Headless Does Not Mean Page-less

I've heard confusion over pages, (modular) content, and "dynamic" content for as long as I've worked with content management.

To revisit the topic, I want to be clear that "headless" does not mean page-less. There is a legitimate and quite familiar use case for "dynamic content" without pages, but we shouldn't ignore some critical points about content management, human perception, and the nature of the internet or specifically the World Wide Web.


First of all, headless refers to the idea of delivering (managed) content over a service or endpoint. This endpoint offers various clients the ability to retrieve content without presentation-related or web-specific elements such as webpage markup or styles.

For example, rather than publishing and delivering a full html page, a content management system would expose data in the form of JSON or XML for consumption by any downstream client such as a mobile application, website, or interactive kiosk.

If this sounds familiar it's because it is and goes back to web services in general.

One note is that the delivered content still has some structure and perhaps faceless, rather than headless, would be a more disturbing, yet apt term.

Content Management

Pages as a concept are important for the order and placement of content, especially as an editorial task.

There's a temptation to believe with modular pieces of content and enough metadata, content can appear in the right order, in the right context, for the right audience, at the right time.

While this is true for many content types such as articles, documentation topics, question-and-answer content, feeds, product information, and documents or images in some kind of library or gallery; there are still many scenarios where an organization or its editors need to convey embedded and related information in a particular order.

For articles, this could be a curated list of important news or recommended news and information.

On a home page or campaign page, you might offer another curated list of updates or important information. An image should be close to the content it elaborates on. And even personalized scenarios should have some hand-picked fallback content, that might be added directly to the "default," non-personalized experience.

Even when testing different experiences for content presented to a visitor or customer, each list of ordered content needs to be arranged and ordered (by human or algorithm).

2-Dimensional Surfaces

In terms of perception, we live in a 3-dimensional space meaning we can view text and media content in 2 dimensions. There is an ordering and relationship between content pieces, even when dynamically assembled to the user.

Before responsive design, Web pages mimicked brochures and documents, relying on position along the horizontal axis to offer conventions such as "left sub-navigation" or "right rail-related links." We can now drop these conventions, while still recognizing the relationship between primary and secondary elements (e.g. primary and secondary navigation or main and subsections) and perhaps removing adjectives related to the position, so it's just "related links."

So as long as humans manage content and there's a need to relate things in terms of hierarchy and priority, we will continue to need some structure to organize content in 2D space(s) or at least with a relationship between elements in mind.

The Web

The Web is still a relationship of locations (uniform resource locations) which each offer a response readable by humans and machines. Despite newer and newer devices and ways to render such content, there are still clients that interpret and present the content and data retrieved from these URLs.

Even in a typical "headless" scenario such as a mobile application, where content is assembled and delivered dynamically into some digital experience, there is still the idea of grouping and ordering items related to a given "page" or screen for such an application.

Of course, there are fairly structured and dynamic content management scenarios where authors create snippets of content to be used and assembled by others, be it different editors, developers, or algorithms. But as long as someone has the following requirements, you will still have the concept of a "page:"
  • Ability to optionally add different types of content into groupings that are displayed together, in a 2-dimensional screen (though the layout might be responsive, shifting between vertical and horizontal treatments)
  • Ability to choose whether certain content should appear or not (e.g. should this specific page have a banner image?)
  • Ability to publish and unpublish content to a specific location
  • User expectations to find important information or instructions sooner in a given page
Next time we are tempted to suggest "no pages needed" for a headless setup, be sure to confirm if grouping, optional content, order, and the ability to publish a manually created set of content should still be determined by humans. If so, (web) pages will continue and we can breathe easy the singularity isn't quite here.

Headless could, but does not always, mean page-less.

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