I Have a Huge Problem with WYSIWYG Editors

Posted: November 10, 2008 Comments(15)

I’ve yet to see a WYSIWYG implementation that’s in the least bit helpful when considering both the client and the design itself. I’m not talking text editors here, no. I’m talking copy editors in content management systems. I hate to write a rant, but unfortunately this piece is shaping up to be just that.

Again with content management?

I’ve come to the realization that clients and content management systems do not mix. As an example, in a recent RFP (a subject unto itself), the outlined requirements of the provided CMS included the ability to adjust kerning, line-height, typeface, and color of all content on the page.

Going beyond the fact that this request was put together by someone who has absolutely no idea about modern Web design, I’m beginning to see more fluff along these lines. Are we really at such a level where average potential clients are making the leap to such things as kerning and line-height?

The client issue

What it comes down to, I suppose, is the level of client you’re working with. There are clients who just want what they have seen as possible. If there is a feature available and you don’t offer it, your skill is inferior. We’re well aware of scope creep and bloat, but clients do not often respect either.

I’m not knocking the client perspective in the least. I, in fact, truly enjoy doing client work. I feel accomplished when a client is both impressed and pleased with their project once things have been pushed live. It’s a great feeling, knowing you have helped make their project a reality. My company makes a consistent effort, however, to debunk many of the preconceived notions that follow clients through our door. It’s often a strenuous process, but everyone is better off for it.

I’m consistently in a battle with trying to better the overall experience for a client, while keeping a close eye on the direct effect any change will have on the design. I’ve written before on the general abuse of content management systems by clients. I’ve even brought up the trouble with WYSIWYG in CMSs. While both pieces shine a harsh light on client interaction with your designs, I’d like to start focusing on any positives that can come from using a WYSIWYG editor.

Overall effectiveness?

I understand that every CMS under the sun employs a WYSIWYG editor for most copy-areas, but it’s not working. I cannot in good faith discredit all the time and effort that has gone into the leading editors, and I don’t see them going anywhere soon. The trouble, however, is that they’re too easy to break. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to manually edit a WYSIWYG block because the editor lost track of a strong tag somewhere along the line. Clients will call, furious that the entire page is bold, questioning the value of our entire CMS based on the fact that he pasted directly from Word.

It’s not his fault he used Word, however. Commonality shows that Word is a standard method of formatting text in the business world. To say that he is “not allowed” to use Word because it breaks his website goes back to the age-old issue of Internet Explorer “breaking” the Internet. Designers know it to be true, but to everyone else, the project itself is the failure, not the utility.

The trouble here is the divide between how I view the Web, and how clients view the Web. Not just taking into consideration the quality and semantic value of markup, but the design itself. A client doesn’t realize that a stylesheet has been carefully prepared for his benefit, that center justifying, bolding, and typing in all caps isn’t going to achieve the effect he’s looking for.

Stuck in a rut

I truly wish I had a flawless solution for this issue I can’t seem to leave behind, but I don’t. At the very least, I will make a continuous effort to provide the most streamlined, stripped down WYSIWYG copy editor I possibly can.

One thing I’d like to specifically raise as an issue is that of including imagery in WYSIWYG editors. I haven’t thought too much into it, but I think preventing the addition of images directly in a WYSIWYG field will solve quite a bit of my issue. That is not to say that the inclusion of images will be removed completely, simply delegated to the CMS itself as opposed to the editor. While impressive, the handling of images directly within a WYSIWYG editor has never worked out in my favor. I can’t count the number of times a client has requested that someone “look into the image on the About page, it looks funny.”

While I don’t see the omission of images in WYSIWYG as a plausible solution, it’s something I’d like to work at over the coming months. I’m not sure how, but it will be a goal of mine.

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  1. I’m with you on this gripe. People spend so much time creating documents in Word, that they think they have garnered experience in information design/layout, at the same time they are fine tuning their writing skills. Most (all?) people I know that use Word, even if they do a lot, know nothing about setting up predefined styles, then re-using those in their document. (a function of Word I believe was perhaps one of the intentions of it’s use by developers. Alas..)

    For a while my team use Macromedia Contribute. It give the client a very high level of editability of their site’s content – which turned out to be a huge selling point to clients, and an even bigger headache to the designers. Week after week they could see their finely crafted layout recede at the mangled representation of what the client thought was required visually to get his/her point across.

    WordPress was better at first (in this regard) because it was more ridged and forced the writer into the role of content generator, not content presenter. However, the WYSIWYG for WP has gotten better and in bordering on the same problems.

    I recently noticed the “Paste from Word” function built into WordPress. I haven’t tried it, but I was curious if anyone’s had any experience with it.

  2. Totally agreed. This has been one of my biggest gripe with clients. I typically use Textpattern as a content management system for my clients and it doesn’t have a built-in WYSIWYG editor and when i deliver the site, that’s the first question they ask…

  3. WYSIWIG’s offer a great way to totally mess up a page. And giving any control over that sort of stuff is a really bad idea for most clients. They tend to abuse the CAPS LOCK key often enough, without throwing in bold, italics, underline, and headings.

    Some clients are ok with that level of control, but a lot are not. They just see those buttons as a way to grab attention. Then they apply it to *everything*, everywhere.

