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Refocusing e-Commerce with Lean

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on May 11, 2017. Estimated reading time: 5 minutes |

Auchan:Direct, the online grocery delivery service of Auchan France, decided to apply lean to develop a new e-Commerce website. Their CEO was the first customer and they used continuous and fast feedback from their clients on the new experience to improve website quality using continuous delivery.

Bastien Duret spoke about applying lean to build Auchan:Direct’s new website at the Lean IT Summit 2017, which took place in Paris on the 14th and 15th of March. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Bastien Duret on the starting point of the Auchan:Direct renewal and the goals that were set, the approach used to transform, what they learned during their journey, and the evolution of their technical development stack.

InfoQ: Bastien, can you introduce yourself?

Bastien Duret: I’m the Tech Lead at Auchan:Direct, which means I lead the tech team that develops and manages the software that operates the delivery services that bring the groceries to the homes of our customers. I’m helping the team so they have the best environment to succeed. I’m a passionate engineer working on large software systems; I started my career in the video game industry.

InfoQ: Why did Auchan:Direct decide to rebuild its website?

Duret: The starting point was a failure assessment in 2015: the user experience was not only poor, but we were unable to maintain the system properly. The slightest change required several months to go into production, and the quality was usually not enough. The rewriting, which started early 2016, had two goals :

  • Providing a better quality user experience
  • Mastering the technologies to enhance the ability to improve on a daily base

InfoQ: What targets did Auchan:Direct define? For which reason?

Duret: Instead of defining arbitrary targets over a roadmap which we would not have achieved, Auchan:Direct set one goal: deliver the best possible experience to our clients on the 19th of September. This was driven by the opening of our new automated warehouse in October, allowing us to two fold increase the number of our products.

InfoQ: One of the first targets was that "the CEO orders on line". How did the organization interpret that target?

Duret: At Auchan:Direct we are lean adepts; it was really important for us to push a minimum product in production as fast as we could so our clients could order. We chose our CEO as our first customer in order to involve him in this iterative process from the beginning. That was a clear message to the whole company.

InfoQ: Which methods did you use to improve the website quality?

Duret: The most important ingredient of the process was to have continuous and fast feedback from our clients about the new experience. We launched the site very early, even though it wasn’t perfect yet, and gave our clients a channel to communicate with us. In the beginning, it was a phone number, and when the number of phone calls increased we added a mail address. Combining this together with continuous delivery was very powerful.

InfoQ: In your presentation you stated that you only use internal developers for this rewriting. Why did you make this decision?

Duret: This choice comes from a belief we all have: an internal team is more engaged and then delivers better quality work in the long run than a team of freelancers or external people. By the way, the choice was confirmed in our case by an experiment we did in the beginning of the project. We asked two teams, one of freelancers and one of in-house developers, to develop the same thing. We compared the quality and the speed of the delivery, and the result was clear: the in-house team was twice as fast and the costs were three times less than the freelance team.

The reason is that we give our developers, the ones doing the work, the freedom and responsibility to choose and compose. Insourcing developers who can choose and make good decisions makes the difference.

InfoQ: You explained that you had decided to tailor-make your product. Why did you choose that and how did it go?

Duret: One of the reasons for improving the original web site was that we did not master the tools and technologies that we used. I’m sure that in order to deliver a quality experience, and to improve it everyday, this mastery is mandatory. But, it’s very difficult when you use an all-in-one framework, where it’s magic in the beginning, and you can’t tweak for specific design. That does not mean we do everything. For instance, we use a lot of open-source libraries: Django, React, NGINX...

InfoQ: For such a rewriting, with a lot of connections and transactions, what architecture have you chosen? What led the team in that direction?

Duret: Our architecture is pretty simple. For the backend, we have Django API servers in front of a PgSQL database. The web site is a ReactJS single-page application, where the basic rendering is delivered by NodeJS. We chose ReactJS because we wanted a web user experience as close as possible to an application. The backend in Django is more an opportunistic choice; we had Django experts in our team, ready to work with us. All our apps are running in Docker containers, which means we have barely no adhesion to the infrastructure.

InfoQ: Do you have indicators to measure the business and technical gains of this architecture?

Duret: Technically, the new site is performing much better: the response time is half of what it used to be, and globally, the feedback about the speed (which is more than response time) is better. The transition did not occur without pain however, as we shook some of the habits of our first customers, but nevertheless our transformation rate increased by 10%.

InfoQ: What have you learnt on this journey, and what are your next steps?

Duret: We have learnt how complicated it is to make a legacy system evolve: the slightest perturbation unveils deeply hidden problems. For instance, when we tried to get the customer data, we suffered from the evolutions of the previous years... Our next step: capitalizing on our ability to deliver an exceptional user experience, particularly on the mobile phone.

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