific scenarios.

The delivery layer allows customers to interact directly with products and services. While it is the most outwardly visible, it is by no means responsible for the entire experience. Experience is more than the UI: it depends on the smart choices provided by people and code.  

And the middle layer brokers the complex interplay between the enterprise and its customers.

Experience is shaped by every layer of a digital experience stack

The distributed architecture of the digital experience is illustrated by the potential role of AI. An explosion of AI tools and services has emerged that could enhance the overall digital experience. These tools could be used in any one of the layers.

The digital interaction is bidirectional. The enterprise must be ready to present options to users and respond to their requests. A stack should recognize the interdependence between the layers, or else the stack is incomplete.

Some firms make the mistake of focusing on only one layer and consequently fail to transform their experience. For example, they might add a new frontend but don’t change their middleware or backend configurations. But their “redesigned” experience will be only superficially better because they did not improve the relevance of their content and their delivery decision process.

In addition to flows between the layers, various tools or services may interact with each other within a layer as well, especially when staff need to coordinate work involving separate tools. For example, a translation management system can be integrated with the CMS in the resource foundation layer.

The middle layer, which is responsible for coordination between layers, is often referred to as composition or orchestration. These terms don’t have standard definitions, and vendors may use them in slightly different ways. Think about composition and orchestration as being at different ends of a spectrum of services.

  • Composition: how you configure your setup to connect content with design frameworks and other systems and services to deliver experiences
  • Orchestration: how you specify your delivery execution process to mobilize the delivery in real-time

Composition configuration will support persistent or routinely required high-level scenarios, while orchestration will address more dynamic or contingent-specific scenarios. Both are necessary.

Choosing options that enable the best overall experience

Enterprises today have an unprecedented range of choices for building their digital experience. Some options provide broader capabilities, while others provide more specialized support.

The variety of tools and services gives enterprises greater versatility in how they support the experience. They can choose what areas of the experience they want to improve and how they want to approach doing that.

But how do you choose the tools and services to include in your stack? The kinds of tools and services you need will depend on your business goals and the associated functional capabilities required. But even after you identify functional requirements, you will need to choose among alternative options that provide those capabilities.  

Don’t make decisions about tools and services in isolation. Consider how tools and services work together as part of your ecosystem to support the digital experience. Evaluate each tool and service in terms of its connectivity and coverage. It’s now possible to connect different processes that were never connected in DXPs. Identify opportunities to enable more insights, efficiency, and precision.

Versatility depends on the coherence of your stack. Coherence is realized when the individual tools and services contribute to a common goal. 

  • Does the proposed stack provide full coverage to support the desired experience?
  • Do options work well together?
  • Do tools have distinct roles, or are some tools overlapping in responsibilities?
  • Do tools address experience at the same level of specificity?

How you implement your stack will determine the digital experience you achieve.

Watch out for capabilities that could become a single point of failure. Supply chain analysts often talk about “SPOFs” or single points of failure that disrupt operations severely. SPOFs occur when no one planned for the possibility that the availability of a resource would be insufficient. SPOF risks can lurk in poorly planned stacks.

When content is the single point of failure in your stack, it becomes a chokepoint that causes the entire experience to fail. Some proposed stacks don’t address the resource layer and assume the right content will be there when it is needed. They fail to develop the required content supply chain, causing the content to become the weak link of the stack. Other kinds of resources that may be needed could also be weak links, and their availability should be planned for as well.

Guard against an unbalanced configuration. A lopsided stack emerges when the stack expects the wrong layer to have responsibility for decisions. Some examples of unbalanced stacks arise when:

  • The frontend is trying to handle too much complexity, overburdening the code
  • The middle layer is trying to manage content or data in lieu of the resource foundation layer
  • The CMS in the resource layer is specifying aspects of the UI layout

Nurture experience enablement. Because of its open architecture, a digital experience stack can evolve and improve over time. Build your wish list:

  • How will your organization ensure you can deliver the right resources to support the experience?
  • What opportunities are there to enrich and extend each layer?
  • How will this fit into existing processes? Are there opportunities to streamline operations or accelerate the implementation of changes?
  • How can you utilize feedback from users to improve the digital experience provided?

The experience embodies incentives for interaction. When the experience is right, people and processes are supported.

Dimension of the digital experienceWhat to look for in your solution
Authoring experience
  • Little training required
  • A focused authoring environment that indicates what content is needed and what content is already available
  • Extensible: can add third-party enhancements to address specialized editorial requirements
  • Allows integration with other communication and workflow tools already used in the enterprise
  • Ability to create variations easily
  • Easy to connect to translation services
Developer experience
  • MACH (microservices, API-first, cloud-native, headless) orientation
  • No need to learn proprietary systems
  • Low code implementations
  • Easy to customize the setup
  • Agile upgrades and enhancements
  • Ability to change configuration without adversely impacting the availability of capabilities
Content experience
  • Single source of truth for content (no inconsistent or missing content due to siloed systems)
  • Structured content for precise delivery (just what’s needed, just in time for the customer, instead of just in case)
  • Delivered content is continuously tested and optimized
  • Freedom to personalize content according to multiple dimensions, using a diverse range of selection criteria
User experience
  • Ability to integrate with modern performant frontends
  • Decoupled architecture to allow updating of designs without reworking content
  • UX governance and referencing of enterprise design system as the source of truth for design requirements
  • Support for live testing of deployed UX
  • Ability to serve new channels of interest to users
Customer experience
  • Default support for structured, channel-independent content
  • Ability to customize content for specific channel needs when required
  • Cross-channel tracking and analytics
  • Content delivery is synchronized with all relevant customer and enterprise data systems to provide a timely, contextually relevant experience  
  • Customers can enjoy parity in their experience across channels

As we can see, many decisions influence the experience. If you want to offer a better digital experience than your competitors, you need to evaluate how to improve many dimensions of the experience.

Enterprises that are leaders in providing a superior experience have one key difference from those that are followers: their willingness to take responsibility for the experience they offer. The leaders will define the experience themselves. The followers will use the out-of-the-box capabilities supplied by a single vendor.

The best organizations embrace the opportunity to differentiate their experience capabilities.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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