The design and build myth
Conventional wisdom about CMS-driven redesign projects says there are two primary phases to the work.
First you design it, and then you build it.
The design work includes important parts like user research, visual design, content, and information architecture. The build phase includes the heavy lifting of technical architecture, front end development, CMS customization, third party integrations, QA and deployment. Some kind of planning activities will typically precede both of these phases.
Sometimes, agile-looking processes will mix it up by focusing on early prototyping and more rapid development. But the two phases are still acknowledged as discrete parts that need to be integrated. Most typically, a lot of design documentation and interface work will get “thrown over the wall” to the development team.
While there are many service providers that offer integrated design and development capabilities, organizations approaching new CMS projects will often be looking for one part or the other. We still get a lot of RFPs and inquiries structured this way.
In some cases, the organization is looking for a design firm to do all the upfront work, before hiring a systems integrator who knows the CMS platform well. Or, the organization is interested in handling the design work internally, before handing it off to a development partner.
The challenge with either approach is the sum of the parts don’t add up to what’s necessary to succeed with a CMS. It’s what I call the design and build myth, and the sooner you acknowledge it, the better off your project will be.
Most importantly, a compartmentalized design and build approach typically misses the horizontal disciplines that are crucial to getting CMS projects right. Elements such as content strategy, measurement, and governance. More than just activities on a project plan, these are functions that need to be fully integrated end-to-end. They are the connective tissue that bind the phases of the project together.
It also takes a unified project management approach to ensure the many moving parts fit together right. Large-scale CMS projects require such specialized expertise that project managers (and strategists if you have them) are much-needed systems thinkers looking across all of the disciplines.
Lastly, it takes a team that has connected expertise to break the design and build mindset. This means technologists that understand where and how content and design intersect, designers and content specialists comfortable with technology, and everybody understanding the connection between their work and the business goals and objectives it supports.
At our agency this is accomplished by cross-training non-technical roles on the CMS platforms we work with as well as educating the development team in areas such as design and content strategy. We’ve learned this is no trivial effort, even when teams are under the same roof.
If you are embarking on a large-scale CMS project, avoid treating the design and build phases as separate activities. Work to develop an integrated plan and invest in the areas that connect them together. If you are bringing in an outside service provider, make sure they don’t just have all of the skills in-house, but they have done the difficult work necessary to integrate them.