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