Design and Development

What does an optimal CMS user-experience look like?


Filed under: Web Development, Wordpress.

Last week, we talked about several specific problems with WordPress.  I know I said this week we were going to look at some solutions. But in thinking about the problems mentioned, I realized that it was more important to first go over some key user experience (UX) principles before discussing specific solutions.

So this week we will look at what an optimal CMS user experience should look like. We’ll outline the groundwork needed to create a really good editing experience in WordPress, and any other CMS.

The Future of Content Management - Rachel Andrews

This article is based heavily on Rachel Andrew’s talk on “The Future of Content Management”. Her talk really opened my eyes to how much our current management systems are lacking. You can watch it here in it’s entirety.

Is there such a thing as an optimal CMS?

First off, the optimal CMS is not really possible because everyone’s needs are different. However there are definitely some usability guidelines and principles that must be followed that will ensure a great experience for most content editors and businesses.

As designers/developers, we need to make sure whatever content management solution we are using, that it is focused on our users, and yes, it’s breaktakingly easy to use.

Rachel had a really good point in her talk about CMS’s. She said:

“Why don’t we as web developers talk about CMS’s? We kinda just live with them, but we don’t ever talk about them – they are just there. Why don’t we talk about the user experience of them if we know we are all are using them for our websites?”

As a creative web community we haven’t put much thought into creating a system for our end users. Yes, WordPress is definitely much better than Drupal or static HTML for most content editors, but it has a way to go before it truly is a great solution for both end users and developers.

Before we jump right in, we need to look at one major underlying usability problem with most modern CMS’s.

What is the one major problem with current CMS’s?

The big problem – WYSIWYG Editors

WYSIWYG editors are a big problem in current CMS systems not only for Clients but especially for developers.

I know this sounds like I’m suggesting going back to the bad-old-days of 1997, but take some time to think about it. Are Word-like editors really the best option for most content editors?

For Clients

For the average Client, giving them the “ability” to make design decisions for their websites is too much responsibility. After all, they hired us as designers and developers to make their business look good – because they are not trained as web professionals.

“We cannot expect non-developers and designers to make sane decisions about document semantics.  You need to be very careful giving them the ability to choose things even like h1 verses h3. You know they might hear something from an SEO guru who will tell them that h1 puts your site way up on Google and they’ll put all the page text in h1.” – Rachel Andrews

If we were talking about a blog, I would say that statement is totally out of context. But since we are talking about professional business websites, that have complex layouts – it has some validity.

Business owners are only expecting and demanding Word-like editors because we are giving it to them. If we show them a better, easier way to create content, they will jump on board.

Most CMS’s (with WYSIWYG editors) force the Client to make design decisions, which we know is a bad idea because they are not web people.

For Developers

The problem with WYSIWYG editors from a development perspective is that it gives untrained users the ability to wreck-havoc on a newly designed website. Also, it doesn’t give us the needed flexibility and power needed to create markup structuring the content in a way that is SEO friendly and consumable on all devices and screen resolutions.

Rachel wisely notes:

“Many designers see themselves as the Client. They are using the CMS as a way to build the website. The problem with this is that if the client gets the same control, they’ll have the ability to make major changes to the website.”

Your CMS should be entirely focused around your users and helping them to create great quality content, not on giving them design tools.

What should the CMS user experience look like?

Now that we’ve gotten WYSIWYG editors out of the way, what does a better editing user experience look like?

1. The CMS should help content editors make good decisions.

Even if you have trained someone on how to edit their website, they may leave the organization or hand over the editing to someone else who hasn’t had that training. That means the CMS has to be easy enough to learn out on the fly. We need to put in place little pieces of helpful info that will help users create great content.

What if you could put in-line helps that would guide editors into choosing the right content for that particular section. For a headline of a kids site it may popup with “Choose a fun title that describes your post”. Or for an event it could popup with ”Please choose a date from the Calendar for the event”. Simple things like this go a long way in guiding your users around the CMS.

