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Separating Content from Design: A CMS Standard

Content Management Systems Require You Separate Content from Design


Why is Content Management So Hard?

Content Management is supposed to answer the following needs:

  • Make it easy for the actual writers to post their articles and images (content) to the website.
  • Control how the content looks on the page. i.e. prevent maverick content owners from creating black-backgrounds and blinking text pages.
  • Reuse that content in other places, not just the web, so that one writer can cover multiple venues at once.

Content Management and Content Developers

Except on small websites, usually the writer for the site is a completely different person from the web designer or web developer. What this usually means is that the writer is far more familiar with tools such as Word and often knows very little HTML.

Content management is supposed to solve this problem by allowing the content authors to write their content without using HTML. However there are several reasons why this doesn't usually work:

  • If the system doesn't allow HTML entry at all, the content authors will invariably complain that they need features that arent' supported, such as links within the content, bulletted or numbered lists, italics, bold, and so on.
  • Many systems solve this problem by allowing a form of bulletin board markup, which is different from HTML but allows limited features. The problem here is that it forces the content author to learn yet another language, and generally it's one that isn't supported by any software. They just have to learn that <b> means bold and so on.
  • So some CMS solutions add in a plugin to allow for HTML codes inserted into the content. However, many of these plugins are in ActiveX so they only work on one browser and OS. Plus, once they allow HTML, they are no longer in control of how the content looks. Which leads us to the next issue...

Controlling the Look and Feel with Content Management Systems

If you've ever tried to maintain a large site with more than 10 web developers spread out world wide, you know how difficult it can be to keep the design looking the same. The designers in one region feel that blue is a much nicer color than your corporate color, so they change the site background for their pages. The developers in another area feel that the graphics are not flashy enough, so they add more blinking images to all their pages. And as soon as the managers get one thing fixed, another 5 have popped up elsewhere. Content management fixes all that. Or does it?

Most companies using CMS start out with a very rigid set of templates. They only allow their content authors a small set of page styles that they can choose from, and those are rigidly controlled. But then comes the first urgent page that needs a different style, and needs it yesterday. And the "blank template" is born. The blank template is a feature of nearly every CMS website I've ever seen or worked with. It basically allows the content owner freedom to do whatever needs to be done to get the page up and working.

And once a content author has access to a blank template, he or she generally won't see any reason to use any of the old templates that are so restrictive. The only way to get people to use other templates, once they have access to a blank one is to encourage them through some other means. For example: if they are contractors—pay them less for blank template pages. If they are employees, hold contests or set quotas for non-blank template pages.

Content Management and Content Re-Use

Assuming you can get people to put their content in useful templates, the conventional wisdom says that that content can then be re-used in other locations. But can it?

I worked for four years in the Marketing department at Symantec. In that time, my team created hundreds if not thousands of PDF and Word documents describing our products. But these documents were for print. Any time we wanted to use the contents of the documents on the web someone had to rewrite them to make them web ready. Because the way people read a printed fact sheet is very different from how they read that same fact sheet online.

Then, when you move into images you have even more trouble. If you choose to use your website as the primary source for all your images, your images will either be too large to download or too pixelated to print. Thus a product fact sheet made for the web would have to be both rewritten and all the images recreated in order to make it suitable for a glossy brochure or other printed materials.

Why Use Content Management Then?

Content management does provide value to companies who implement it. But software alone won't solve the problems that CMS tools claim to solve. You also need to implement social engineering, training, and incentive programs to get it up and running and solve the problems. Content management won't allow you to fire all your web developers, in fact, you may have to train your content people to be web developers as well.

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