Perfecting the CMS authoring experience

A content management system is nothing without its authors. It is absolutely essential to deliver a great authoring experience. Whatever system you have, an ambivalent or lazy approach to the quality of your authoring process will, at best, result in general resentment and, at worst, sow the seeds of premature system replacement.

So, what are the key things to focus on?

#4: Usability

Mature and widely-used content management systems often have highly usable editing environments already, thanks to the huge quantity of editing hours under their belts and a frequent release cycle. However, what is easy for one person is not necessarily easy for another. Your authoring community is unique and it is risky to assume that they will behave in the same way as other people.

If you can, user test the authoring process and take time to understand where your authors are hitting problems. If your CMS has a community-driven roadmap, submit ideas and recommendations to improve the usability in future releases. If it has a plugin architecture, you may be able to build a workaround or even solve the problem yourself.

If there is no chance of fixing the problems you uncover, at least you know what they are and can tailor help and training accordingly. Merely undertaking the user testing is also a great way to get to know your authors, show them that you value their experience and want to improve it.

#3: Findability

No page is an island. Although the page creation process is typically pretty straightforward in modern systems, creating and inserting the supporting content necessary to turn that wall of text into an engaging article can be a fragmented and demoralising experience.

Locating and adding related content must be fast and easy enough to allow your author to maintain flow. Authors need a good (and instant) internal content search and a well-organised, self-explanatory content storage system.

Although it may not be possible to fundamentally change how your system stores and retrieves content for authors, there are a couple of simple things you can do to make it as painless as possible:

  1. spend time keeping supporting content organised
  2. make sure supporting content is clearly named

Ultimately, making it easy for authors to find content within the system will maximise reuse and reduce duplication.

#2: Predictability

No one likes surprises, especially when they are trying to publish a news story to a deadline. It is imperative for the system to be consistent throughout and for it to behave not only as advertised but also as authors coming from other systems will expect.

Previews must preview perfectly or not at all. If the CMS feeds several different destinations or devices, consider multiple previews.

WYSIWYG editors should hint at visual differences (for headings, etc) during editing – but not exactly as they will appear in the website preview. This is because it is important to emphasise both the portability of content and the separation of content and presentation. Authors should not fall into the habit of relying on what they see in the editor as a lazy preview.

#1: Speed(ability?)

The number one consideration is the speed of the authoring process. The editor must load as quickly as a standard webpage and saving must be as close to instant as possible. The act of publishing must not result in a delay (unless planned of course).

The speed of a new system may lull you into a false sense of security. A near empty CMS with only a handful of users is unlikely to struggle. But the same system with hundreds of regular authors and millions of content items may be unusable. If you’re hosting in-house, consider whether you will need more server capacity as usage grows over time. If the system is cloud-hosted, how and when are new resources allocated?

Listen to your authors and believe them when they say the system is slow. The perception of slowness is just as important to understand as material speed problems. If you are able to monitor the true speed of the editor rather than relying solely on anecdotal evidence, do it.

In unified systems (where the content manager is on the same server as the site it powers) the editing speed is also, rather unfortunately, hampered by the amount of traffic on the website itself. The more popular the website is, the greater the misery for the authors as the editing performance degrades. In this situation, do whatever you can to minimise load on the authoring interface. This could range from caching strategies to load balancing to dedicated hardware for editing. Decoupled systems (where the presentation layer is separate and therefore unaffected by website load) do not suffer from this problem.

So, there you have it. In my opinion, the top priorities for a great authoring experience. CMS vendors, take note!