Usability : The Next Key Battleground for Content Management Systems
As one of the most mature SaaS categories, the content management system (CMS) market is particularly susceptible to usability issues. The battle between Headless and Traditional Content Management Systems (CMS) is only getting started. In this article, I argue that both sides need to better meet the needs of their users to drive future success. As I’ll argue below, to do that they need to focus more on usability and less on feature enhancements.
Co-Founder / CEO
February 6, 2024
9 mins read
Usability - The Next Battleground
The 800lb gorilla is of course the 20-year-old WordPress with hundreds of millions of installs and a vast ecosystem of developers and entrepreneurs getting rich on its coattails. In the other corner, you’ve got the “new approach”: Headless, one that offers significant benefits but is up against a fairly entrenched incumbent.
However, as this blog attempts to illustrate, the battle is more than just about the CMS but about a way of working — with usability lying right at the core.
Traditional v Headless CMS
A traditional CMS like WordPress is an all-in-one solution, in that it consists of content management as well as the front-end design (template or otherwise). The capability of the core WordPress offering is extended by a myriad of Plug-in’s, after all, it started life as a blogging platform.
The key selling points are that it is relatively cheap to get going, and you can pick a theme from a template gallery to get started quickly. WordPress agencies and developers are ten a penny so it is also easy to get support for any issue that you encounter (increasingly from a YouTube video).
What is there not to like?
Well a lot, if viewed through the lens of the primary user who has to navigate an increasingly challenging WordPress interface which has had 20 years of upgrades, enhancements, and feature releases on top of an ever expanding array of plugins. As one of the most mature SaaS categories on the market it is particularly susceptible to feature creep — and I believe WordPress has already passed the point of no return.
To compound matters, in many instances it is a junior marketing person entrusted to manage the site themselves in-house (assisted by external freelancers on retainer in rare situations). The typical junior marketer will have a broad range of delivery responsibilities, with many of these taking place away from a CMS.
Can they really be expected to manage a live website, as well as all the other marketing applications alongside the myriad of tasks they will likely be responsible for?
A bloated interface married to an overworked generalist junior marketer is a recipe for disaster.
On the other side, you have a Headless CMS like Contento which is decoupled — meaning the front-end and back-end are separated.
The Headless CMS is the back-end content repository where you manage content, whereas the front-end design is managed elsewhere. It is an API-lead approach and based on a best-of-breed Lego block approach in stark contrast to the all-in-one approach of WordPress. With a Headless CMS you get a stripped back interface, but also an understanding that the “jobs to be done” are specialized and that you need a front end dev working alongside a marketing person to deliver success.
This is a key distinction — in the majority of cases, a Headless deployment takes design and other front end tasks away from the junior marketer.
Which Route Do I Choose?
There are undoubtedly Pro’s and Con’s to the two approaches, and understanding some of the differences is crucial because your CMS decision is very much a “horses for courses” one. The context surrounding your decision is multifaceted and knowing the various benefits of each approach will help you make the right decision.
Of course, the sheer range of variables can confuse especially when each camp will argue their case.
Take performance as a key decision point.
Most Headless CMS vendors will argue that a Headless architecture will deliver much faster speeds given the use of a Static site generator (SSG) and Content Delivery Network (CDN) whereas some WordPress vendors will argue that with the right hosting and image optimization you can get a similar performance. What gives?
The following represent some other key factors that you’ll need to consider:
Security — Headless will argue they win here
Cost — Traditional will argue they are more cost-effective
Scalable — Headless will argue that they are better for scaling
Performance — Headless wins hands down here
Design — Headless is usually a bespoke design and offers more design flexibility
Omnichannel — Headless is designed to feed multiple heads and thus is optimal here
Resourcing — If you are resource constrained, and lack a full time in-house front end dev, it will be harder to deliver with Headless.
Usability — As I argue below the importance of this factor is usually overlooked
However, many of these factors relate to the initial purchase decision.
And having clarity on these various criteria will help ensure you pick the optimum route. There is a nuance here to also consider. In many instances the technology lead dictates the choice of CMS, yet many of these factors are marketing factors and thus it is vital the CMS decision is not taken in isolation.
Which leads on to a key point here — the CMS buyer is and the user are rarely one and the same person.
In the vast majority of cases, the technical lead (CTO or similar) is the buyer. One need only take a look at the home pages of most CMS vendors to validate this point. They are heavily involved in the build and set-up, but their involvement peters out over time.
Hence, the marketing users criteria need to be baked into the decision. There is little point buying the most cutting-edge tech solution to find that the marketing function are not able to use it to manage the site.
