How Would You Design a Content Management System?

Rendered Concept of a Digital Content Lifecycle.

By Cathy Hodson

What is a content management system (CMS)? According to Wikipedia, “A Content Management System (CMS) is a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content as well as maintenance from a central interface. Such systems of content management provide procedures to manage workflow in a collaborative environment. These procedures can be manual steps or an automated cascade. CMSs have been available since the late 1990s.”

In other words, a CMS allows multiple content creators (frequently called “authors”), a managed workflow (approval process), and either automated or manual features.

I have experience with two content management systems: Ektron and SharePoint. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. I have also kicked the tires on other CMSs, and they too have the good, the bad and the ugly. Recently I asked the members of the Web Editors group, “If you could design/develop your own content management system, which features would be ‘must haves’?

Must Have Features
The responses were interesting. J.D. desired more project management features, “The CMS should know that nothing goes public until an assignment of copyright agreement has been executed.”

He also recommended staging features, workflow integration (“you should get a view of works in progress”) and annotation, in particular, fact checking and documenting the fact checking.

Barbara wanted “True WYSIWYG. Period.”

Ken wanted to “work on a system that has all the parts that were promised. Twice this week I’ve been told…’Oh, that’s scheduled for the next version.'”

Control
If you were designing your own content management system, which features would you want to include? For me, there are a few, and they have to do with control. Being able to control the style (rules and guidelines used for consistency across a website) within the CMS so authors not well versed in your company’s or your website’s style cannot stray from it. Another feature I’d like would be to have the HTML view of your content be color coded, such as in Dreamweaver. It makes it easier to pick things out when you’re looking for something rather than having everything in black type on a white background. In Dreamweaver, if there’s a problem in the code, the color coding stops where the problem is so you can find where the snarl is a little easier also. (If you’re colorblind, however, that may not be as effective.) It would also be nice to be able to use a global replace in the HTML view.

There are times when it seems that developers of content management systems don’t understand what a content editor or author does. They are not aware of the publishing process that a writer or editor goes through in order to add or maintain content on the website. This disconnect can be a major issue at times. For instance, when my company was going through its most recent redesign, we expressed our desire to the developers that, as all content funneled to me for approval, I needed to be able to see what had changed on each page. I needed a redlined version, in other words. Our company, at the time, had several thousands of web pages. There was no way I could possibly memorize each page and instantly recognized what an author had changed in an existing page when it came to me for approval. Because we have such a high volume of content, I didn’t have time to dig through everything on every page that was submitted to me to try and figure out what the author had changed. Had they deleted any paragraphs? Had they linked to something new? Was there an update to the photos? It would be helpful to see only what had changed so that I could review those changes and then send the page on its way to the website, or back to the author for more work. There was great puzzlement on the developers’ part, not understanding why this was so critical. We finally got across to them why it was so necessary, and were able to implement a customized tool that allowed me to see what an author had done to a page.

Gibberish code
About the time we were discussing this topic, I received an email newsletter, Fierce Content Management, and read the Editor’s Corner: “Content Management Systems drive me nuts!” by Ron Miller. I read with particular interest, “Last week for instance, I tried to drop in some code for the content marketing infographic we published. Typically, it’s like dropping in the code for embedding a YouTube video. You access the source code, paste the embed code, and presto, you have an infographic in your post. But lately our CMS has decided to spontaneously add gibberish to the infographic embed code making it virtually useless and forcing my co-worker, Emily Poe, to have the added work of dropping it in as an image instead.”

That hit home with me, as our CMS also will add gibberish when our authors copy and paste from a Microsoft Word file. Sensing a kindred spirit, I contacted Ron and asked him for his “must have” features. He sent the lists below:

Back End:

  • Make sure it supports multiple writers easily.
  • Make sure it’s easy to update the CMS. (WordPress is drop-dead easy).
  • Make sure you set up a good set of tags ahead of time.
  • Leave a place for the writer to include a one or two sentence excerpt and encourage writers to create this for you.
  • Make sure it’s easy to add alt text to your photos (very important for disabled community).
  • Make sure it’s easy to embed content like video and inforgraphics (easy access to HTML code)
  • Make sure it’s easy to add and edit photos. (visuals are really important in my view).
  • See if you can find a plug in for creating a weekly newsletter and linking it to a mailing list app like MailChimp.

Front End:

  • Accessible contact info.
  • Some sort of comment security like Disquus. Doesn’t prevent morons, but helps.
  • Prominent search box.
  • Resources like white papers and ebooks.
  • Include all your site’s social media info
  • Make it easy to subscribe
  • Make it drop-dead easy to share across all major social networks.
  • Easy to copy and paste text from outside sources and maintain style

None of the CMSs will be perfect. They all have their quirks, and web editors must find work-arounds and solutions we can live with. But it sure would be nice if we could design our own, or at least catch the ear of the developers and have them truly understand what our needs are. Anyone?

Next time: Editor vs. Programmer

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