in Digital Media

Beyond Lorem Ipsum. Rethinking Content Strategy.

Web design is about more than slapping a nice palette over top of a grid based on the golden ratio. Nor is it about using the latest CSS tricks (cool as those may be).

It’s about thinking of your entire site holistically. Sure, design matters. But so does content. And context. You can’t design a site without first figuring out the content. Or, as Jeffrey Zeldman put the point a few years ago:

Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.

(And who says you can’t have substance in 140 characters?)

Content management systems: The software that UX forgot

As someone who has spent the last two years preaching the gospel content first gospel, I wanted to stand and cheer throughout most of the two days of DC’s An Event Apart conference last week. Much of the conference revolved around content. (Well, technically, much of the conference revolved around adaptive design, but the running subtext was that adaptive design won’t help unless you have the right sorts of content inside your design.)

I’ve already touched a bit on day 1 of the conference. Now that I’ve had time to mull things over a bit, I’d like to offer what was (for me, anyway) the main lesson of the event. So here goes:

If your content sucks, there’s a good chance it’s because your content management system sucks.

And, frankly, your content management system probably sucks. Don’t feel bad. Pretty much all of them do. As Karen McGrane quipped, “Content management systems are the enterprise software that UX forgot.”

Let’s face it: there’s a reason that WordPress is crazy popular, and that reason certainly isn’t the technology. I mean, it’s slow, it’s full of hacked together plugins, and it’s a security nightmare. But it powers 1348392885790 blogs (approximately) because it’s Really. Simple. To. Use. In 10 minutes, I can set up my account and start blogging at Even the self-hosted version requires very few technical skills to set up and maintain. Unless I’m a serious power user, I can do anything I want without ever leaving the admin interface. And once I’m in that interface, I can drag things around to accommodate my own workflow.

Contrast that with, say, Drupal, which is an extremely powerful CMS that is far more extensible, scales better, and is more secure than WordPress. But my god, is it ever unfriendly to content creators.

On an enterprise level, things are even worse. XML publishing systems are awkward, expensive, and rare. In fact, in many places, SharePoint is the closest thing to an ECMS you’ll find. But SharePoint is mostly good for managing Word documents. You need third-party applications to extract and reuse content from a Word doc. And even if you have all that in place, it’s not like SharePoint is all that user-friendly.

Create once. Publish in…multiple sizes of PDF.

So what do we end up with? Well, if you’re like my agency, then the combination of lousy content management systems and easy-to-use word processors with their nice wysiwyg editors (added to a set of senior managers who really prefer to read on paper) results in a publishing process that is geared entirely toward print. Word documents with their inline styling get circulated (by email, no less) and then moved into a print production process (using Framemaker, speaking of things that have been largely forgotten) and then handed off to the web team as PDF documents.

That’s not a process that lends itself toward producing even good HTML content. It’s certainly not a process that allows for a create once, publish everywhere approach. Right now, we’d need a full team for every medium — a print production team, a web production team, a mobile production team, an app production team…it’s tiring just thinking about it.

Alternatively, you can do as one person at my agency suggested and just have the print people create a 3-inch PDF for people to read on their BlackBerry.

So the situation thus far:

  • Content that isn’t adaptable across platforms.
  • Processes still driven by the needs of print.
  • Enterprise content management systems geared toward facilitating the sharing of documents.
  • Online CMSes that are uniformly hard to use.

The solution requires a fundamental rethinking of how we produce and organize content. But this post is already really long. So in the interests of trying to live by my own rules, I’ll save the solution for the next post.

That one will have pictures.

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