A few months ago, CMS Australian enthusiast Said Salameh posted this excellent breakdown comparing the number of steps required to complete simple tasks between eight leading open source content management systems. He illustrates how simple things like editing a page or adding an article can take ten steps or more – far more than necessary. His post spawned a discussion on the Web Content Management group on LinkedIn drawing out frustrations from many in the industry about the complexity of content management systems – particularly open source systems.
Too Many Cooks
Writer and content strategist Nicholas Carroll made some great points. A Drupal proponent, he understands that code developed by thousands of developers can quickly become convoluted – especially when you throw modules or plug-ins into the mix, all developed by people of varying ability. “A thousand eyeballs may be able to debug, but they cannot do architecture” says Carroll. I certainly nodded in agreement when he went on to say “If there is a clean CMS out there, I'm pretty sure it is proprietary, designed by a very small team. It's certainly not Drupal, which will create dozens of tables upon installation, many of them redundant, in a structure which never would have occurred to a good database designer.”
In preparation for his CMS complexity comparison, Said installed and tested 30 different CMSs. He talks about how the feature-centric model of developing software has lead to feature bloat. Nicholas echoed this with a quote that hit home for us saying “With the America-centric orientation towards software design, which like American cars, always includes feature bloat. Canadians have been writing nice clean self-revealing software apps for decades -- but the apps don't sell in the U.S., for lack of overkill.” Sure this is a generalization, but I get questions about “advanced features” far more often then about simplicity and productivity when talking to companies in the US. Our value proposition has always been around productivity, rather than loading up on features, but it’s hard to complete in an industry where buyers compare systems using feature spreadsheets with 300 rows. There is never a row for “development time” or “usability”.
Part of the problem, Said agrees, is that developers are leading the design of most content management systems. As we all know, developers enjoy complexity and button-clicking more than most. Said comments in the UX / UI Designer group that “If we look at the outcome of many CMSs that have been lead by developers only, they have not exactly been easy to work with.” He goes on to say that a “role-centric” model would fix this problem using the example of an SEO expert. Imagine a CMS that morphs for each role so that the features relevant to the role were revealed and redundant features hidden. It’s a cool concept that solves part of the problem, but the complexity of the code and data model would be killer. It would quickly become a nightmare to maintain as more roles are identified and existing roles change.
Know Your Core Customer
Most commercial businesses are hard pressed to define their “core customer” or the specific organization or individual that the products and services are geared towards. If you make cars, jeans, breakfast cereal or other consumer products, knowing your core customer is imperative. Would you design Fruit Loops for the 60+ set? So why is it so different with content management systems? It shouldn’t be and probably won’t be forever.
At the moment, WordPress is by far the most popular CMS. This is partly due their start with a very specific core customer – bloggers. The simplicity and plug-in architecture appealed to many and inspired the development of thousands of enhancements to extend it in every direction. Now, it has fallen into the feature-bloat trap so the cost of maintaining sophisticated WordPress sites is comparable to building a custom solution.
As a lesser known cloud-based CMS competing with several well-funded competitors, we have realized that the true value in CMS, or any software for that matter, is knowing our core customer and tailoring our software specifically for them.
I predict that many other CMSs will do the same or risk oblivion.