“CMS - the software UX forgot” - Karen McGrane at Content Strategy Forum 2011

 by Martin Belam, 5 September 2011

Download this, and all of my notes from the Content Strategy Forum as one printable PDF or in epub format for iBooks

I always find Karen McGrane inspiring, and have been using a tweet she once made as the opening slide to explain what my job is for ages. Today at the Content Strategy Forum I think she has helped refocus some of my priorities for the next few months - and certainly made my talk tomorrow more relevant, as it discusses the way the Guardian has used an API to solve some of the problems Karen explored.

In describing “the CMS” as the enterprise software that UX forget, she made a passionate plea for treating content creators with the same respect that businesses show to their end users when designing.

She often hears people ask for a redesign because they are playing whack-a-mole, as lots of bits of the business are popping up new websites left, right and centre. The root cause is often because “we hate our CMS”, and it isn’t up to the job.

“You know when people are in pain they describe themselves as having broken glass inside? Our problem is fragmentation” she said. She identified fragmented organisational structures and fragmented content management systems as part of a problem that will keep content strategists in work for years to come.

Karen wondered how many companies had analytics tracking within their CMS. If you were an eCommerce operation, you would be rigorously trying to remove the obstacles to conversion on the front-end of your website, because that makes you money. So if you you are a content creation business, why wouldn’t you apply the same methodology to your workflow, and eliminate the points of pain that introduce inefficiency in your business? Usability isn’t about fonts, she said, it is about workflow, and she believes that better tools directly lead to the creation of better content.

We’ve done a poor job, she said, of convincing people of the real benefits of structured content over bespoke digital layout. She compared Condé Nast, who have tripled their workload by needing one print and two bespoke iPad layouts of every article, to NPR who have built an API that makes “Create once, publish everywhere” a reality. A graph she showed of the sales of Glamour suggested that these bespoke layouts were sometimes selling less than 3,000 copies of an app - a shockingly poor return on investment.

Right now, Karen felt, we are still rewarding antiquated business practices and “the way we have always done things”, and hoping that great content and a brilliant UX will miraculously “pop-out” of the other end.

Karen went on to say that for years we’ve been telling designers that the web is not print, that they need to be flexible in their designs, and to relinquish pixel-perfect control. As a result we got web standards, and these allow us to make designs that can be reproduced adaptively across a range of resolutions and devices.

However, Karen McGrane believes that content producers are effectively forcing the designers and the developers to “pick up our slack”. We’ve refused again and again the opportunity to produce more structured re-usable content divorced from presentation, as we have insisted on WYSIWYG editors, and we still let people get away with “writing documents” that will “live on web”, rather than making the change to using a CMS that helps the user make content that can be re-used.

She quoted Ethan Resnick saying that “Metadata is the new art direction”, and argued that the myth that “mobile is different” can be the “wedge” that finally allows us to succeed in convincing businesses to build digital content production systems that were fit for purpose. “Is this just refried information architecture?” she asked the audience. “Yes” she answered her own question, but Karen doesn’t care that this isn’t “new”, just that it is a chance to finally solve the problem.

And of course, being Karen McGrane, her talk was littered with brilliant anecdotes, from the confessional admission of pitching front-end design changes that hadn’t been backed up with checking that the CMS or editorial workflow could support them, to telling us about the business which had someone who had got the Soviets and Afghanistan forces around a table to talk, but couldn’t get IT and editorial to agree on the scope of a CMS. She also suggested that if anybody asked her about implementing an API, her reply would probably be “I like cake?”.

I’m always heartened to hear people talking about the value of investing in the user experience of the tools that people use for their jobs. One of the biggest learning points for me when I was at Sony in Austria was that without aligning your software to the real needs of the content production folk in your business, you will never make a brilliant product on the front-end.

Now, back to improving that content management system at the Guardian...


After Karen McGrane, the morning session at #csforum11 concluded with talks by Lisa Welchman and Eric Reiss.

