Author Experience for the non-enterprise

Author experience is easy to talk about when considering the needs of the large corporation. There is budget available. But non-enterprise organisations face a different challenge. They can’t afford to spend big on an overarching governance strategy… What are they to do?

Eileen Webb

Eileen Webb

Director of Strategy & Livestock, webmeadow

Article: Training the CMS

Twitter: @webmeadow


Rick: Did you see that A List Apart article on UX for the Enterprise? It sounded a lot like author experience.

Eileen: I did. There was a big overlap there.

Rick: I suppose the real difference is that Enterprise UX start with the holistic view, whereas AX says: we need to get this web stuff right, and its governance has wider implications, so we need to coordinate across silos.

They’re two sides of the same coin.

Eileen: Not entirely. I work with a lot of really small organisations. These people build sites off bastardised WordPress implementations. They don’t do anything “enterprise,” by any means. They don’t have the budget for a strategic effort around author experience.

Rick: Whereas I’ve done most of my work with the big, expensive platforms. And I can assure you: all that money doesn’t buy fitness for purpose.

Eileen: I know. Each new enterprise CMS I see, I’m like: “Wow, that’s so expensive. I feel bad that you paid so much for it.”

Rick: Because it doesn’t work either…

Eileen: Yeah.

Rick: So, what can the non-enterprise CMS users do?

Eileen: They should keep the idea of author experience in mind. Include small reminders in the interface: like instructions to include links to other content, or that an image needs a dark background because light text goes over it.

At the non-enterprise level, that little stuff is really helpful. In small organisation, it can be even more important than for large corporations: they don’t have the systemic support. If the person involved in building the web site moves on, she takes her knowledge with her. If you’re able to bake some of that knowledge into the system… You always lose knowledge when people change jobs, but this way, it’s not all gone. The big stuff is saved, at least.

Rick: That makes sense.

The thing I don’t understand about the likes of WordPress is that they’re touted as easy to use web publishing systems, with myriad plugins. But the moment you want something useful – something that helps with governance, helps you manage your site, such as adding in these helpful tips – you’re back to custom plugin development.

Eileen: You care about the long term – the longevity. Most people haven’t got that far.

Rick: Exactly. But I can’t be the only one.

You either have to spend lots of time hunting for plugins that don’t quite do the job, and ongoing time working around that problem, or you have to invest in extensive customisation.

Eileen: The argument for open source versus custom coded stuff is that if you can get a plugin that does 90% of what you want, and you can’t afford to hire someone, it’s better to have that 90% than nothing at all. Right?

Rick: Except that the missing 10% is predominantly the author experience. The “90%” you’re getting is really 95% of the front-end functionality, but merely 25% of the authoring and governance.

Eileen: Not necessarily. There are Drupal plugins – and, I am told, WordPress plugins – that focus exclusively on the authoring experience.

Rick: I’ve not been able to find those.

Eileen: For a long time, I worked on Drupal plugins designed specifically to let you manage the back-end administrative forms: use CSS on them, organise things into fieldsets and tabs, enable conditional fields. It made things easier to deal with. I mean, it’s Drupal: infinitely flexible, therefore out of the box looks crap.

In WordPress, I’m told, they have advanced custom field. They allow WordPress to be more structured in its content. And there are ways to build help text and field labels; it’s not exactly governance, but some of the other author experience stuff.

Rick: I don’t know if the custom fields I’ve come across in WordPress are advanced, but they required the author to learn and enter key-value pairs to get certain behaviours. It’s writing pseudo-code.

And we shouldn’t be asking content people to code like that.

Eileen: No, definitely not.

Rick: So, besides the choice of platform – the big budget custom implementation versus cobbled
together from plugins choice – are there any special consideration for smaller organisations? Or do they just need to keep the author experience in mind themselves, rather than handing it off to the development team?

Eileen: I think that once someone believes that author experience is important – whether they’re on the client or development team, small organisation or large – the biggest thing is to be willing to fight for it. You have to have the confidence, or the stubbornness, to say “Look, we’re not cutting corners on this.”

Especially when you come in as a consultant, you see something that can be fixed that will really change the experience – maybe how a content relationship is managed – and a developer says, “Nope. It can’t be done.” It probably can! You just have to want to!

Rick: You mean the scenario I mentioned in the book (p135)? That an image in rich text shows the image itself, but that same behaviour isn’t replicated for other content references. Then, it just shows you the path it references, not the content itself.

Eileen: Yeah, exactly.

You might be referencing the same information from a bunch of content types. For some, a thumbnail image is the best representation. For others, a title and date. It’s not just one widget: you need the flexibility to reference the content in a way that reflects how it is used.

Rick: It’s amazing. They’re happy to create dozens of special renderers for the front end. But modifying those so they work for authors… oh, that’s too much work!

Why is it so hard?

Eileen: Why is it hard? That’s actually a good question.

I think it’s because, especially in large organisations, everyone’s been reusing stuff they already do, and hoping it works with the web thing. And smaller organisations parrot what the larger ones are doing.

25 years ago, web technology barely existed. They’re still trying to figure out where it fits in.

Does it belong to whoever takes care of the office computers? Is the web part of marketing?

There hasn’t been a good ground-up rethinking of what the web means for our businesses. How does it integrate? Is the website just a brochure? Or is it supposed to do things? Is it a sales funnel? A support channel? A website might be any of these things.

It feels like many organisations haven’t taken the time to figure out what it should be for them – how to approach it.

So, all the authoring stuff is just one more little piece. There are three hundred things they don’t know about the website; that aren’t going well. Authoring makes it 301. Which one gets priority?

Rick: I think it’s bigger than that. Society hasn’t yet figured out what the web is for.

As I said in the UX Booth interview about the book, the new/cool factor has driven much of the web’s success. Even now, despite the decades of evolution, it’s still happening. The human part of processes have become less efficient, but the digital more so. And it’s cool. The nett result is that, end-to-end, things are faster. But they are less efficient.

Eileen: Yeah.

Rick: At some point, it will have to realign. People are going to realise that it’s a business tool; it needs to supports standard business processes.

Eileen: There’s also a blending right now – of the web as a personal tool, and as a business tool. Like the video of a kitten playing with a pig: that stuff goes viral. Everyone’s talking about it; your grandmother, your nephews. And businesses get excited: if a kitten and pig can go viral, then absolutely our pneumatic nail gun should go viral.

Rick: Of course.

Eileen: That’s what success looks like for a kitten and pig. But not for your product.

I don’t know if this is going to change. But people’s attitudes about it have to change.