“Let’s try to make the job for our content creators as easy as possible, and let’s build the tools and the infrastructure that we need to support them in creating great content.” – Karen McGrane, Content Strategist

2. The CMS should allow the designer to make semantic decisions so content editors don’t have to.

Instead of relying on a WYSIWYG editor to enter content, what if you just gave your content editor a form to fill in, and the CMS would take care of all the semantics. They create the content, and you create the markup.

One of the great things about separating content from the markup, is that we can take this content and publish it across many different platforms and implementations. Because the content isn’t tied to the markup, we can change and adapt the markup for each individual presentation of the information.

3. The CMS should protect the design and architecture decisions of the site.

“Your CMS should actively be removing HTML elements added by content editors (unless you really love 1997 markup).”  – Rachel Andrews

Don’t allow your users to destroy their website by giving them the ability to paste in html from around the web. This may seem a little old-school, but it is really one of the best ways to ensure that content is creating and structured in the proper format.

Since no one will be adding html to our content, it’s a lot easier to protect the design and layout of the site.  This is actually very freeing for content creators because they can quickly create great content without worrying how it will look.

If a Client doesn’t like the way something looks on the site, then it’s time to call up their designer.

The beauty of structured content is that it can be easily repurposed for each individual situation or use – on the site, for emails, RSS feeds, social media or even another website.

“When you keep control of document semantics – you can add Aria Roles, HTML5 elements, and format dates for international audiences.”

Structured content means the content is stored based on what is means rather than how it looks.

For instance, our contact info may appear in several different places on the website and each instance may need its own markup. In the footer we want to use an h3 element for the business name, while on the contact page it may need to be an h1.

Structured content gives great flexibility in designing websites, and also displaying content – which after all, is the core function of a website.

Structured Content is not an end-all solution.

In most situations, there’s always going to be elements needed like strong, emphasis, links, blockquotes, lists, inline images and uploaded files.

“So if we really think structured content is the way to go, then we need to think about how we can edit content in a beautiful way that actually makes it enjoyable to work with.”

This is where we need to develop creative solutions for our end users that gives them the needed flexibility, but maintains good structure and semantic quality.

One approach to this would be to use a Markdown editor for content creation. There are editors like Markitup that allow content editors to use markdown without learning another skill.

In general, we are solving the wrong problems.

Trying to make the CMS behave ‘like Word’ is solving the wrong problem. Because Word is not a good way to edit content.

“Ultimately a big textarea to fill in page content is just a really terrible user experience. Remember content editors are our users as well.  We shouldn’t be happy providing this to people when there are much better ways to do this.”

Why does WordPress have a big textarea for entering content, when most of our sites have more than one-column and multiple sections?

The CMS is there to make content editors successful. Its goal is to give them a way to create content in an environment that is a joy to use, and breaktakingly simple. One big ‘post-box’ may seem simple, but it’s really not.

Make it simple yes, but please, make it user friendly.

To recap everything

  • Structured content is really the best way to go.
  • The most important thing to do is to stop bad HTML from getting into content.
  • Treat content editors as your most important user.

You can start using this approach in your existing CMS. Don’t just throw out something like WordPress because it may not seem to be the perfect solution. Work with it and develop new tools and plugins and workflows that allow for new ways of creating and working with content.

It’s been really exciting for me to research what people are doing to make WordPress more user friendly – which is what we’ll look at next time. We’ll also take a look at some features that should be added in future versions of WordPress.

Here’s the link to the next article: “WordPress Reimagined in a More User-Friendly Way“.

Until next time,


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  1. Deniyah Gates

    I do agree that it is very imprtant to stop bad HTML from getting into content. A lot of these Content MAnagement Systems are difficult for the users to navigate through, especially with their aspx code language. Centralpoint allows you to code in LITERAL aspx. Centralpoint does have a function library, but the actual coding aspect behind structuring functions is true aspx. Contract management used to be a nightmare because of the variations per state. Using the dynamic form creator, we can dynamically create pdf’s on the fly based on where the user is coming from. Then we update a centralized database in one shot. No more document chasing.


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