In 2020, online holiday shopping grew 24% over the previous year, reaching $209 billion in online spending. And according to our recent survey, 90% of U.S. consumers plan to shop online the same amount or more than they did last holiday season.
For online retailers, all that online shopping means a surge in traffic.
The process of fortifying your ecommerce site for holiday shopping might include ensuring your checkout flow is working smoothly, testing site performance, and ensuring you have a back-up plan for items that are out of stock.
At many retail organizations, holiday prep might also entail deciding whether or not to launch a code freeze ahead of higher traffic—a decision that’s becoming more and more contentious.
In previous years, code freezes during the holiday season were standard practice for many ecommerce teams. However, with more widespread adoption of Agile methodologies and evolving QA processes, some organizations now see code freezes as antiquated and unnecessary.
If you’re an ecommerce product manager weighing the pros and cons of code freeze, this guide is for you.
Read on to explore the risks and benefits of enacting a code freeze on all or part of your ecommerce site this holiday season.
What is a code freeze?
Code freeze is a term used by engineering teams to refer to a period of time in which none of a website’s code is changed or modified. Many companies, ecommerce included, choose to go into a code freeze when high site traffic is expected—like during the holiday shopping season—to avoid technical issues that could arise if new code is deployed.
There are different levels of code freezes that can be enacted based on your organizations preferences and goals:
Hard freeze: This is the most extreme type of code freeze. In a hard freeze, the freeze is implemented at the deployment level, and developers temporarily do not have access to deploying the website’s code.
Soft freeze: In a soft freeze, developers agree not to make any changes to code, allowing for exceptions that a hard freeze doesn’t. For instance, a product manager might say that a particular feature can still be worked on, but the rest of the site or app is off limits.
Code frost: The most lenient version of a freeze, a code frost is a handshake agreement—rather than a hard-and-fast rule—between developers that far fewer changes will be made than usual. Some organizations implement a code frost ahead of a code freeze, so that work can wind down instead of coming to a sudden halt.
Additionally, specification and feature freezes pump the brakes on specific aspects of a product.
Pros of going into a holiday code freeze
Safety net against new bugs
When your site is likely receiving more visitors than ever, the last thing you want to do is accidentally add a new bug into the mix. Even though Agile practices and automated QA processes go a long way toward catching bugs while code is still in production, there’s no way to ensure that a piece of code is perfect before it’s been deployed.
This means that, as long as new code is being deployed, new bugs have a chance of making it onto your site.
Helps maintain site performance despite traffic spikes
Restricting changes to your site’s code protects you against service disruptions. During the holidays, your site likely has more shoppers with higher intent to purchase—making it an extremely inopportune time for your site to slow down or crash.
And while code freezes might fit cleanly in Agile methodology, many retailers choose to embrace site stability over innovative processes during such a critical season.
Opens up time to work on other site optimization projects
A code freeze effectively forces your developers to press pause on making code-based improvements to the site—but there are still ways to move toward a better digital experience during this period. Code freeze is a great time to do consumer research and analyze customer behavior with Digital Experience Intelligence.
For example, you can still run A/B tests during a code freeze. And since your site’s traffic is higher than average, you’ll get answers to your experiments in less time than you normally would.Then, you’ll have a set of new digital experience improvement projects in the pipeline when your code thaws after the holiday rush.
Cons of enacting a holiday code freeze
Unexpected issues can impact timelines
Enacting a code freeze is a time-consuming process, and means incorporating additional moving parts to your roadmap—increasing the likelihood that something will go wrong.
For example, you might uncover a critical bug while preparing to implement a code freeze. Freezing an existing bug on the checkout page of an ecommerce site is not a good idea, but the fix itself could very easily throw off your timeline. This is just one example of how code freezes can impact your site roadmap and slow your team’s progress.
Reduced developer productivity
This argument against code freeze needs little explanation. Code freezes require developers to essentially pause work on any ongoing projects—or, if they’re able to continue dev work, wait to ship new code until the freeze ends (which can lead to large, risky shipments later on). A code freeze can also impact productivity by interfering with momentum. Picking up a project after a month of inactivity can be challenging and time-consuming. However, a code freeze doesn't have to stop innovation. While deploying new code may be temporarily on hold, many teams will continue to work on feature branches in the background, shipping new features after the deployment freeze is over.
Risky code deployment
A code freeze creates a deadline—anything not shipped before the freeze begins will have to wait until the thaw.
This can lead developers to rush to finish in-production code in order to get it across the finish line ahead of the freeze—potentially leading to rushed code that’s more likely to have bugs or other defects that might have been found before shipment with more time for QA.
All in all, code freezes are right for some retailers and not for others. Whether or not to freeze code ahead of the holidays—or to what extent to freeze it—is a complex decision that should ultimately be made jointly by product managers and engineering teams.
Whatever you decide, higher site traffic makes the holiday season a great time to learn about user behavior and understand how to optimize your site’s digital experience.
Whether you’re planning a code freeze or not, start a free trial of FullStory before your next big retail event so you don’t miss out on valuable DX data.