Recent projects have forced me to look critically at how business users interact with their web content management systems, and the significance that the ethereal term “user experience” (which I will use interchangeably with the older term UI or user interface) can have both to their job satisfaction and their productivity. In my opinion, the single most important piece of a web content management solution is the interface used by the editorial team. If the user interface is poor or lacking, your editorial team will not work as quickly, content won’t be as fresh, and traffic to your site will usually drop.
A recent client came to me with evidence of a significant drop in the rate at which content was being updated, which translated to a similar drop in site traffic. Ultimately for this client, less traffic meant less ad revenue and that’s a bad thing. I can’t say that in other companies the relationship between web content and revenue is quite so linear, but it seems worth talking about the things that make web CMS easy to use.
There are web CMS features that your editorial team will find intuitive and those that they will find obtuse. Usually, the latter functions result in content editors saying, “I don’t get this; I’m not a developer.” Advanced functions are definitely important, and any organization will have the occasional savvy editor that will get (and use) the advanced features, but the focus of this short essay is in looking at the day-to-day activities. A system that embraces even the most casual content editor will ultimately be the most appreciated by the editorial team.
The Evolving Zeitgeist of Digital Interfaces
Zeitgeist is a German word, which literally translates as the spirit of the time. It’s usually used in conjunction with ethics or culture and describes how ethical and cultural norms change over time. What might have been perfectly acceptable textbook material in the 1900s may come across as offensive today. Much of what we read today may come across as offensive a hundred years from now.
There’s a similar shared experience when it comes to digital interfaces, especially since technology is an increasingly fundamental part of our lives. As our digital aesthetic evolves over time, interfaces across all media and channels need to stay up to date if they are to see fast adoption. Thankfully, these changes generally happen slowly and over a time (the iPhone is a prime exception to this rule). Start up an old Mac OS 2 and see how antiquated it seems. The most striking thing will be the lack of rounded edges. The shift from hard edges to rounded corners has been happening both online and in our operating systems for quite some time.
What does all this mean for your content team? Your content editors are going to be more efficient and more productive on a system that most closely matches user experiences they are already familiar with. The user experience designers at software companies like OpenText, Adobe/Day and Microsoft have also come to a similar conclusion as they are putting increasing emphasis on user experience. A few key usability features that all clients should look for when evaluating a new web CMS solution include:
Performance of the Editor’s Console
A slow system will be the death of your web CMS implementation. Period. If the interface isn’t responsive or the content gets “stuck” in the workflow process, your users will get frustrated quickly. Frustration leads to lack of confidence in the system, which in turn will lead to lack of adoption and use.
Window Management, Lightboxes and Transparency
Many of the original web CMS providers that started in the late ‘90s had way too many pop-ups. If you edited an article using the in-context tool: pop-up. If that article had a list of related links and you wanted to add a link: pop-up.
Adobe recently acquired Day Software, another innovative web CMS solution provider, and they are experimenting with some pretty fancy in-context editing features. Click on the title of an article and it will turn into a text field for quick adjustment. Click somewhere else and the title saves itself. This is a faster and more intuitive way of editing than the traditional model of opening a window to edit a full discrete piece of content.
Contemporary (for Now) Design Features
Web CMS UX design teams are trying to make sure that their most recent “skin” looks as contemporary as possible. Use of rounded corners for instance, as seemingly simple as it sounds, goes a long way in providing a soft and modern user experience. Distinct single- and double-clicking responses — one click selects a navigation node, a double-click to drill down deeper — are another useful distinction that makes interacting with the software resonate with editors.