The ease of use myth

When looking for a new CMS, most end users agree on one thing – It must be easy to use.

Easy to use.

We hear those three words a lot during the CMS selection process.

It seems like a reasonable expectation, but it may just be the requirement that undermines your entire project. The problem is organizations rarely define what ease of use really means to them.

In most cases, the requirement gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. The focus is on a slick looking interface, the WYSIWYG editor, and inline editing tools that allows anyone to navigate to a web page and do point and click editing.

CMS vendors of course trumpet their software’s ease of use. I’ve yet to meet one that says their product is hard. Almost every demo I’ve seen spends the first 20 minutes explaining how the WYSIWYG editor and inline editing works. Features that, by the way, work almost exactly the same across most platforms today.

Here’s the reality: Web content management systems are not easy to use. They are complex pieces of enterprise software that enable hundreds (if not thousands) of different tasks.

When an end user says it needs to be easy, they mean easy for the specific task they are trying to accomplish. This is rarely as simple as making a basic text change on a single webpage as the demo shows.

Even the process of creating a new piece of new content has considerations like metadata, SEO, mobile, language, multi-channel and content reuse.  Not to mention more complex scenarios like creating landing pages, forms and microsites. Apply that across a complex organization and you get dozens (if not hundreds) of different scenarios.

Some of this simply comes down to educating the users. Creating, publishing and managing web content is a much more complicated process than creating a new Microsoft Word document. Yet somehow this is the bar we set.

The CMS vendors bear responsibility as well. In an effort to keep up with growing business requirements, vendors are adding more and more features, menus, fields, ribbons and dialog boxes.

It’s not as if the vendors don’t care about usability. They do. Most solutions try to separate out the ‘power user’ management interface from the page-level inline editing tools. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually satisfy the needs of users that have to work between the two worlds.

It also doesn’t help that the discipline of user experience within most CMS vendors is vastly underfunded proportional to the engineering effort. The rapid release cycles and evolving functionality of a CMS means most tools are getting more complicated rather than simpler.

So what happens?

The CMS that everyone loved in the demo ends up losing its luster when folks put it through the paces.  End users become frustrated with the complexity of the interface as they learn what it actually takes to get their specific tasks done.

In extreme cases, the implementation is deemed a failure and the vendors and implementation partner get blamed for a poor solution that failed to deliver on the initial promises.

I’ll explore ways to avoid this unfortunate scenario in a future blog post. In the meantime, be wary when you hear users prioritize ease of use as a top goal for a new CMS without any additional details.

What have your experiences been with making your CMS easier to use? And for any vendors out there, how are you working to address usability with your software?

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

More articles from Jeff Cram


13 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. Great article, but here’s my two cents: Ease of use is really not about the UI. It certainly helps to have intuitive interface, but it’s useless if users don’t understand what metadata or SEO is.

    Now it would be great if everyone would be SEO ninja, but I’m afraid that this won’t ever happen. I’ve worked for the enterprise company and guess how many SEO or content experts were working there? None!

    I mean, if web isn’t the core business of the company, it’s hard to expect that they’ll be hiring web experts. Yet these are the people who usually use the CMS most frequently. So in my eyes, the easy CMS should be also really good in helping these users to achieve their goals.

  2. I think some assume that ease of use is mainly a concern with regard to novice or occasional or non-technical users–that CMS specialists can handle a more complex interface. In reality, of course, a CMS should streamline workflow for all users and make rabid fans of those who spend the most time working with it.

  3. I love this post! There is nothing more over sold and under used in CMS than inline editing. Editing text on one page is about 1% of a content management systems functions today, yet is at least 30% of any demo.

    As many CMS vendors do, we tout our product’s ‘easiness’. However, we are one of the only major CMSs on the market that doesn’t have inline editing. Invariably, this is a question we get in demos. However, once users from all stripes see how the system is tailored for their specific role (editor, marketer, designer, developer), they are blown away. Also, in contrast to many CMS customers where they are more and more frustrated the more they use the tool, our customers see how powerful it is to customize the system to their requirements and learn to love it more and more.