What is often lost in the conversation is the fact that the primary user will invariably be in the marketing function, and their requirements are rarely heard when it comes to decisions as to CMS selection.
Where Headless Differs?
The two approaches represent different philosophies.
As I mentioned previously, Headless is a more modern best-of-breed approach, Traditional (WordPress) an all-in-one approach where plugins can extend the functionality of the core platform.
Underneath these headlines sit some important considerations.
As I touched upon above, when it comes to a traditional CMS, a common use case is that the marketing or content person manages the site (beyond just the content creation). With Headless there is a clear delineation of duties — front-end developers are needed to manage the design, and the ‘plumbing’ whereas the marketing team is primarily responsible for content management — be that content creation or edits.
With the likes of WordPress, someone in the marketing function will invariably be responsible for ‘the website’ and all that entails.
For mature websites entrusting the entire site to a marketing person is increasingly risky without running a WordPress developer on a retainer in parallel — just to keep the lights on.
With Headless, as a more technical setup, having access to a developer is a prerequisite, whereas with WordPress too many companies rely on someone in the team managing it effectively.
Afterall, WordPress sits on the other side of the pricing continuum to Headless (as a bespoke development requiring senior development input it is usually a more expensive build).
WordPress is Not User Friendly
When it comes to usability, the complexity of WordPress is “off the charts” for non-devs. To claim otherwise is a blatant misrepresentation. Yet you often see the claim that WordPress is ‘easy to use’ as a key selling point as to the benefits of WordPress.
For time-pressed marketing practitioners, juggling lots of balls, WordPress is an absolute nightmare when it comes to management and maintenance. Again for clarity, most commercial sites have a theme, several plugins in place, and are thus not straightforward.
That said given it’s market dominance it is the CMS most marketing people will have been exposed to and thus a “better the devil we know” attitude can prevail. Ironically, marketing team members can push for it as it is simply all they know.
Headless CMS Need to Improve Usability
Similarly, most headless CMS from the market leaders also suffer from usability challenges. Again this is from the perspective of the marketing user, rather than the buyer (often the developer). And herein lies one of the biggest issues with all CMS. The buyer is usually technical, but the main user is generally not. Hence, their needs are often neglected (arguably both Squarespace and Wix represent outliers that do offer genuinely intuitive interfaces for non technical users).
It is more than just this of course.
The same issues that affect traditional CMS are being repeated with Headless, where the market leaders flush with VC cash engage in a feature war. As each year goes by the list of features continues to explode, with an inverse correlation to usability.
Contento and Usability
Usability is one of the key areas we have focused a lot of attention on with Contento. We want to elevate the importance of the marketing user when it comes to website management. If anything the category of Headless has gone in the other direction with the majority of Headless vendors focusing exclusively on the needs of the primary buyer ICP (the tech lead).
At Contento we have endeavoured to close the gap and have made the experience a lot less daunting for the typical non technical user.
We’ve looked to do that via a stripped-back interface and by not exposing them to areas that are outside of their likely area of expertise.
For some the above image of the interface may look a little basic. But that’s exactly the point, all the other more ‘technical tasks’ are elsewhere, and only accessible by those with the requisite skills.
We passionately believe this needs to be the direction of travel. Headless CMS need to avoid trying to reproduce the traditional CMS experience within their Headless application.
Recommendations for Change
All of which leads to some key changes that need to happen:
1- Headless CMS vendors need to pay a lot more attention to the primary user and not just the primary buyer.
2- Marketing users need to be included in conversations related to CMS selection, to ensure a overly complex CMS is not foisted upon them.
3- As a mature software category it is particularly vulnerable to feature bloat. 20 years plus of updates, and new features leads to Frankensteins’s monster. Taking a “less is more” to product roadmaps will help with this.
4- Finally, those working in companies where the website is a primary driver of growth need to invest adequate resources in the team tasked with managing and maintaining the site. Entrusting a junior marketer to manage everything is a recipe for disaster.
When it comes to CMS selection, traditional CMS continues to dominate. However, a growing cohort of early adopters are gaining a better understanding of the benefits of Headless and are increasingly migrating to it. The factors at play range from dissatisfaction with the performance of monolithic solutions to concerns around perceived security vulnerabilities with WordPress. Alongside these are some of the pull factors outlined above.
However, usability remains a key problem in the broader CMS ecosystem. The needs of the developer side of the fence are well met, whereas the needs of the marketer are sorely neglected. “Easy-to-use” appears universally on all CMS vendor websites — in many instances, it could not be further from the truth. At Contento, by seeking to address these unmet needs we are hoping that marketers can finally use a CMS without fearing one false move could bring the whole site crashing down.
This article originally appeared on Medium
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