Clients and Content Management Systems

Posted: August 18, 2008 Comments(5)

Content management can be a great thing. My company depends on effective content management for a number of things. Foremost, our clients are terribly excited that they themselves will be able to manage the content of their website. Long gone are the days where a call needs to be made just to update a paragraph or two. More exciting for clients is the absence of invoices for work that should be manageable in house.

Content management is a welcome addition to the modern Web, but nothing comes without fault, and there is definitely a dark side to content management systems. Moving beyond the troublesome aspects of bloated markup within the CMS itself or poor interface choices, a major problem with content management systems, is that you’re allowed to edit content.

Revisiting a recurring issue

Long time readers know that I’ve written on this subject before, but over the past few months, some new and interesting issues have cropped up alongside those discussed in my previous article.

The challenge discussed in my previous article covered mostly the issue of markup quality of content. More often than not, a CMS will provide editors with a WYSIWYG interface, allowing users the ability to format content in much the same way as using a word processor. WYSIWYG editors of higher quality will take certain measures to ensure the resulting markup is at least valid, but that does nothing to ensure that the integrity of, for instance type, is retained.

The article continued to discuss alternatives to WYSIWYG by way of plain text markup languages such as Markdown and Textile. Both systems are incredibly useful, but I haven’t had the best luck explaining the purpose to clients. More often than not the reaction is something similar to “I don’t get it, can I use Word to copy and paste?”

It’s about aesthetics

The content on a website represents a number of things. Website content represents value. Poor content (and poor content organization) directly relate to a blatant lack of usefulness (and therefore value). There is also an aesthetic value to websites. There are good looking websites and bad looking websites. There are some in the middle, but the point to take home is that web design does in fact hold an aesthetic value. Most of the time, content management systems destroy that value by placing too much power in the hands of its users.

My company uses a CMS built from the ground up in house, which completely and wholly caters to 95%+ of our clients ‘out of the box.’ It’s very rare we have to do much in the way of custom programming on top of our existing CMS to make the system work for a client project. That said, our CMS allows clients quite a bit of control over their website, nearly to a fault.

Clients are thrilled to hear that not only is the formatting of content under their control, but much of the site imagery as well. While that aspect of the CMS works out great for sales, it makes the design team cringe a bit after a site has been pushed live. The various imagery scattered around the site in support of the content has now been replaced with pictures that ‘pop!’ and obtrusive calls to action which do nothing but take a toll on design integrity.

You get what you asked for

After reflecting on it for a bit, I realized something; that’s exactly what we told them to do. A major aspect of each project is client excitement knowing that they’ll be able to control the content of their website. At the end of the day, a client has paid us to provide that ability along with a shiny new website. Once the site has been launched, and the ‘keys’ have been handed over, do we have the right to say something? It’s a natural desire, after all.

There are a few ways to look at it. Considering the possibility of contacting the client to start a discussion surrounding the content they’ve managed invites some social ramifications that should be considered. While you as a designer may be viewed as an expert by your client, it’s very possible that offense may be taken to your observation. How to handle it?

My company bills by the hour, something to keep in mind throughout this brief analysis. In our case, a first option would be discussing the issue at hand, outlining our concerns, and offering feedback. Ideally, our concerns would be taken into considerations and a revision could be made. There remains an issue, however. We’ve provided a content management system to a client, they’ve used it to edit their content, and we’re now suggesting a further revision be made. Is that billable time? It’s a gray area, in my opinion. While the client may greatly appreciate the additional time you’re offering, they may not want (or feel the need) to pay for it. After all, it looks good from their viewpoint. Alternatively, the work could be taken care of pro bono, simply for the sake of using the site in your portfolio.

A third option, although the least desirable, would be pulling back your CMS. Simply removing the level of content management to a certain degree would help to circumvent issues outlined here, but it results in a much more limited system you’re trying to sell.

It’s a touchy area, but it comes down to partnering and client relationships. Both you and your clients are working toward a common goal. You’ll be able to accurately assess whether it’s appropriate to approach clients on aesthetic issues which have arisen. More often than not, if handled properly, you will be able to find common ground with your client partner and provide the best possible solution for the good of the project.

I can’t be alone here. For those of you doing client work, how do you handle issues like this?

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  1. I work with the open source Drupal, but the problem remains the same. How do I deal with it? Muttering “OMFG what have they done!” at the screen…putting my head in my hands and muttering “no, no no”…I don’t deal with it at all in fact.

    All I can think is that eventually they often get bored when the novelty wears off and it becomes work again, leaving you an avenue to intervene.

    I guess at the end of the day this is really about education, there’s a need to educate customers about copywriting, about design. It’s hard to do it without insulting them though 🙂

  2. My solution is to only provide only Markdown editing capabilities and no access to website templates or css. I tell the client that site consistency is very important to internet visitors. And it was consistency that you appreciated when they visited my portfolio.

    They can add content as they wish, using plain, bold, italic, and bold italic text. I am completely up front and I usually state in it in these words “You won’t be able to add big red text — but that’s okay and you can get your point across without big red text.”

  3. Well, you’re offering a management system, not an authoring system, so once it’s handed over it’s their responsibility.

    Writing content for the web is a skill in itself; too much emphasis is placed on design. If an organisation is willing to pay professionals for the design, they should pay for professionals to write (which includes the formatting) the content as well.

  4. I agree, there’s a difficulty here which would be nice to effectively resolve. These other guys make some good points. There are professional ways of basically saying “no”. On the other hand, you want to offer something that they can really get into.

    Adrian mentioned educating clients. We would need to ask ourselves, how would this be done? Is there potentially, a good system for this already in place somewhere…maybe a collection of YouTube videos perhaps? Something that isn’t boring or tedious, but effectively gets the points across would be a good way to start. You could possibly create the video(s) yourself ahead of time maybe?

    If you go the education route, it has got to be turned into some part of the mechanisms of the sale… maybe not during the sale, but at least before the product is finally delivered. Then before they even touch the site, they understand some basics which help to curb the crazy crud they’ll come up with.

    On the other hand, pairing down their ability wouldn’t hurt, if it were seen as absolutely no draw-back. Therefore, if you could manage to work your CMS into a DMS (Data Management System), and have pre-defined displays/views for almost all types of data, and just make it a matter of filling out wording and such in forms, then you might have something. I think that the idea here, is to think of how you can pre-style various things for your client, based on it’s purpose and place, and then offer a form-based system for them to edit, add, and remove those bits of content. The content is then seen as the sum of all the parts: the data, the styling, the views, the placement, etc.

    So with that in mind, you would customize your system so that the focus of your clients is to have a dead-simple way to add various types of content, by simply filling out data in forms. One thing I’ve done with a record label web site, is to build a forms based content system that allows them to add, edit, and remove musicians, releases, and podcasts, which limits their ability to have any control over the presentation. I’ve made it data-driven as much as possible, which resulted in them filling out forms with specific relevant info, and then the info is then used and re-used by various features of the site. E.g., when a podcast features an artist exclusively, then by use of a couple of form features, that artist’s image, link, releases, and cd covers are all pulled into the corresponding news article.

    Personally, the idea of giving my clients a WYSIWYG editor terrifies me. That’s like dropping a 6 year-old by themselves with the key, behind the wheel of a Ferrari, and saying “Have at it!” They’d have no idea that they are about to crash and possibly kill themselves, and maybe hurt or kill others. I think the thing we developers need to do is try and think FOR our clients, so they don’t have to.

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