Good questions to ask yourself when choosing a Content Management System

Choosing a suitable content management system for your business is not merely a decision on a technical system – it has ramifications for the website built on it, for vendor options, for the maintenance budget and for the everyday life of content managers.

When making your decision, you will run into some problematic questions. Don’t be put off. Although these questions are complex, they are not overwhelming.

J.Boye is an international, Denmark based consulting company that aims at sharing ICT  project know-how and bringing digital professionals together. Recently, J.Boye published a condensed “Buyer’s Guide” for those intending to buy a new web content management system (CMS) for their business needs. This document, 16 pages long, is publicly available in PDF form:

The guide is not a hands-on manual on the various features of specific CMS products, so it may be a little disappointing if you’re looking for practical pointers. Instead, the guide discusses the essential questions you need to ask yourself (and answer, too) before making decisions concerning the CMS or its vendor. The questions presented in the guide are strategic and highly important, covering all the critical aspects of objectives, user profiling, platform architecture and budget.

On the other hand, it is frustrating how abstract and conceptual these questions inevitably are. Answering all the questions calls for a substantial body of research, analysis and surveys, which I presume will be unattainable for most companies.

Certainly it should not be so stressful and complicated to choose a CMS!  Even in the Buyer’s Guide, the actual selection process is squeezed into four action points:

  1. Write down your priorities, goals and overall requirements for a short RFP
  2. Make a shortlist of preferred vendors and invite them to answer your RFP
  3. Invite 3–4 vendors to present their views
  4. Select the most suitable vendor

As this shows, the complexity of the process lies not in the CMS selection in itself, but in planning the overall vision for your websites and applications, their technical capabilities and their governance for years to come.

That’s why choosing a suitable CMS is a lot easier than the guide indicates. Yet, if you want to develop sustainable websites, you need to find answers to all the questions posed in the paper. To me, the guide evoked some profound questions concerning current web trends and problems that do not seem to fade away although the years go by.

Mobile strategies in CMS selection?

As this is “The Year of Mobile”, the Buyer’s Guide also elaborates on the issue of engagement through smartphones, and gives plenty of food for thought concerning mobility. Yet it seems to over-emphasize the variations of mobile solutions, because the mobile user experience is usually created by designers and the front-end implementation, not by the features of the CMS. When choosing a CMS, I would not base the selection on mobile use criteria, for surely that is typically an aspect not generated with actual CMS tools?

Furthermore, in respect of mobile solutions, the Buyer’s Guide offers a table of the pros and cons of web apps, hybrid apps, native apps, mobile websites and responsive design. This seems overly complicated in relation to CMS selection, for (at least here in Finland) the industry standard these days seems to be that websites are responsive (or ‘adaptive’), problem solved. The special user functions that would benefit from being published as a mobile app are really scarce, and when building them, the CMS has little to do with it.

Maybe I am picturing the premises of Finnish companies from a far too modest viewpoint, but in a nutshell: reasonable adaptiveness on all modern websites is usually taken for granted, and investments in a separate mobile app are usually very hard to argue for. Of course, if a CMS does not support responsive user interfaces, that is a reason for rejecting it.

How do you verify user-friendliness?

For me, good usability is a quality of the CMS that cannot be compromised. If the CMS is a pain to use, the contents of the website will not be lively, accurate or up-to-date. J.Boye’s Buyer’s Guide dedicates a chapter to the requirements for user experience. I am not sure if the questions of administration, workflows or multi-channel publishing are relevant in this context, but user-friendliness is definitely one the main criteria of a successful CMS selection.

How to measure or assess the user-friendliness of the CMS, then? Even after years of experience in usability, I would not be able to define a fixed set of criteria or a checklist for CMS usability. We have all seen systems that are easy to use, and other ones that are excruciating to use, but it is hard to analyze exactly what it is that creates the user experience. Furthermore, there are some CMSs that seem to be complicated at first glance, but once you have understood their inner logic, they are quite easy and rewarding to use. That’s why first impressions might be deceiving even if you get to have a show-and-tell of a CMS from the vendor.

Could it be that the only way to verify the usability of an unknown system is to ask peer groups or other users for their experiences..?

How do you predict the future?

Another agonizing perennial problem is the anticipation of future needs. Naturally, it is a disaster if something you buy today becomes obsolete the next year, but how do you prepare for something you do not know? A CMS is an investment for at least 3–4 years, but in the rapid development cycles of the Internet, a new paradigm that changes everything could emerge any day. There cannot be any guarantees that your CMS includes the capabilities for this unpredictable new need.

The Buyer’s Guide presents some insightful questions for ensuring the future extensibility, scaling and integrations of the CMS. As the guide suggests, these demands need to be tackled from a practical point of view: What could be the real data that might need integrations or enhancements in future? You cannot be prepared for everything, but it is possible to narrow down the future options that are likely to realize.

How do you estimate the costs?

For me, it was refreshing to see that the Buyer’s Guide encourages readers to doubt their investment and to ask themselves: “Is the number of users large enough to justify the cost of development and maintenance?” It seems to be taken for granted nowadays that any service that any organization provides needs to be available online. This is a customer-friendly approach, sure, but is it reasonable at any cost?

As well as a necessary tool, a CMS is also a costly investment that should not be replaced or rebuilt on light arguments. Surprisingly often we see organizations on a tight budget spending tens of thousands of euros for website renewals that could have been implemented as a cost-effective facelift on the old system for a third of the cost with the same results. A new content management system can be the cure for only few of the online service provider’s problems. Therefore, its renewal is not always the ultimate solution, and its value should be calculated in proportion to its expenses.

But how do you weigh the costs and benefits of a CMS? You can try to calculate the value of the out-of-the-box applications of a licensed CMS product, or you can measure the liberties of a tailored open source system, but ROI calculations are unlikely to be well-grounded. How much are you willing to pay for user-friendliness? How much is a single feature worth, such as support for language versions?

From my point of view, selection of a CMS is more and more based on attitudes towards different technologies, personal preferences and some particular features required for the website. If the costs have a role in the process, it means determining a very rough price range (inexpensive / moderate / high-end), from within which the options are selected for closer examination.

To find the right solution for your content management needs, the biggest challenge is to pinpoint your essential requirements. For this challenge, J.Boye’s small Buyer’s Guide gives useful inspiration for examining the business goals, user expectations, data handling and your organization with its resources that are all shaping the needs for Content Management System.

This entry was posted in CMS selection and tagged , , , , , , , by Virpi Blom. Bookmark the permalink.

About Virpi Blom

Virpi Blom is a Web Concept & Project Expert at North Patrol. Her expertise covers web concepts, content strategies, user experience and overall planning of web projects. She consults on matters of concept design and strategic roadmaps, as well as on designing and documenting the functional requirements. Virpi has over 15 years of experience with web sites, intranets and extranets from the viewpoint of their planning, defining, design, copywriting and usability testing. She has specialized in ensuring the positive user experience, regarding both form and function.

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