CMS versus the User Experience (The Battle Continues)

The imperative to keep focus on the user experience throughout the design process continues to be a battle. Content management systems (CMSs) have been steadily gaining in popularity; compared to custom code, they are relatively easy for someone to assemble (even without significant technical skills) and relatively easy to maintain using minimally trained personnel. With the prevalence of multiple platforms (laptops, tablets, and phones) as almost equal methods of accessing online content, responsive design (the ability for the code to respond to the size of screen displays by resizing, moving, hiding, and even transforming screen elements) has also gained steadily in popularity. All major CMSs now support responsive design in their templates.

The savings in development and maintenance cost of a responsive, CMS-based design cannot be disputed. However, there is no free lunch. The savings come at the expense of a truly custom, user-centered design. Those designs require enough design flexibility to address the specific user groups, goals, and context—-things that cannot be predetermined. As a result, it is unlikely that the best, or maybe even a good, solution can be achieved using a predetermined set of page templates, pre-coded modules, and predetermined layout and interface changes for each platform. Modern CMS-based “design” is becoming more like assembling a jigsaw puzzle than truly designing, and the results are cookie cutter designs that sort of work some of the time. This type of “design” is too simple, too quick, and the user’s perspective is getting lost or ignored.

Yellow sign says: Caution USER Ahead

A colleague of mine recently related a story of going to a new restaurant. Parking downtown, where the restaurant is located, is a challenge, so her husband tried to find parking information by looking up the website on his phone while she was driving. Seeing nothing on the site to help, he determined what the nearest, cheapest, parking would be—-a garage several blocks and down a hill from the restaurant. Only after they trudged up the hill to the restaurant did they find that it offered validated parking directly across the street.

The next day, my colleague looked up the restaurant on her computer and right there on the home page was a statement about validated parking. Checking the phone again revealed that the “Directions” link takes you to a map of the restaurant’s location, but that’s it.

Perhaps it was the algorithm that automatically determined what to hide on the smaller phone platform. Perhaps the developer has an option to decide what to hide but didn’t think about this need of the user on this platform. In any case, the focus is, once again, on the developers and them getting their job done as fast as possible. Ease and speed of development is key. Immediate cost is the only focus. Templates and behaviors determined without the context of a specific design problem are set in stone.

We recently completed a project that had to be designed within a specific CMS. Throughout the design process, we came up with design solutions for this particular content only to have to fight against the pre-existing templates and their responsive behavior. I like challenges as much as the next person, but there was too much compromise required on the user experience side to make it fit within the CMS. Ironically, in multiple discussions with the client, even they would complain about the limitations of the CMS. The CMS they own and coded! The CMS they have control over! It reminded me of a story by Robert Fulgum, author of All I need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In the story, a man was complaining to Robert that he hated his lunch. Every day he got the same lunch. He was so tired of it. Robert asked the man who made his lunch and the man replied: “I do.”

Modern CMS systems benefit the developer but rarely the user. The focus is, once again, shifting away from the user perspective. I understand the value of a CMS, but they are often too restrictive. I even like responsive design, but I tend to see it differently. If a phone detects that it’s traveling at 65 miles an hour and won’t let the user text, that’s responsive design to me!