  4. @A.Fruit: It’s sad to see your well executed design mauled by the CMS you use. Inherently it’s the client, sure, but it’s the CMS which makes everything possible. I’ve had some experience with the “Word fixer” button in a few WYSIWYG editors, and while it does a decent job, there has usually been quite a bit left over in my personal experience. Sometimes ‘cleaning’ makes things even worse. Can’t blame them for trying though.

    @Daniel: How do you reply when they ask why they can’t click a button to make something bold? Highlight some words and make it link to a new page? I’m very interested to hear about the exchange you must have with your clients.

    @Matt Wilcox: So very true. The trouble is: everyone expects a WYSIWYG editor. In my personal opinion, it’s a bit too much power to give a client who doesn’t fully understand your design decisions. The trouble is, however, once you sign off on a project, property rights are no longer yours, right? It’s a unique situation indeed.

  5. I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a really simple CMS that slots into any flat file HTML/CSS website.

    It’s such a pain to design a site around a CMS.

    I had the idea of splitting the CMS into two columns. One for input, one for WYSIWYG.

    The input side would have various input boxes. Headings/Paragraphs/Bold/etc.
    Type the text you want in that style in the relevant box, click add, and it moves it onto the right column.

    That’s got to be simpler and less prone to missuse than existing WYSIWYG editors.

    If anyone fancies collaborating drop me an email.

  6. WYSIWYG editors are certainly a challenge. In one of our projects Pixie CMS http://www.getpixie.co.uk/ we tried to remove as many buttons as possible from the editor and simply have the editor buttons apply a handful of classes that were then added to the style sheets. The (in theory) forces all styles to behave as part of the sites theme. For our clients we also make sure that the ability to attach images, audio and video is handled away from the editor. You can see what I mean in this screen shot http://tinyurl.com/5djmm2/.

    Also, I have just started playing around with two new text editors (to see if they are client worthy). You might be interested in the them:

    PunyMce – a very light version of TinyMce http://code.google.com/p/punymce/

    MarkItUp – a html editor with the option to preview… which is quite a nice way to educate about HTML. It also has options for Textile, BBcode etc. http://markitup.jaysalvat.com/

  7. @ Jonathan:

    Textpattern allows HTML and Textile markup, so they can still apply links, bold and italic text… they could use font tags if they really wanted to, but they typically don’t have that knowledge.

    Sorry, but I haven’t had any *heated* exchanges with my clients… at least not regarding this topic ๐Ÿ™‚ They might be a little irritated at first, but in the end, after they realize that they still have some styling options, they’re much happier.

  8. I’m with Daniel on Textpattern, but I haven’t had to deal with too many pushy clients on projects where I use it.

    We have an aging custom CMS at work that has a WYSIWYG editor. It’s nice and all, but for some crazy reason the developers felt that paragraphs should be differentiated by divs with inline styles rather than the obvious paragraph element. It’s completely nuts.

    My primary beef is with Word and the prominence of word processors as writer’s tools. Like mentioned above, most people that use them don’t use them well. Their files would be much smaller and more useful for automated workflows if they would only be allowed to use rich text. All a proper writer needs is line breaks, bold, italic and probably an easy to use glyph menu. Word makes the most inefficient, cumbersome markup to style its documents. A real nightmare as I’m sure you all know.

    In my experience many professional writers still enter two spaces after periods, so I doubt that there is a very high level of intelligent concern amongst writers about the manner in which their files are saved. As a graphic designer/web developer I find that, all arrogance aside, I know a great deal more about the subtleties of written communication than most professional writers. I cringe every time I meet a writer that hasn’t read or even heard of ‘The Elements of Style’.

    Sadly, the field of graphic design is full of people that, thanks to increased WYSIWYG-ness, are starting to resemble their counterparts in the writing field. Totally uneducated about their craft and completely dependent on computer programs to execute their work.

    This idea of WYSIWYG is the problem. It is a method that should only be used by people that have first graduated from the school of WYSIWYM. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. I have experience from both sides of the fence.

    I work for a company that uses a CMS which allows lots of formatting (and it’s all achieved using font tags, even though it generates an XHTML doctype). The results are truly horrendous – one area of our site has been ‘branded’ with purple text.

    Now I understand that content and structure should be separated, and using a stylesheet keeps things simple and consistent. My CSS skills are better than our developers (such is the craziness of the business world – I give them CSS to use on the website!)

    I only wish we’d used a company like yours when the CMS was built (well before my time at the company). I’m sure most of the content editors would have seen the wisdom of what you were saying, and accepted a limited WYSIWYG editor (say bold=strong, italic=em). Maybe even a semantic editor – writers (shoud) understand how to structure texts, after all.

    Perhaps the problem lies with companies not respecting actual content – if a basic knowledge of HTML was a pre-requisite of getting a job as a content editor, then these problems would disappear.

    Incidentally, doesn’t wp deal with images well? In the editor you can specify whether an image is left or right aligned or centred, but wp simply adds a class to the image based on this choice, which means it’s done using CSS.

  10. I had the idea of splitting the CMS into two columns. One for input, one for WYSIWYG. The input side would have various input boxes. Headings/Paragraphs/Bold/etc.
    Type the text you want in that style in the relevant box, click add, and it moves it onto the right column.

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