Dr. Content

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love CMSs

Recently I've started analysing the way most designers and developers use and implement a content management system, collecting thoughts on their preferred solutions and how they use them and multiple conclusions came up. For the most part I believe there are a few mental roadblocks in terms of what we expect from them. And evolution in this field can be summed up to us adjusting our ways of working to them and not the other way around.

The way I see it, there’s a number of interaction issues in the way a regular CMS works. The process of interacting with it hasn’t exactly evolved all that much and that causes the usage experience to be cumbersome and sometimes unpleasant.

Before we dig in and as a side note, Christopher Butler has recently written a great article on how his team went through the process of rethinking their own approach to how they manage content in a web page. I think it's important for us to make a deep UX analysis about the way a CMS works and what drives us web creators to choose one over the other.

A few common problems

One way or another all web projects are about communicating something. Making a point. The client has his own set of reasons to create a website, as well as a set of expectations on what's it going to be like. Let's consider his brief to be “a content manageable website for a new brand”, with no other specifications about the system other than being “easy/fast to edit”. I actually find this to be a common request much more often than any particular tech specification.

1. Detached Experience

In the era of touchscreens we're closer than ever to our interface objects and yet most common CMS suffer from detachment. Managing your website through a series of abstract tables and forms is like going back to catalogue shopping or asking an operator to patch your call to your mother. Most of the problem lies in the fact that in some of these “old” interfaces feedback is not always immediate. You almost always have to save and then preview. While some people carry the expectation that a WYSIWYG text editor will work exactly like MS Word and solve most of their editing problems, it doesn’t. Instead it will only be there to ruin the design by having someone paste text set in Calibri.

A good solution for this long distance relationship with interfaces is usually inline editing. The pattern itself has been around for quite a while but you don't see it very often on a CMS. Of course it won't solve everyone's problems – and might cause some more – but if we consider how platforms like Medium or Exposure have reached such great UX we might believe it’s possible to bring both worlds a bit closer together. Editing content in place is as easy as it gets.

A few systems have evolved and attempted to use this pattern. LightCMS is probably a good example as well as Barley. These tools bring us higher usability levels, better user experience and possibly faster ways to deal with layouts. The benefits of these kind of inline editing interfaces are immense when compared to the usual admin panels, but to deal with long complex page layouts with them might be a trickier subject.

2. The Level of Control

Control over your own website can be a tricky subject to discuss. A client hardly ever wants to give up control since he usually wants to be able to do as much as he can on his own, not understanding why it's not always easy to provide all-in-one solutions.

It's safe to agree that a project is much simpler to design and to markup if it's not meant to be integrated with a backend framework. You can design whatever layout you want without considering how it will repeat bits of HTML or integrate with the framework. And that way the message can become richer with it’s custom design, instead of being something that resembles a template. Like yourself wearing a designer’s suit, the content of your web page would have it’s own tailored vessel and it would probably look awesome! On the other side, allowing content editing in a complex layout can become something very tricky (think of a landing page for a new Kickstarter kind of product). And so we usually tend to avoid these complex and original layouts and stick with standard solutions. We simplify and adapt, diminishing originality and complexity.

Take Wordpress, the most used CMS, as an example. Wordpress is all about posts or pages based on the combination of title + text + image. When creating a template for a Wordpress page you can try to combine those 3 default elements in many original ways — or find a way to add more fields — and through that you can try to craft the perfect layout for each page. But if you hand over the content management to your client you won't always be around to make decisions on any new pages he tries to create. It will still be up to him to decide which of the templates you designed to use. I personally don’t agree this is the best way to work but it happens. The client having control over the templates skips the whole concept of the designer as an advisor but allow me to state this to make a bigger point.

We definitely need an original but manageable solution for this scenario other than a “title+text+image template” even if it sticks inside a smaller set of constraints. While static page generators like Middleman make a really good companion if you’re crafting a website that’s visually complex but requires seasonal editing, it won’t allow the client to update his own content but at least it allows us to quickly perform some update tasks, no matter what the layout is. There’s quite a few options based in text files but they don’t seem to encompass complex layouts as well.

3. Time Consumption

Time is one of the most precious commodities in this equation and there's none to waste. In my experience, often it will be “the level of control” that determines how much time it will take to develop a website or how hard it is to use a CMS. Simple interfaces that work miracles take a lot of time to develop. The easier it should be to use, the harder it will be for us to customize an existing CMS or to build it from scratch.

I’m no copywriter myself, but if you're like me you like to help your client craft every bit of his website, giving him writing guidelines and photography tips. My clients usually value this dedication and consider it of great value. But after launch most won’t dare to write on their own or won’t have time for that. Recently, after finishing one of our latest websites we started getting emails from the client requesting us to update bits of text that he had access to from the CMS. We had to change the contract and we ended up proposing him a retainer for these services which kinda contradicts the existence of a CMS. Of course we can still use it ourselves but perhaps it would have been faster and simpler to just edit content in plain HTML or directly in the database. And this once again isn’t so rare to happen and I’m sure some of you will relate to this.

As an alternative we’re currently developing a new system that reduces the user’s interaction barriers and our coding time. All editing takes place inline to avoid detachment, allowing any kind of complex layout to be used and with virtually no integration time or backend skills. User tests so far have showed that affordance levels are very high although some control limitations are still being questioned by users. I don’t consider this to be a perfect solution but I believe it is important to do some boundary-checking before picking a CMS for our next project. More on this soon.

4. Other issues

  • Lack of clear hierarchy and focus: do the CMS templates help you reflect your content’s hierarchy or is everything a plain text paragraphs?
  • Overly complex systems for simple tasks: sometimes all a client needs is to change a word of a button or label.
  • Overly simple systems for complex designs: how will you integrate a blogging CMS in a complex page layout?
  • No content limits: was the template prepared for so much content?

Work methodologies are very personal and obviously you might find other topics of possible conflict. I would love to know what really grinds your gears so feel free to stay in touch.


The Wikipedia article will tell you that CMS became popular in the late 90's with the rise of the blogging culture. Those systems soon went beyond publishing and editing content, allowing the manipulation of design and structure and leading to most of the mentioned issues. But allowing text and images to be edited is one thing.

When the layout you created needs to change over time and to be controllable by someone else that’s a whole different subject where Murphy's law comes to play. This loss of control can be a daunting idea for most of us. I believe this is due to our CMS choices and popular solutions like Wordpress, Drupal or Joomla, that cover complex situations but require our designs to be done in specific and limited ways. And so here we are.

In the end I think we mustn't let our creativity be controlled by how a CMS works in the same way we shouldn't feel limited by a grid system. Instead we should adapt them to our way of working or even craft new ones. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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