  4. @Michael – not sure I’d agree that inline editing is oversold. I do a lot of work on my own website and I use Ektron inline editing all the time for quick edits. For the type of edits I make, it’s far easier than trying to navigate a folder structure. But I’m a casual user, and I agree that it’s often not the right way for the more editorial-style use cases.

    To @Jeff’s point, I think the larger issue is when organizations make usability decisions based on a Sales demo. Usability often gets confused with curb appeal. The interface that has the most pretty color scheme or “looks-kind-of-like-Microsoft-Word” might not actually be the most usable once your users have to live with it. I’ve been selling and marketing WCM for 10+ years, and there is nothing more frustrating to me than an organization that eliminates my product because of usability, without having actually used the product.

    Another dimension of usability is “fit for purpose”. Everyone’s requirements are slightly different yet we try and view usability as something that can be universally quantified. Google Docs is certainly easier to use than Microsoft Excel – but try selling idea that to a CFO.

    The answer is, as it always is, that every potential CMS buyer needs to carefully consider their requirements and usage scenarios, and then directly evaluate those against your CMS shortlist. There is no shortcut.

  5. Vern Imrich says:

    The fundamental problem stems from selling WCMS as a general purpose Web Development framework or platform. There is no way to make the CMS easy in that case because the implementer (the customer or an SI) actually builds the user interface each time using the underlying platform. Does your CMS do …? I don’t know, did the SI turn that feature on for you? Did you upgrade or install that module? And on an on it goes. You can’t make it usable if you don’t even know for sure what it does! However, this does not have to be our fate. Since Web 2.0 came out (7 years ago!!!) we now have mashups, REST, and all the rest of it to show us that lose coupling and independent pluggable parts is the way to go. There’s ZERO justification in this day and age to commit to one massively coupled all-in-one web architecture that tries to do everything from content authoring to interactive social engagement and dynamic presentation. The implementation services and support costs alone will kill you because the lifespan of success online is too short and unpredictable for anything so overarching. At Percussion we believe there is We believe that WCM can be delivered as a plug-in pre-built Product that offers the marketer speed and simplicity, without getting in the way of the different web delivery and application frameworks you might want. In this view, we CAN own the user experience for the authors, editors and other marketers because we can define the problem set specifically: get found, get leads, and otherwise up your online presence though the use of content. In fact, the only way to embrace the elusive web is to allow the marketer to swap in and out the pieces the need as the Web rapidly changes around them.

  6. Susan says:

    To Tom’s point, you cannot evaluate a CMS via vendor demo, which is all about “curb appeal” — or RFP response, which is usually a checklist of features. You really need to do a hands-on proof of concept, paid if necessary, in order to get hands dirty with the actual system. And, as always, understand your business requirements (the proof of concept could help you sharpen that understanding…).

  7. Gabe Sumner says:

    This is an area where “user stories” become a very valuable tool during the evaluation process. Each organization is going to have common tasks & objectives for their website.
    These should be clearly defined prior to CMS selection and used to evaluate CMS’s. In this context “ease of use” has personal meaning.

  8. It’s an interesting question you pose, and it’s been a subject for debate for the 12+ years I’ve been involved in WCM. It’s true that business needs on the Web and project requirements have become more complex. As vendors, we’re expected to keep up with an ever increasing set of needs, and this could lead to more complex interfaces. As a vendor though, we’ve also consistently added more and more capabilities to keep things simple. Things like default security mechanisms to slim down the features presented to users, and in-context editorial environments.

    The reality is that we vendors can only do so much. It is also up to the implementation community and customers themselves to prioritize the editorial experience. At the end of the day, WCM vendors build out infrastructure to implement your web experiences, as well as the editorial experiences. We can build all the technology in the world to make it easy, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t’ get used. Sadly, this happens more than not. Budgets get crunched, time gets short, and the first thing that gets lopped off the schedule is the ease of use features for the editors. I’ve seen time after time in my career at Sitecore, RedDot and even in my prior life as an integrator that the in-context editing environments don’t’ even get implemented because it adds a small amount of work to the project.

