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Where content meets technology

Jul 16, 2009

You bought a web page factory, not a webmaster android

When a company builds a business case for acquiring a web content management system, a key selling point is this vision of business users being capable and willing to build the website of their dreams. In this dream, the webmaster and other technical staff are replaced by a hyper-caffeinated, mind-reading, web-savvy C-3PO. The companies that really buy into this vision are usually thoroughly disappointed with the results of the implementation. As a consultant interested in his clients success, it is my responsibility to talk my more optimistic clients down to a more realistic set of expectations. In other words, I have a tendency to rain on parades.

The metaphor that I find to be the most helpful to explain the realistic role of a web content management system is that a WCMS is a web page (and RSS feed) factory. In some implementations, the CMS is designed to create micro-sites in the same factory-like manner but it is still a factory. Here are the reasons why:

  • Like a factory, a web content management system requires up front investment to set up. Even if the underlying software is free, you still need to configure it to produce the kind of pages that you want. That investment only pays off after you have produced a certain number of units (pages) so it doesn't make sense to implement a CMS to manage a 5 page website that rarely changes.

  • Factories are set up to produce a limited number of different products. As much as he would want to right now, a worker on the Chrysler Aspen production line cannot go to his workstation one morning and start building a better selling model — not the one that he saw driving down the street the day before and not the one he dreamt up as he was sleeping. All the tooling needs to be reconfigured and he doesn't have the skills to do that. In fact, most auto factories shut down for a period of time each year to set up the machinery for the new model-year. The people that do this work have a very different set of skills and permissions than the line workers. They also have the design specs that have been blessed by the management of the compay. In the CMS world this translates into content types and presentation templates that technical people usually have to work on. If you want to build a totally different sub-site with different types of content and different layouts, you need to bring in the propeller heads. That said, the design of the templates of the content types, could have allowed the content producer to select options or exercise creativity in specific areas. Deane Barker has a nice post describing these boundaries as load bearing walls.

  • Factories need raw materials and labor to produce their output. The input of a content management system is content and it has to come from somewhere. The CMS will not the make the content but it can be used to add value to the content by providing functionality that a person can use to organize and present the content to different audiences. Often people look at their webmasters as simple HTML typists but in reality they are usually much more. The good ones proof read the content that they were given. They fill in the gaps by creating or finding content that they were not given. They coordinate content from different providers. They navigate through the site from the perspective of a visitor. The "webmaster@" email address forwards complaints to their email address. The CMS itself won't do that for you. Only people can do that. The CMS will not eliminate the webmaster but it will make the webmaster more productive by taking some of the mundane mechanics out of the job. Maybe the webmaster can be a little less technical and focus more on the coordination and accoutability side of the job.

  • There is often a trade-off between flexibility and simplicity. One summer during high school, I spent an unbearable day in a factory at a machine that cut three foot long cardboard tubes into what you would see in the center of a roll of duct tape. I put the tube on an arm, pressed a button and stood back to watch the arm spin and the blades come down. Then I took the rolls off and repeated. This was a very simple machine to use, but I couldn't make a paper towel or toilet paper roll with it — not unless I had a machinist come into re-configure it. They could have made an even simpler to use machine that loaded the tubes on itself; but that would probably require more machinist time to configure. With a CMS you can simplify the tool by taking away options and control. For the non-technical user, you need to be very deliberate about what options to expose. You need to confine their creativity to small areas (like a rich text area in the middle of the page). Most CMS accommodate this by providing different user interfaces for power users and non-technical users. This would be the manufacturing equivalent of a special factory for real craftsman to make limited edition products and prototypes.

  • Machines that maximize flexibility and simplicity are achievable but at a cost. Some machines are exquisitely designed to present just the right options to the operator (in a perfectly intuitive way) and automate everything else. Getting to this point can take hundreds of refining iterations. There are diminishing returns on these refinements so it is rare that a company can make the ROI case for this level of investment. I doubt that Starbucks will ever build an espresso machine that is so easy to use that any customer can walk in and make his own grande, half-caff, soy, triple, iced americano with lemon (in a venti cup).

  • Being a factory line worker brings less satisfaction than being a skilled artisan. Like with my short career as a cardboard technician, operating a machine is extremely boring when all the options are taken away. On the upside, this lets the contributor focus more on the content (where they should be applying their creativity anyway); but if the contributors don't particularly like to write either, you have a problem. Often content contributors use poor usability as an excuse for avoiding the difficult task of creating content. If this is the case, no amount of user-friendliness will compel them to take ownership of their content. Factory workers don't just burst into the plant to voluntarily produce cars. They need to be motivated by compensation and pride over the quality of their work (what they do have control over). With a CMS, content contributors have less responsibility for layout and branding of the site but they are responsible for the words and pictures and organization of the content. The quality and craftsmanship of those aspects of the site needs to be recognized.

It is hard imagine a worse buzz-kill than to have your knowledge workers and marketing staff picture themselves as machine operators; but I have yet to talk a client out of implementing a CMS (except in cases when they already have a CMS that is working quite fine but they are struggling for other reasons). The reason why is that once you get past a certain volume of content, you can't manage it without the help of tools that take away some of the personal craftsmanship in design and functionality of each individual page (you can't manufacture a million cars without mass production factories either). Mass production of pages is a good thing because the audience wants the information, not each content contributor's own personal vision of how it should look. We tried that model. It was called GeoCities and it didn't work out that well. The sites were just awful to look at and the content was out of date.

A web content management system reduces the cost of maintaining lots uniform pages (and sub-sites). It doesn't help a company rapidly develop new concept websites. In fact, it often slows down the production of these websites — especially if the group that wants to do the innovating does not have developers who can access the CMS. Many media companies have a heavy duty web content management system for their heavy lifting (the bulk of their content on the main site) but use lighter weight frameworks (or CMSs that are designed to be more like frameworks) and custom code for their experimental sites (for example, The Washington Post and Django). But no matter what, if you want to innovate beyond the options and the text areas that were not designed into the CMS implementation, you are talking a software development lifecycle that includes development and testing and developers to do the work.