by Theresa Regli, Principal, CMS Watch

It’s a typical scenario: a large checklist of content management system (CMS) requirements, 95% of which are technical in nature. Sadly, it’s still a rare occurrence when organizations thoroughly consider a content manager’s needs when selecting a CMS; instead, they think user needs will be fulfilled by the requirement “interface must be usable and intuitive”.

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The first step to success is to “just say no” to checklist requests for proposals (RFPs) that are geared towards some sort of enterprise content management (ECM) utopia that can’t be fulfilled by a single software tool. They are usually too generic and pie-in-the-sky, rife with false hopes that technology will solve problems that are, at the core, organizational in nature. Don’t think for a minute that a tool will solve the challenges of the content life cycle or the end-user experience: rather, determine where you want to go as an organization, and then select a tool that can accommodate that future state.

As my CMS Watch colleague Tony Byrne wrote in his article A Scenario-based Approach to Evaluating CMS Vendors, there is no one “best” CMS. The right CMS for you depends on your situation, your organizational needs and specific user scenarios: both current and aspirational future state. What’s right for the Fortune 100 isn’t best for the small marketing firm down the street. Those organizations have dramatically different needs, and thus need very different tools. Use cases help illustrate what those needs are and can help you narrow down to a more appropriate vendor list.

“Without initial use case scenarios, companies discover high levels of user dissatisfaction after their CMS is rolled-out,” says Jarrod Gingras, a CM consultant with Molecular, Inc. who specializes in improving the usability of CM systems. He cites one client who had selected a CMS prior to determining use cases, and later had to invest in heavy amount of customization to fulfill user needs. “This led to additional costs and initially weak adoption rates that could have been avoided, had the company considered the user needs up-front.”

So when you’re selecting a CMS, what’s important to take into account to make sure you’re picking the right tool to fulfill user needs?

  • The Content Lifecycle – Each company has some sort of process for writing, editing, reviewing, translating, approving, and publishing content. In many cases, the process is so cumbersome that the last thing you want to do it replicate it in your CMS workflow tool. Still, certain elements of the content lifecycle are necessary to ensure key approvals or content compliance, and content must be reviewed by multiple people or departments simultaneously. Some CM tools can accommodate so-called “parallel” workflows, while others cannot. Mapping out such processes in a use case scenario, and then asking vendors to demonstrate how their tool would accommodate such a process, is a good way to see if the tool can meet your requirements.

    By the same token, it’s not always the best idea to use the current lifecycle to help you select tools: if you know your process is cumbersome or otherwise unruly, now is the time to simplify or refine it. Determine a future state for your content lifecycle, and test that future process via a proof of concept before you decide to buy. This may require changing employee roles or authoring applications, but managing this change from the early stages will ensure better user adoption.

  • Keeping Users Involved – The actual users of a content management system are often left out of the product selection process, as the budget to purchase such a tool is often the domain of the IT department. But getting content managers involved early on, taking part in requirements gathering and showing how they author and otherwise manage content, is key to scenario and requirements development.

    “Companies that get their contributors involved early with requirements and design to ensure they are comfortable with the usability of the system see the quickest adoption and fastest ROI,” adds Bryant Shea, also of Molecular and director of the CM Practice. He cites that his most successful clients have had content managers involved in product selection and implementation from the get-go, allowing them to be iteratively involved during implementation and testing as well.

  • “Back-end” information architecture – While usability experts have spent many years convincing everyone of the importance of the end-user experience of web sites, little time and effort has been spent considering the information structure, navigation, and usability of CMS applications. We currently stand at a crossroads, where best practices in traditional software application design are converging with the now “universal norms” in web-based interfaces. CMS applications, being largely browser-based but far more complex than the average web site, are at the nexus of this crossroads. While many CM systems still suffer from poor usability, best practices are beginning to emerge. Still, best practices in IA design such as card sorting and usability testing are great ways to determine how your CMS UI should be customized to fulfill user needs. Knowing how your users want to author, save and tag content are key scenarios to consider for CMS usability.
  • Customer Experience – Your content managers will inevitably be frustrated if the CMS does not allow them to fulfill the needs of the end customer. End-customer web site scenarios are equally important to consider when selecting a CMS. Perhaps end-customers of a web site want to compare pricing, color, or other attributes of a wide array of products. Can the CMS you’re considering manage content at that level of granularity, or only at the page level? If it’s the latter, your content manager will immediately start looking for hacks and workarounds, and gradually build up a hatred and bitterness towards the CMS. Thus, be sure to consider end-user scenarios as well, and be sure your CMS can accommodate them.

  • Training – Most people feel that change is inherently painful, but by keeping users involved throughout the CM selection and implementation process, and properly setting expectations, you can expect better results. Coupling the roll-out of the system with a solid training plan is too often neglected. Molecular’s Gingras cites model office testing, training seminars and “train-the-trainer” scenarios as vital to their clients’ CM implementation success. Continuing to involve and inform end CMS users of ongoing system updates and responses to their needs will ensure the ongoing success of the project, which doesn’t just end with roll out. CMS adoption and success is like a marriage: the work isn’t over when you walk down the aisle. On the contrary, listening for, understanding and responding to needs is the key to continued success.

About the author – Theresa Regli is Principal at CMS Watch, covering Web CMS, Enterprise Portals, and related technologies and practices. Previously, Regli was Director, Content Management with Molecular, Inc., a Boston-based technology consulting firm. There she developed content management, internationalization, and enterprise information architecture solutions for several Fortune 100 organizations. Prior to Molecular, she was Director, Content Management with CMGI, one of the first internet operations, development, and incubation companies.