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Published on June 14th, 2007 | by Rahel Bailie


Usability of content management systems is discussed on multiple continents

James Robertson of Step Two Designs just published an article on the 11 usability principles for CMS products. As usual, James has said what needs to be said about the topic, simply and eloquently. He has hit all the major points. But one of the pieces that I don’t think gets hammered home often enough is the connection between patterning and usability, and I would like to elaborate on that a bit, as I’ve been talking about it in my conference presentations lately.

The example I’ve been using is of going to a rental car office and being able to take the keys from the desk, get into the car, and drive away. You’re not asked to first take a tutorial or read a manual because the pattern, the schema, the mental model is well established. You know where the steering wheel, gas pedal, brakes, clutch, etc. are all going to be. (Even when going to a country where they drive on “the other side of the road,” you know where everything is, just in mirror image.) The only variables might be the windshield washers and cruise control, which you check before you drive off. But you know they’re there, and approximately where they wil be. And when we’re driving, because the pattern of driving is so familiar, we go through the rote tasks of changing gears, tapping the brake or accelerating, etc. in background processing mode while our primary processing mode is on wayfinding through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and/or avoiding the bad driver next to us and/or talking to whoever is in the passenger seat.

So when we use software, we have a similar experience. Right now, if you think about the feedback Microsoft is getting from Vista and Office 2007 users, you hear that new users love it, while experienced users are frustrated. When you think about patterning, and primary and secondary cognitive levels, it makes sense. New users have no existing patterns to break; they simply adopt a pattern and their feedback is “great stuff!” Transfer users have a very different experience. They have to break deeply ingrained patterns, and during the transition process, their frustration levels mount because what are usually background processes – pressing key combinations and clicking and right-clicking are now taking over. Instead of concentrating on what would normally be primary processes – wordsmithing or image cropping or political diplomacy in the workplace – the users are now painfully conscious of not speeding through their patterned responses. They have to slow down, feel clumsy and stupid all over again. One very smart fellow confessed to me that he went home and left a number of documents open in the new version of Word because he couldn’t figure out how to save them, only to come in the next morning more determined to figure the darned thing out. So the first item on his agenda was to “get rid of some annoying flashing thing in the corner” (that experienced users have trained themselves to ignore), only to discover that, you guessed it, it was the Save mechanism that he couldn’t find the day before.

The adoption of a CMS makes users feel similarly out of sorts, particularly when the patterning of the software is unreliable. People don’t process information, they process patterns, and when looking for patterns to follow, they look down their “frequently followed favourites” for the first pattern that fits. So they’ll have certain expectations of what they should be able to do from a toolbar, by right-clicking, by dragging and dropping, and so on, based on patterns that they may not even realize they’re tapping into. The responses may come from an intuitive, muscular level that they can’t articulate but, sitting at a keyboard, just intuitively expect to happen, based on collective past experiences. Knowing this, and understand these user expectations, is the first step toward product usability, and user acceptance of the product. (Because you just know that if it’s not usable, staff will go to great, great lengths not to have to use it.)

The software development teams that don’t understand this dynamic, that insist of doing something different and compensating with more explanation and documentation, will eventually lose the race, but the sad part is that they’ll take out a lot of innocent bystanders along the route. For too long, CMS vendors haven’t had their feet held to the fire when it came to usability. As long as the output was to standard, the usability for internal users could be compromised to get the build out the door. But younger users “get” usability, and demanding more. And newer, more agile vendors “get” usability, and have changed the game. If they were to stand in front of this new breed of customer and explain away the reasons why their interface worked thus and so, their users would come back at them with, “Those aren’t reasons; those are excuses!” The gauntlet has been thrown down, and now it’s up to the industry players, one and all, to get their game faces on. As James Robertson points out, “broader discussions are needed within the industry to better define ‘best practice’ design for content management systems and to help improve the usability of all products.” It was gratifying to see, at the last CM Professionals‘ Summit in San Francisco, a vendor discuss the practices in their office, the metrics that they track, and what measures they take to keep customer satisfaction high. It was equally gratifying to notice the other vendors in the audience listening intently, making notes, and chatting with the presenter afterwards. There is a time and place to compete, and a time and place to collaborate. Perhaps this is the first step in the right direction: toward a better user experience.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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