The Content Corner: Content Management System Considerations

Graphic illustration of a machine that processes pieces of content and produces a web page.

These days you couldn’t be faulted for thinking your content management system (CMS) choices are limited to two open source systems and maybe an enterprise-level offering that no one uses anymore. And while it’s true that for the public sector the popular open source options are extremely attractive from a cost standpoint, if nothing else, the CMS marketplace is as full of options as it ever has been. So whether you are shopping around for a new system or looking to revamp your current one, there are a variety of items that need to be considered as you examine your CMS options.

How Flexible Is Your System?

One of the greatest pain points I have experienced during my various CMS implementations has been a lack of flexibility in the chosen system. A great deal of flexibility and customization is common place in the main open source options, but even with them there can be a significant amount of customization needed after implementation. The main consideration here is to remember that while your site and content may have structures familiar to much of the rest of the public sector, there always seem to be variables. You should select a system that will allow you to make sure it will best meet the needs of your content and your users. And just as important, remember to plan for the time needed to customize your CMS. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but an Out of the Box (OOTB) solution that you “just install and you’re ready to go” is a myth.

One important step in the CMS review process is to make sure you and/or a team you gather has a very good understanding of the full range of content generated on your site. Depending on your workflow and content provider structure it may make sense to gather your content leads or all of your contributors. You also may need to gather a group of either “editors” or “authors” or “approvers,” again depending on your structure. Talk to them about their normal content posting, but most importantly, talk to them about their abnormal content posting.

A common pitfall when reviewing content during a CMS review is to become lulled into a false sense of security by a majority of very similar content. Generally, every site has at least one or two “black swans”; those pieces of content that are:

  • Rare,
  • Completely unlike 99% of the rest of the site and
  • Extremely important.

To be safe, you may want to take those outliers and make them your starting point when determining whether a CMS has the flexibility your content and your users require. And one note for clarity: when I say users, in this case, I mean your content contributors, not your external site visitors. Your site visitors could care less what CMS you use; the only way they will be impacted is if the CMS isn’t a good fit for users or content.

Elements and Form Fields

One way to help ensure the system is a good fit for your content and users is to structure the content elements and their form fields appropriately. The CMS and how your contributors use it has a significant impact on how structured and adaptive your final content can be. Instead of using several large text areas that allow or force a contributor to paste a broad range of content, structure should be provided from within the CMS interface. This not only helps the contributor make better decisions regarding what goes where, but also helps to make them feel more confident in the work they’re doing.

After the extensive content review that you should have completed as preparation for this CMS implementation or revision, you should have a good idea of your various content types and their individual elements. In fact, in the course of your content review you may have uncovered areas for improvement. Perhaps your site was combining staff members’ names and job titles; or the address, hours of operation and contact information were all in one large field. You can now break out these various fields into separate ones, which creates an easier process for the contributor, will allow for greater flexibility and will make your final product more shareable and reusable.

Determining Permissions and Limits

Another area of CMS implementation many struggle with is determining users’ rights and permissions. My personal preference is to start with tight controls and then loosen the reins as the user requests it or as levels of trust and competence are proven. Yes, I know how that makes me sound, but if you’re working on a live, public sector site, you tend to be careful. However, Rory Douglas, author of the recent article that inspired this post, recommends you “err on the side of giving them (the user) slightly too much” freedom. Some of this depends on the level of familiarity you as an administrator may have with your contributors and their level of familiarity with your system, style guide, workflow, etc.

Whether it’s a permission or another setting, you will also need to determine certain limits users will have. Many times this is handled via a specific user type such as:

  • Author,
  • Editor,
  • Contributor or
  • Publisher.

Within these user groups you need to determine whether or not the user will be able to create actual HTML or will be limited to plain text. Will they be able to upload files and what file type? Will there be a file size restriction? Again, some of this is really determined by your users and your content contribution structure and workflow. Are you on a small team or do you have a far-flung set of remote contributors? Are you all part of public affairs or from all walks of life with varying levels of competence with content creation? Again, my tendency is towards the least amount of options possible for a user to do their job—it’s less risk for everyone that way. If plain or formatted text works as opposed to HTML or a WYSIWYG, then that’s where I would start. And don’t think that the WYSIWYG is a silver bullet or cure-all; however, with some customization it can make everyone’s content contribution tasks a little less painful (most of the time).

WYSI Not Always WYG
Split screen code editor icon

In many ways, a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) can be a blessing and a curse. They allow for quick and easy content additions or edits. Even for simple tasks, I like to have one available. But without a proper pruning of features, they can allow a user far too much control and your site will suddenly start partying like it’s 1999 with red text and animated gifs (the uncool kind). The most critical aspect on WYSIWYG control is to eliminate any formatting options that would allow a contributor to violate style or CSS standards for the site, especially things like:

  • Colors,
  • Underlining and
  • Fonts.

I also tend to closely control options for image insertion, namely whether an image is left or right aligned or its pixel size (this is especially important). Most of this can be done via CSS, and I personally don’t feel content contributors should be worried about these details. It goes back to a laser-like focus on the content itself. Make the best content possible at its core. Don’t worry about what it looks like or where the images go (to a certain extent). Let the developers or designers worry about that. Allow your content contributors to just sit back, relax, and enjoy worry-free content creation.

Again, the number of WYSIWYG options allowed is influenced by your workflow and content creation structure. If your authors regularly need to bold text or create ordered or unordered lists (important elements of readable content) then be sure to allow those options. If contributors are allowed and expected to add links (again a fairly important aspect of the Web) then be sure to make that process as painless as possible. I am also a big fan of making it as easy as possible to link to existing site content. If that can be easily facilitated, I highly recommend making it available.

Next time, I will share additional ways to help make whatever CMS you either implement or re-configure serve your content strategy and your content contributors as best as possible. But the first steps are to deeply understand your content, your contributors and their process, and how that can best be integrated into a content management system. Remember, the CMS should be made to fit your contributors needs and workflow—not the other way around.You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.

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