Sitecore XP v8.1: 6 months on

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Liam Mepham

Liam Mepham
Sitecore Developer

Date:
13 May 2016

Office:
London

Our Sitecore dev team has been getting stuck into the latest Sitecore XP 8.1 release. Here are a few thoughts on the product’s new features and updates.

Out of the box

It’s obvious when exploring version 8.1 that Sitecore listened to its customers, and the community of partners. Part of this is evident from a range of commonly used modules finding themselves now being out of the box functionality - previously you had to manually install these into Sitecore.

These out of the box features enables partners and customers to create and manage the kind of user experiences we all strive for! It facilitates connected digital experiences that are compelling for customers, insightful, scalable and fit for purpose for businesses driving successful contextual marketing strategies.

Sitecore adopted and integrated some core modules from the marketplace:

  • GeoIP targeting: Now built into the core product, we can physically locate people in order to personalise their experience and gather location insights automatically
  • Language fall back: This was a huge requirement for the Sitecore community, and will avoid visitors receiving the dreaded 404 page.
  • Device detection: Baked into the core product now, there is no module to install, upgrade or maintain. This feature enables enhanced mobile integration and provides opportunities to leverage analytics and personalisation.
  • Campaign Creator: Included as part of the package now rather than having to include it as in version 8.0.

CMS only

Unlike version 8.0, in version 8.1 you can now run a CMS only mode. And similar to the older Sitecore versions, you can now turn the xDB off.

By separating CMS functionality from analytics and dropping the CMS dependencies on the xDB, it allows us to offer increased performance. Offering the CMS only mode enables us as a partner to alleviate a number of challenges that some organisations might face when upgrading, in terms of budget, maturity, knowledge and/or software implementation policies such as data protection laws.

Speak

Designed to make the lives of Sitecore developers easier, SPEAK (Sitecore Process Enablement & Accelerator Kit) is a framework for developing Sitecore applications.

You can use SPEAK to expand the functionality offered by Sitecore out of the box: Adding useful extensions such as the Experience Analytics dashboard to show custom graphs based on custom data attributes collected in the xDB.

SPEAK now supported in Sitecore 8.1. And that includes both versions 1.1 and 2.0 of SPEAK.

experience editor

Previously called Page Editor, the new Experience Editor is a great feature of Sitecore v8.1.

It now enables content editors to add new page versions, all from the intuitive interface that is the Experience Editor. It’s certainly much quicker than having to change between Page Editor and Content Editor interfaces to find the item you want to make a new version of.

Federated experience manager (FXM)

This was introduced in version 7.5, but completely re-built for v8.0+.

FXM is a Sitecore module that serves content for external websites. It means that those involved in the management of a non-Sitecore site, can inject some Sitecore functionality into it by simply adding a snippet of JavaScript to the 3rd party page.

Other than being able to implement the, albeit limited, Experience Editor capabilities, the real opportunity with this simple integration setup is its ability to gain insight from a website without it being built in Sitecore.

FXM enables us to track goals, assign profile cards, trigger campaigns, and outcomes. An outcome is a defined set of goals, for example - sign up, register for an event, add a product to a basket and checkout all might be goals within a certain “conversion” outcome.

As you can imagine, analysing, reporting on and gaining insight into these types of interactions is really useful and can be leveraged to create a connected experience across a range of sites.

FXM also alleviates any risk what so ever regarding future migrations to Sitecore, FXserving to reassure clients, and ensure that future user experiences via Sitecore builds, are bang on.

Path Analyser

This feature analyses website paths that visitors have navigated, returning key stats to a nice, easy-to-read spider diagram. It’s a very powerful tool and links to the Experience Profile (the all-important Single Customer View).

Analysing user paths can be a complex business - imagine trying to map 50,000 individual visit paths, while some of them might match up, there’s ultimately going to be a lot of paths to try to map out. In v8.1, however, it has been reworked to be less complex and more efficient, which is always helpful. And the tool now works in real time, so no more nightly aggregation of the visit data to analyse user paths.

Also, there are new filters (Maps). In v8.0 there are 7, in v8.1 there are 41, and you can make your own too!

Upgrades & Enhancements

Personalisation based on activity and behaviour

Enhancements in this area are significant, enabling marketers to create much more contextually relevant experiences for their customers.  

In addition to looking at current and predicted activity, a useful update of Sitecore v8.1, is that we can now give greater importance to a user’s more recent activity over the same activity they might have carried out, say, 6 months ago. We have the ability to set a ‘decay value’ that increases over time according to a user’s data.

As a user’s historic engagement with the website becomes less important, the decay value increases, thus providing us with insight not only into the user, but ensuring they are being delivered the most contextually relevant content according to their activity and behaviour. We can also manage this area by configuring how fast engagement decays for users.

Testing

Testing has become much more clear and efficient, as well as insightful.

Firstly, testing and analytics used to be very tightly coupled in the code base of Sitecore, making customisations complicated and potentially risky. Separating it from the Analytics code is great for both developers and marketers alike, as both testing and analytics have very defined concerns and responsibilities.

Secondly, and important for those of us working on global Sitecore sites, you can now run multiple tests across difference language versions for the same item!

In addition, Sitecore now enables us to run two live versions of the same item, but only when testing these! This decreases content load time considerably as in previous versions only one version of an item could be ‘live’, while the other variant of this test had to be requested from another database.

Updates to reporting around testing have proved really useful. Sitecore now reports testing results based on rendering rules. For example, you might have two rendering rules, one to show to male users and another to show to female users. Sitecore will now report relevant stats on these two variants in the ‘presentation details window’ where you modify what renderings you want on a page. This means that as a Sitecore user, you now can make informed decisions on the fly as to what content or renderings are working better on a page without having to dig into the Experience Analytics Dashboard.

In v8.0 the idea of page testing came about, where you can test a page version against another, or indeed one page against another separate page entirely. This was a great bit of added functionality. However, Sitecore included a screen shot generator with the iteration. Imagine if you wanted to test 6 pages, it would take an age to setup the test because of the screen shots having to load each page. A pretty clunky business. So in v8.1, we have the ability to turn this off, which dramatically speeds up the deployment of a tests.

A few techy bits and pieces

As always with all Sitecore releases it’s not just functionality additions finding themselves into the product, development processes are a huge part of delivering a Sitecore implementation. If Sitecore can help developers develop better and more efficiently – quality platforms will be released to market quicker! Here a few snippets of how Sitecore has made our lives that little bit easier...

To further increase site performance, Sitecore has introduced a new cache (Key Behaviour Cache), which collects at the end of each interaction. This is loaded upon a visit and is configurable to load a specified amount of past interactions (visits) to personalise upon. For example, we might not want to be loading the past 200 visits over the past 5 years, maybe the last 20 in the last year will do?

New Interaction Registry: We can now integrate and programmatically trigger an interaction from anything that can connect to Sitecore, not just what the CMS is providing to its channels. For example, a point of sale back end system can now create interaction points offline for a contact stored within Sitecore, WOW!

Sitecore has now included better support for MVC areas, this is great news for the development team and ultimately means reducing the overall time to market as development teams are able to better structure the code base.

The web.config file that underpins a Sitecore implementation was becoming very large (240kb) and when installing modules on top of Sitecore could exceed the maximum allowed size by Microsoft (250kb). Sitecore have now split their configuration out into another file, meaning your Sitecore environments are much more stable and customisable in terms of config patching.

So there you have it, a few thoughts on the latest version of Sitecore – as a Gold Partner, it’s great to see this product develop according to customer and partner needs. If you would like chat about your Sitecore platform, or have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me.