This is one of a series of blog posts written at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London:
Download all the blog posts in one PDF or in epub format for iBooks
“How the Guardian’s custom CMS & API helped take content strategy to a traditional publisher” - Martin Belam
Gerry McGovern, Melissa Rach and Margot Bloomstein at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“CMS - the software UX forgot” - Karen McGrane
Lisa Welchman and Eric Reiss at Content Strategy Forum 2011
“Making sense of the (new) new content landscape” - Erin Kissane
“Agile and content strategy” - Lisa Moore
“Measurement, not fairy tales” - Catherine Toole
“Topic maps, disambiguation, and multi-disciplinary teams” - Elizabeth McGuane
You might also be interested in these notes on these talks from the August London Content Strategy meet-up:
Lisa Welchman, Sophie Dennis and Tyler Tate

currybetdotnet: Best of the blog 2011 brings together over 50 of the best posts on this blog from 2011, covering topics such as live blogging, community and social media for news websites, and the future of digital media. It features write-ups of talks by Guardian journalists including Paul Lewis, Matthew Wells, Andrew Sparrow and Chris Elliot, and behind the scenes looks at Guardian products like the Facebook and iPad apps. It also has transcripts of Martin Belam's talks at EuroIA, the UPA conference, Polish IA Summit, Content Strategy Forum 2011, FutureEverything and Hacks/Hackers London.
currybetdotnet: Best of the blog 2011” for Kindle is £1.92.


I completely and utterly agree with the problem that content creators are often lumped with rudimentary interfaces which hinder them from doing their job rather than help - I've used a few over the years...

Thanks for sharing this days Karen McGrane talk. Those of us not fortunate enough to be there really long to know what as been said. Enjoy!!

I agree completely. If I read this correctly, the issue is not so much the user experience within the CMS system, but rather the idea that (finally) content should and must be totally separated from its presentation, which occurs in different media, at different times and for different purposes. At Keepthinking we have been arguing that for years and built a CMS that does exactly that... Only, we face Drupal, where content exists depending on context, with multiple versions for multiple platforms.

Yes, but, but but... content and presentation ARE linked. Food isn't just about the ingredients: it's how it's prepared, presented and put on the plate.
Pictures need to be resized, recropped for different output channels, and then their captions need amending too. Print headlines work in tandem with their surrounding content and can be witty and puntastic; a clever web link dies unclicked and misunderstood.
I work with a CMS that tries to be agnostic but then also has to deal with the fact there are differences that arise because of the output channel. It tries to separate out content into structured datasets but then has to deal with people, who's brains can automatically recognise a headline and byline and want to copy and paste the whole lot once and not in to lots of little boxes to help out the dumb computer.
Abstracting content out can give lots more flexibility and allows you to do lots more exciting things, but it's about as user friendly as the term UX (as Private Eye pointed out...)

James, I like the analogy with food: if you extend it, you may also say that with the same ingredients you can make many different dishes. You may vary quantities and take out some that you don't need for smaller plates. I'm not saying ingredients are all that matter: what you eat is your ultimate goal.

But, coming a bit away from dough and courgettes, I am wary of CMS systems where you edit content in place, therefore only serving one purpose and one layout. Come in mobiles and tablets, your beautifully crafted content (for 1024x768) will look rubbish. It's not just screen size: when mobile, people focus and attention changes.

A CMS cannot be totally agnostic, in my opinion: content still needs to be delivered and visible and images sizes do matter (but they can be resized). But ultimately for CMS users news are news and events are events; for content creators it does not really matter whether they are displayed at top right or at the bottom left, does it? They need to create content. Layout and display is not their worry, it's on another layer: the journalist at the New York Times does not decide where her article is featured, she simply writes it - then the fruitors will get it in a different format according to their device (printed, web, mobile web) and the decision of the paper's editors. There is this idea that who writes content should also be responsible for how content is presented, but who's good at one thing is not necessarily good at the other (otherwise Comic Sans would not exist). Back to the food industry, who creates ingredients and who creates food are not the same people.

What I mean is that content and content relationships are independent, to an extent: they are the ingredients: I think that a good CMS system is one which allows you to create semi-finished, complex relationships: how they get cooked and served is a different story and a different job.

Whilst I agree that user experience is poor across many CMS I feel many of the issues we are currently facing are far deeper rooted. Consider the cost, pain and suffering your likely to incur in rolling out an enterprise level CMS to address these issues. Most organisations are going to sweat these assets over many years and shy away from updates to meet the latest demands of the digital world. When big business are still asking questions like “Should we do social media” or “Do we need a mobile version of this” it is hardly a surprise to see a lack of investment in new, content-centric CMS.

You prompted me to write a whole post on this yesterday. I have quoted and linked back to you where appropraite. http://www.phillipjenkins.co.uk/2011/09/cms-usability-digital-marketing-channels/



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