As an eCommerce merchant, you need to always have a critical eye on the future. You might not want to be first in line for every new technology  – some might call that being on the “bleeding edge.” But, you also don’t want to be the last to jump into a maturing technology – a.k.a “missing the boat!” This conundrum can lead to paralysis – especially as we consider the effects artificial intelligence (AI) will have … and is already having …  on eCommerce development. Should you greenlight your IT team to use AI? Or should you block AI apps until they can be further vetted for risks and security? These are real questions merchants are wrestling with and we see both approaches (aggressive and conservative) currently being employed.

AI Developer Tools Today

AI-Based Programming Assistants are already in wide use among software developers for code compilation, code debugging, and code-driven testing. Already, a few dozen tools like this exist and are being used by developers everywhere. Programming assistants can solve relatively simple but often time-consuming problems, making developers more productive and decreasing the fatigue that comes from executing repetitive tasks.  For example, Codex is an AI tool (in Beta) from the creators of the Chat GPT system (which is itself frequently used for coding tasks) that translates natural language to code. Codex powers another similar tool, GitHub Copilot. Developers must be skilled in asking either of these AI assistants well-defined questions in order to produce helpful results. Left unchecked, AI assistants are also known to leave vulnerabilities or even create new ones. So choosing a developer whose expertise allows prudent and well-monitored use of the tools is of prime importance.  A newer tool called AlphaCode shows amazing promise in solving more complex programming tasks, but still requires extensive problem definition, testing guidelines and outcome descriptions. Another class of tools resembles the “auto-complete” function you frequently see in text programs and search fields. As a developer types a line of code, the AI program (Tabnine, as an example) will suggest completed code lines. The more these tools are used, the better they will become at anticipating what the developer is doing. Wherever you have a defined outcome or set of outcomes, plus inputs for the AI to track against pattern recognition, then you have a feedback loop. AI thrives on feedback loops and is already making great use of them to provide new features and functionality for on-site search, product recommendations for personalized shopping experiences and personalization (see https://www.adobe.com/sensei.html). 

Looking Ahead

In the next 1-3 years, we believe we will see significant portions of simple development tasks nearly overtaken by AI. For example:
  • The development of more “code-less” themes. These are themes for platforms like Shopify, Adobe Commerce (aka Magento) and BigCommerce that permit speedy modification and customization of the content, design and layout while no longer allowing users to edit the code. Instead, all CSS/design code changes are managed by AI. This should allow for cleaner, less bloated and more stable code because the AI will be able to quickly handle debugging and testing and won’t be relying on patching or shoehorn approaches that human developers often use to effect a change.
  • Development of easier-to-use and faster design tools. Drag and drop has been around for a while, but imagine that the software will be able to anticipate and implement consistent-looking changes across the theme elements. Then, you can clean up any changes that AI didn’t get quite right on its first pass.

The Likely Path 

Software development, like many other skilled trades and professions, consists of a high percentage of tasks that follow a pattern or rely on standardized solutions. The skill and experience come into play on the details. AI adoption will most likely line up with those truths; without a doubt, AI use will be (and already is) widespread within eCommerce development but will not replace skilled programmers. That may sound naive, so we’ll put a finer point on it. Programming as a profession will definitely change as AI assistance becomes more powerful and reliable, but as long as the system needs to know exactly what problem to solve, there will be a need for highly-skilled developers and solution architects. In the near term, AI will have much less effect on the more complex elements of website development like software architecture, database management, new feature development and advanced security.

If You Want a Job Done…

In general, like most technology-driven changes, AI integration into eCommerce programming will follow the Pareto Principle (aka 80/20 rule). Developers will get most of the benefit available from AI by using it for limited tasks. Other tasks involving more subjective inputs: (opinions, experience, preferences) would be very difficult to ask the AI to accomplish while fairly easy for a skilled human programmer to grasp. Like the use of robots in industry – AI will be used where it has a clear benefit and where it is economically feasible based on the scale of the activity. Human developers use their native intelligence to translate expressed specifications (sometimes vague – and always contextual) into iteration attempts that must be checked by other humans (the project managers, the clients). This can be an unpredictable and sometimes arbitrary process when it comes to the details. 

What should eCommerce managers do in order to use AI to their advantage?

It is important to be on an eCommerce platform that is aggressively working to take advantage of the trending AI technologies. For instance, developers are already experimenting with codeless themes for Shopify (ie. nyla.app) that rely on AI for fast and simple design changes. Still, in an atmosphere of disruption there is potential for bad decision-making when it comes to choosing a platform. Software that relies too heavily on AI at this point may carry a load of unintended consequences – levels of maintenance and setup that would currently be highly specialized (and thus cost prohibitive) in the medium term. More than ever, excellent and experienced guidance are your best ally. Pick an agency partner you can trust, with a track record of objectivity when it comes to platforms and tools. InteractOne doesn’t claim to be unaffiliated, but we’ve also never been shy about the strong and weak points of Magento, Adobe, Shopify, BigCommerce and all of the underpinning technology. Our role is to provide unvarnished advice, based on what we see happening in the ecosystem. Don’t just take our word for it. Stay informed, by following industry leaders, experimenting with AI yourself, attending trade shows and seminars, etc. Carefully review and vet new AI features before choosing to implement them on your site… don’t just use it because it has an “AI” label on it.  Do your homework to ensure the AI feature will provide a positive impact on your website. Contact us to learn more about how to optimize your eCommerce site.

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