Good usability in CMS? A myth?

No, not a myth. Although for many people CMS usability doesn’t exist. The reason, though, is not that CMS vendors aren’t trying. They are working hard.

But the whole concept of CMS user experience is in its early stages.

First of all, the CMS world is divided into two camps. One side is making rich WYSIWYG interfaces while the other is working on structured content management. Yes, many are saying that they do both, but in reality most of them do structured content management. They have just invested a lot to a “decoration layer” on top of a structured content model.

The big paradox is that both camps are right.

The increasingly multichannel world needs a better grasp of content items that are delivered to different channels. We are not all going to be media companies, but we will face similar challenges when we grow up with our websites. Therefore we need better structured content management. Also, most of us have marketing and business people who care about the experience of our users (I guess we all should care about that), and those marketing people really need better tools to optimize landing pages, front pages, product pages and recommendations. They need to be able to see what they are doing—therefore the need for better WYSIWYG interfaces.

You just can’t build a complex personalization and marketing automation system without proper previews and rich editing interfaces. Well, you can, but it will be painfully hard to make even minor changes. This is the big dilemma for CMS vendors right now.

The most basic patterns for a good CMS user experience are only emerging. Even elementary things like managing files, versions and previews can be quite different in different CMSs. Although many features have similarities, truly common practices don’t really exist. This makes learning curves for new users painfully steep. Even “philosophically” similar CMSs can have strange differences in basic functionality. The current situation is like cars having differently shaped steering wheels. Differentiation? Yes. Overly complex for new users? Indeed.

The rise of open source CMSs is improving things in some areas. Especially WordPress is setting basic standards for certain areas, and whether commercial CMSs like it or not, they have to mimic WordPress in many areas.

Sadly, in terms of complexity management, WordPress and other simpler tools are quite far behind when it comes to meeting the challenges of large enterprises.

From the user’s point of view this is only a good thing. There are enough difficult areas that need the full attention of CMS vendors, such as personalization. Achieving some shared practices shouldn’t be that bad. Yes, we might need a complete overhaul when we truly get into personalization and other difficult areas—but that probably takes years for most organizations anyway.

Conclusion? Enterprise UX is freakishly hard. And having a moving target is not really helping. Don’t expect CMS vendors to nail this paradox any time soon.

This blog post was written after the CMS Expert Group Europe met in Hamburg at Coremedia where one of the themes was enterprise UX challenges.

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