Illustration by Ana Vasquez

Illustration by Ana Vasquez

Building An Author-Focused CMS.

When designing a content management system, the most critical users aren't readers—they're authors.

Published in October 2016, Huge Ideas

Every piece of content on the internet goes into a content management system (CMS). Whether crafting a longread on Medium or sharing a 30-second cooking video on Facebook, content is being entered in an interface that reinterprets it, slightly or significantly, for online display. User expectations are high when it comes to doing this in a quick, easy way. And as more and more brands enter the capital-c Content game, the way that content gets from the conference room to the living room is an increasingly important part of the conversation. 

As digital creatives, we know to always put the user first. When building a site from the ground up, the bulk of resources traditionally go to designing and developing the reader experience. But that’s not enough. When building a CMS, we need to stop thinking about readers as the primary user, and start focusing on authors. By optimizing the authoring side of the site without sacrificing front-end resources, what results is not only a turnkey author experience, but a beautiful reader experience as well.

Authors first, readers second.

To shift into an author-focused mindset, a number of things need to happen. Brands need to understand from the onset that while readers are the most numerous and widespread user group, authors are typically the most engaged user group. Authors, as the writers and editors responsible for populating the site, are the frontline. Authors build out articles, reorganize structures and workflows, and refine the reading experience to make the site what it is.

In a traditional CMS build, the bulk of resources goes to development, and UX and design for the front end. Wireframes and mock-ups of the front end are carefully created and thoughtfully picked over by everyone from the CEO on down. But do we ever pick over preliminary designs of the back-end authoring experience?

Content strategists should be the advocate for the author at all steps of a site build, from design to implementation. From day one, while resources are focused on the front end, we are already thinking about how to translate designs into its back-end structures. Often though, once designs have been finalized and handed over to developers, content strategists are taken off the project. That is short sighted. Much like how UX designers are often resourced through the whole project to ensure that readers have a flawless experience, content strategists should carry a parallel flag for the authors all the way through to launch.

How Huge built an author-first CMS.

In 2015, Huge was hired to work with a large tech company to consolidate multiple blogs into a single, comprehensive reading experience. This involved designing the site, building the CMS, and migrating 700 articles from the old site to the new. From the onset, we knew that optimizing the content entry process would be a key priority. In addition, our client came from a publishing background, and understood the innate value of a painless authoring experience.

Excited and inspired editors are precisely what the client needs to build out and maintain a robust reading experience.

After the design phase of the project, we shifted gears to migrate those 700 articles by hand, and, as a result, truly understood the authoring experience. In close collaboration with our tech team, we reorganized the back end to match the author workflow. Grouping commonly used elements together, eliminating rarely used fields, and carefully rewording help text are not going to win us design awards, but will make authors happier and more efficient.

Advanced features that readers will never see.

The CMS was initially built with a bare-bones author management system. But what we quickly realized was that our site would have almost 500 attributed authors at launch. Poring through an unalphabetized, unsearchable list of 500 names is a huge time expense when trying to create a blog post before deadline. And while making this author list searchable was not a feature at the start of the project, we knew this was mandatory for site authors, and shuffled resources appropriately. This feature had zero implications on the front-end experience, but for the 100+ editors, its implementation earned it a literal round of applause.

Preparing authors for launch.

In classic site builds, content strategists are periodically tasked with creating documentation to hand off to site authors at launch. But who ever reads user manuals? This time, with authors as our primary user group, we were empowered to ensure that they were as prepared for launch as possible. This meant creating a comprehensive user guide built on firsthand experience, as well as flying cross country to provide multiple in-person training sessions. These training sessions not only gave authors with hands-on experience, but served as user testing to further tweak and streamline the CMS. By investing in their authors, the client ensured that they were fully equipped to jump into the site, facilitating a smooth and efficient adoption across the organization.

Finally, after months of development and stress-testing, the site was handed over to the content authors. The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive. Compared to the previous blogging platform, the new site was fully customized to their needs and workflows. Content authors were excited by the speed and ease of the authoring experience, but also, inspired by the new features built specifically for the site. And as the frontline of the new site, excited and inspired editors are precisely what the client needs to build out and maintain a robust reading experience.

Think of it this way: If Twitter required people to use three different entry fields and a smattering of HTML to share their latest hot take, we would probably see a lot fewer tweets. Much in the same vein, by advocating for the authoring experience on the site, we were able to build a CMS that reduces friction in the publishing process. What used to be a two-hour process for a single post was reduced to 15-30 minutes. This means more time to spend creating content, more opportunities to use features creatively, and a stronger site for all. By putting authors first when building a CMS, readers and, ultimately, brands are the ones who benefit.