When you work on building and restructuring hundreds of websites and content management systems (CMS) for businesses and organizations, you start to see themes emerge — both good and bad. I want to focus on the not so good trends we’ve encountered over the years and how you can learn from them so you don’t make the same mistakes.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters
When you go through a website redesign or build a new site from scratch, it can be tempting to put all of your attention to the front end of the site — what the user sees and interacts with. The reality, though, is that the CMS — or the back end of the site — is just as important, if not more so. That is why I would like to offer 10 tips for a better CMS project experience.
- Choose your decision-making team carefully
A professional services firm we once worked with selected 18 employees — two each from nine offices around the world —to make decisions for their new website. There was plenty of input, but few decisions. You know the old saying of too many cooks in the kitchen? There were lots of recipe ideas, but hardly any food was being made.
Eventually, our client created a new team that was much smaller in size, and as a result, much more effective.
Successful content management projects usually have small decision-making teams of three or fewer people. The team should be empowered to review work, make decisions and communicate progress with the rest of the organization. It also is a good practice to make sure the marketing and IT departments are represented on this decision-making team.
- Appoint a project manager
Project managers help organizations save resources, and can truly be an asset to help minimize frustrations during a CMS project. This person should help manage deadlines and priorities, particularly when changes to the project arise.
With no project manager, it’s common to see CMS projects get sidetracked or delayed.
- Make a project plan
In order to reach your final destination, you need to know how to get there. That is where a project plan can be incredibly valuable. This plan will help project team members prepare and develop the resources needed to build and launch your website. The project plan should include the budget, a timeline, major milestones and high-level project assignments. Without a project plan, it is a lot harder to keep team members accountable.
- Do your homework before you pick your CMS
This just may be the most critical part of the entire CMS project. As you are preparing to choose what CMS you want to use, it is important that you consider aspects like the needs of your users, the skills of your contributors and your technical limitations. Does the CMS you choose give you what you need to help your organization grow?
It’s important to know what you actually need before going out and buying a solution. Without this step, not only could you risk overspending, but you could end up with a platform that either doesn’t do what you want or is loaded with features that are not necessary for your specific business.
- Realize that simple is better — seriously
There’s something about having a new website that makes people want to overcomplicate things. It’s entirely unintentional, but we’ve seen it time and time again. Companies use their CMS projects as a way to add new businesses processes to their workflow, like adding extra approvals, and almost always it makes the workflow less effective.
We had one client who wanted to have four approval steps before new content could be published. As you can imagine, the result was stale and outdated content because the process took weeks to approve anything new. The client recognized this and did an experiment. Instead of four approvals, they tried having a single approval process, and they found the amount of new content increased, as well as the quality and publishing speed.
Simplify your workflow whenever you can. Sure, there are exceptions to this, but don’t build your process around the exceptions.
- Realize migrating content takes time
One of the ugliest parts of a website CMS project is the content migration — the process of moving content from your old system to your new one. And almost always, clients underestimate the amount of time this process takes. It is critical to determine early on what content from your old site is going to appear on your new site. That way, you give yourself time to update that content to adjust for new styles or tones of your new site. At the same time, you don’t waste time or resources moving unnecessary content. If you don’t factor in enough time to migrate content, it could very well push back your launch date.
- Determine where your site will be hosted
I tell clients that shopping for hosting is like shopping for a car — you can pay as little or as much as you’d like, but you will end up getting what you paid for. There is a vast array of hosting options, and it’s important to match your organization up with the right host. Here are a few specific things to consider:
> Can your hosting service support your new CMS?
> Who holds and has access to your DNS?
> Do the hosting service’s tools match with your organization’s needs?
Some CMS costs vary depending on the hosting environment, so it’s important to tackle this step early on to ensure you don’t hurt yourself with added costs.
- Make usability a priority
If a tool that should be easy to use instead turns out to be difficult to operate, it discourages users. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a drill or a television, a cell phone or a car. If people expect something to be simple, it should be simple. This is definitely true for websites and CMS systems. When a CMS is difficult to use or navigate, authors will not add content as frequently. With less content, your audience can become discouraged and stay away from your site. Similarly, if the interface is confusing or users can’t find what they’re looking for, they will stay away from your site.
Experienced web designers and developers have the training to make your site as user-friendly as possible — for both front-end and back-end users.
The best way to determine your site’s usability is to test it. A simple test with three to five people should help you begin to identify parts of the site that may need to be revised.
Testing is something that you should do throughout the design and development process, but also after your site is live. A website is never really finished, there are always tweaks that can be made to improve it. Testing is a way to identify those improvements.
- Use real content in your prototypes
We once had a client who wanted a bio page for members of its firm. They couldn’t get us the actual bio information in time, so we used “stand-in” copy instead. The goal was to mimic the real bio info. The mockups of the page were approved by the client, but once the bio info arrived, it quickly became clear the approved layout for the page wouldn’t work — the bio text was far longer than we had planned for.
Using fake content makes it difficult to accurately assess a page’s layout. This can lead to headaches, re-work and delays.
- Start adding content before launch
You should know what content you want on your site for launch long before the site actually goes live. As part of your project plan, you should identify what new content will be created, who will be responsible for it and when it will be completed and posted.
Start entering content as soon as possible. When content isn’t prepared or posted until the last minute, you lose the chance to fully review how it fits in the page’s overall layout. The number one reason CMS projects don’t launch on time is because content is not ready.
If you’re looking for one takeaway from this post, recognize that planning is critical for any CMS project to be successful. Knowing what you want to accomplish and figuring out how to get there is essential if you want your project — and your site — to succeed.