The Pain of Evaluating WCM Software
There’s been some good times had (and more coming!) as my company evaluates web content management (WCM) vendors, and the experience has left me with one glaring observation — in complex software, the most important feature, and the one most often missing, is good design.
Recently, my company decided to drag its old-school means of managing content into the modern age by evaluating and purchasing a proper web content management system (also known as WCM if you are an analyst). This is not a bad decision. Our current system involves a gazillion physical file directories that are forced to live nicely with a duct-taped Lotus Notes CMS via a common law marriage of technology.
Having always hand-edited HTML files or used a lightweight content management system (ahem), the experience of diving into an expensive WCM product is a wee bit daunting. Over the past month, a group of us have sat through multiple two-hour demos, and I have sampled the interfaces of several large vendors, each with a solution falling into the $50k to $200k range. We have not yet made a decision, but I have distilled my experience from these marathon discussions into several semi-sardonic observations.
Perhaps obvious, but perhaps not, is the fact that the knowledge and personality of the person giving the demo directly influences the overall quality of the demo. A piece of technology can only captivate us for so long. We have seen cumbersome and utterly unusable products spun into digital gold by engaging characters, and we have seen potentially great products beaten into a prosaic lump of commonality by people with less personality than a laundry basket from Walmart. Some of us have also witnessed crappy presenters arguing with each over during their crappy demo about their crappy product.
Beyond that, the technology is predictably, annoyingly, and unnecessarily complex. All of these vendors produce a product through which you can administer content (editorial workflow, localized versions, etc.), edit templates, create and modify personalization and user authentication, track analytics, and more. The differences come in choice of platform (.NET, Java, Oracle, etc.), and the level of unusability in their interface.
It is astounding to me that enterprise-level products are so poorly designed. I have seen it before in other areas, but it is somehow more amusing that software built to manage websites is driven by cascading tiers of jumbled menus, appalling interfaces, hidden options and a complete lack of intelligent structure. Almost every product felt like a victim of feature-creep. Instead of a holistic, streamlined control center, we were presented with a snake pit of confounding menus, multiple administrative interfaces for the same task, terrible graphic design and obtuse language describing different options.
These WCM vendors clearly have products that work. Take a look at their customer lists and you’ll see many familiar brand names. But how many of these high-profile customers have to slog through swamps of menus and junky workflows in order to publish content on a daily basis?
This experience has only reinforced that intelligent design and feature control is key when building complex software. It makes one appreciate companies like 37signals who ingrain this philosophy into every pixel and line of code they sell. (Heck, if it weren’t for their higher-than-thou soapboxing I might actually use their products.)