Journalist-centred design for the CMS

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 24 February 2012

One of the trends I’d most like to see influencing news organisations over the next two years is simply this: user-centred design for the CMS.

You might have spotted the Guardian carrying out trials over the last couple of weeks of our new live blogging tool. Riazat Butt covered the Church of England general synod meeting with it, and this week Newsdesk live have been the guinea pigs.

It doesn’t look spectacularly different from outside the building - and is pretty light on features at the moment. It is being built using Agile, where we value working software over features and documentation. Getting the end-to-end backbone of publishing from the CMS interface onto not just the website but our multiple mobile platforms has been the focus of the early sprints.

What is different though is the way we have designed the authoring interface.

This isn’t a form that looks like data entry, or a view onto a database. It hasn’t been assembled by some developers putting radio checkboxes where they think they should go, or setting the size of a text area to what suits their monitor. It has been based on watching journalists at work.

During the design process we observed Guardian staff live blogging, including a trip to Westminster to shadow Andrew Sparrow whilst he covered PMQs. During the testing process developers and the product manager have been sitting with live bloggers as they try the system for the first time.

My philosophy during the project has been that the reason that everybody hates the content management system they work with is because it usually involves so much content management, when what journalists on the ground actually need is a content authoring system.

One of the highest compliments I’ve had in my time at the Guardian was one of the journalists saying to me yesterday that the new live blogging tool is the first editorial system they’ve ever worked with that looks like it was built with the journalist in mind.

Isn’t that a sad reflection on the state of the tools that the industry usually gives journalists to work with though?

I’m lucky at the Guardian. We’ve got a great in-house software development team - and we are hiring more - and I’ve had access to the journalists. I’ve been able to build HTML prototypes of how the tools are going to work during live blogging, and demo that to key contributors around the business, so that the tool is really shaped around journalistic requirements.

Karen McGrane described the CMS as “the software UX forgot.” For a news organisation a CMS isn’t just a piece of software. It is one of the key determinants of the quality and speed of your output, of whether it is easy for journalists to reference links and sources, add multimedia, curate social content, and can “create once publish everywhere.”

I’d love to think that the next two years will see news organisations around the world ditching clunky legacy enterprise publishing systems, and moving to the user-centred designed fleet-footed type of publishing tools that, frankly, bloggers and others have been using on the web for a decade already.

This is my contribution to February’s Carnival of Journalism. The topic this month, set by Steve Outing, is “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?”

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