    I’m not saying that we vendors are without fault either. We all need to keep refactoring our interfaces, and keep looking for ways to make things simpler on an on-going basis, but I’d love to see more folks prioritize the editorial experience for users as well, and give this the attention it deserves in project budgets.

  9. Aaron says:

    Percussion’s Director of User Experience has a decidedly different view on how important usability is. And no, it’s not about how cool the inline editing tool is. Read her views here: “Why is Usability a “Myth” in Web Content Management?”

  10. Jeff Cram Jeff Cram says:

    Fantastic comments. Thanks all for extending the discussion. A few thoughts:

    @Vern – I completely agree that the challenge lies in WCM as a general purpose tool. On one hand it can do anything you want and on the other, it does nothing specific that you actually need (out of the box). Sounds like you are trying to solve these problems, which is great, although I am always skeptical when folks say anything is “pre-built” to MY needs without defining those needs more precisely.

    @Tom – The concept of “fit for purpose” is ultimately what I’d like to see CMS vendors tackle better. I think it’s a reason why point solutions around things like landing page management can run circles around enterprise CMS. Sure ,you can manage landing pages in a CMS, but it’s not laser focused on that one purpose like it should be (in most cases). Same way I think folks generally like WordPress for blogging. It was built for that purpose, before expanding out further.

    @Darren – I hear you on implementations getting short changed. They do, all the time. Although I think we need to get to a place where every CMS implementation doesn’t need significant custom backend UI engineering to be truly effective.

    @Aaron – Thanks to Percussion and Lorena for extending the conversation with the thoughtful blog post. Sounds like you all put a lot of thought into usability, which is refreshing. Although, I think Lorena missed the point of this post if she thought I was saying that “WCM is complex and there is no way around it, therefore, ease of use is akin to a unicorn – or a fantasy not to be pursued.” That was not my point at all. This post was focused on the disconnect between users and vendors on defining what ease of use really means. What I’d like to see is more of a focus from both sides in making it better.

  11. Jeff,

    I think there will always need to be some need for configuring the editorial experience to dial in usability for projects because there is no one-size-fits-all solution for usability. Every customer is different and their requirements vary wildly. That being said, I think there are opportunities to rethink the ways users are presented with features and processes. One of the things we’re thinking about at Sitecore is a more process driven approach to what a user needs to do. Instead of going to a place to edit a page, we’re rethinking the entire business process behind why someone needs to edit that page in the first place, and presenting precisely what that user needs in that moment, based on the task at hand. The reality is that WCM is a step in a larger process (like your comment around campaigns and landing pages) and we’re starting to stitch those large processes together into task flow based applications as a part of our new business user interfaces.
    This approach becomes increasingly important as the market shifts from WCM to cross channel marketing solutions.

  12. Aaron says:

    Thanks Jeff,

    Well we might just have unicorns on our minds over here these days :) But I do think that as seen in the comments here, and the other discussions we have been part of, usability is often taken for granted in the vendor community. The problem with the visions articulated here and elsewhere is that they are incredibly difficult to pull of, and by their very nature, have got to be customized and built client by client, creating immense complexity.

    At the same time, we are hearing from more and more prospects that end-users are just fed up with the expectation that complexity is “ok”. Now we can hang that on the implementation as it has been suggested previously (though you might not agree with that) or we can hang it on the incomplete user requirements as it also comes up frequently. But instead, we at Percussion chose to address the problem head-on. Our users–ranging from Fortune 100 firms all the way down to a small non-profits–appreciate the simplicity and flexibility they have to control their web and content marketing strategy.

    And when you get that right, then the inevitable feature vs feature debate take on an entirely tone!


  13. Usability of website editing and publishing is an important efficiency factor.
    However the quality of what the website delivers to customers and other users is more important.
    While I would like to have a website that was very effective, enjoyed by all visitors, and staff found the site easy maintain and operate, in real life there can be tradeoffs when selecting a web CMS.
    My preference when I am forced to choose, is the tool that can deliver the best visitor experience.
    After all what use is a website that doesn’t achieve business goals, but is an efficient delight for web staff to maintain?

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