We need to talk about content management

I returned to England on Wednesday from the wonderful Smashing Conference in Freiburg, Germany. Vitaly, Marc and the whole Smashing Magazine team did an amazing job running the first of what I hope will be many Smashing Conferences. As an example of the care and attention given to the whole conference, take a look at this lovely title sequence that was commissioned for the event.

I was especially looking forward to Smashing Conference because I had been given the chance to present on a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about – content management systems. So despite the fact that delivering a brand new talk as part of this line-up was terrifying, I put together my thoughts and arrived in Freiburg with a shiny new slide deck.

At edgeofmyseat.com content management in some form or other is what we have spent our time doing for the last eleven years. As I explained to the Smashing Conference audience, we typically developed large and complex sites as a service for design agencies. Just over three years ago however, we launched a solution for much smaller sites – Perch. Developing and supporting Perch now constitutes most of what we do as a company. As a CMS creator and vendor, we see quite a different side of content management, as we support our customers and make decisions as to which of the many requests we get we should prioritise.

In my presentation I highlighted one of our biggest frustrations. The WYSIWYG editor, and the idea that clients demand design control in their content management system. Web designers generally have the confidence to explain to their clients why making the logo bigger or using Comic Sans as their main font isn’t a good choice. When it comes to the CMS however, when the client asks for something “like Word” or asks for design control, the designer will agree to it. The minute the client starts designing pages rather than editing content – the content becomes completely tied to that one design and one representation – usually desktop. Most content editors are not web designers and are not considering how that content will behave on mobile devices or how it may also be repurposed.

Essentially I believe that the attempts to create a better WYSIWYG are preventing true innovation in the CMS space. We don’t need better WYSIWYG editors, we need better ways to create content. Content that can be semantic, structured, adapt to a range of devices, uses and presentations. As Karen McGrane explains,

If we’re going to succeed in publishing content onto a million different new devices and formats and platforms, we need interfaces that will help guide content creators on how to write and structure their content for reuse. When we talk about mobile, we often focus on the front-end interactions, design, and code, but what I realized this year is that the solution to many problems with mobile lives way further down the stack, in the CMS.

I was really pleased to have so many interesting hallway conversations at the conference with people who have been battling with this same issue. Once we start thinking about this stuff there is a lot we can do with our existing systems and approaches. My aim is not to tell people they need to change their CMS. That isn’t possible in many situations. However I would suggest to everyone to look at how to use those tools to create better editing experiences for content creators, and to raise bugs with CMS vendors or projects on user experience or content issues, just like any other bug.

I hope to present again on this topic. We need to be thinking and talking about this. We rarely discuss content management in platform and language agnostic terms at design conferences, yet almost everyone is using these systems. Just by asking on Twitter you find that many people are struggling with the problems they can cause.

You can find my slides on Speaker Deck, and some additional resources on this site.


Matt Hinchliffe September 24, 2012 Reply

It’s a difficult place many developers find themselves – often somewhere between the commercial interests of selling a particular platform or not enough experience/training/skill to choose a more appropriate piece of software.

In the interest of being agnostic and enabling re-use of content anywhere it would be great to see more ‘content API’ type services coming through – the only such product I can think of is Osmek, which looks great – certainly talks the talk on their homepage – but the thought of a 3rd party holding my or a clients content still worries me.

Paul D. Waite September 26, 2012 Reply

See also Jason Grigsby’s recent blog post on the subject, including a couple of forthcoming book recommendations.

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