Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

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.)

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Wednesday March 26, 2008

Kev, 37Signals has every right to sound higher-than-thou. After all, you just gave a very clear explanation of why. Their products are awesome, their experience shows it, and their numbers back it up, doncha think?


wrote the following on Wednesday March 26, 2008

Hard to recommend w/o knowing the projects, however, consider Drupal. I have looked at dozens of CMS packages and Drupal came out way ahead for it’s architecture and the way you can pretty much write custom modules to do anything you can imagine. The learning curve is hard for devs, but a shop can certainly build it for you. A lot of huge sites are moving to it,,, Amnesty International, and more!


wrote the following on Wednesday March 26, 2008

@ Micah — without diving into a psychoanalytical response, suffice to say I just have difficulty wasting time with a company who (I feel) lacks humility. I feel the same way about Coudal. It’s not with any kind of scientific metric that I say this — it’s just a gut thing.

@ mahalie — The mandate came down from upper management that we had to purchase a solution from a company that was accountable from a support perspective. Drupal was on my personal short list (so was Expression Engine), but the decision was to avoid open source software.

Ed Knittel

wrote the following on Wednesday March 26, 2008

I highly recommend (I know you said no to open source) Alfresco. There is the free community version and the paid SLA (gold or platinum) versions which basically do the same thing but come with accountability.

I work for a large online brokerage and we are in the midst of a redesign. We looked at Drupal, Wordpress and Expression Engine and in the end decided that technically, and administratively Alfresco was the best option.


wrote the following on Wednesday March 26, 2008

Drupal has commercial support – check out Acquia.

Kevin Potts

wrote the following on Thursday March 27, 2008

To be more specific, we researched companies that appear in the Forrester Wave for WCM; Vignette, Tridion, Fatwire, etc. Original manufacturers, so to speak. Believe me when I say I advocated for open source products even without knowing about Acquia; also believe me when a firm “no” came down from those writing the checks.


wrote the following on Thursday March 27, 2008

I feel your pain. When I worked for VML (a great local Kansas City company) they used Vignette as their content management system. It was used internally and externally for clients. We hardly ever produced any real content for it- most of the time was spent figuring out the system. Navigating multiple drop-down/fly-out menus, multi-function buttons, etc. was a disaster. Like you, I have never understood why companies that are accountable for support don’t make their products more-user friendly. I guess since they make a significant profit by providing support, they don’t want make their product easier to use.


wrote the following on Thursday March 27, 2008

It’s pretty annoying when you are mandated to choose from a Forrester wave of products when there are much better open-source products out there. I believe that Expression Engine has a pro version (not sure on that one) with full support.

<sarcasm>Still, I can't imagine that the Lotus Notes duct tape WCM still isn't viable…</sarcasm>


wrote the following on Thursday March 27, 2008

The organization I work for went through this same evaluation over a year ago. The group tasked with making a recommendation reviewed the top 3 according to Forrester, made a recommendation and we still don’t have a WCM due to the cost of doing a next step evaluation with the selected vendor. Complicated and expensive!


wrote the following on Sunday March 30, 2008

Just found this via delicious, apparently, you’re not the only one with with that gut feeling.

Why is 37signals so arrogant?


wrote the following on Tuesday April 8, 2008

I went through the same process a year or so ago and don’t envy your task. I’m among those that slog through swamps of menus and forced work flows on a daily basis.

And you’re right, so many of the enterprise solutions are poorly designed. Our short list was Stellant (now Oracle), Percussion and RedDot and the decision ultimately came down to UI. However, I wish I’d spent more time looking at each vendor’s documentation.

I’ve come to believe that no matter what you choose, there’s a wicked learning curve. And no matter how good the interface looks, you’ll still find that random menu or settings dialog in the most illogical place.

Since CMS platforms aren’t simple and intuitive (as say 37signals), look for products with great documentation, detailed user guides and active user forums. Ask for these resources up front. They can turn the journey into a somewhat bearable learning curve.

If WCM vendors can’t copy the simplicity seen in open source platforms, they should at least take a cue and spend more time documenting the random and intricate nature of their platforms.

Thanks for sharing your take-aways thus far – let us know where your research leads and how the implementation goes.


wrote the following on Tuesday April 15, 2008

We just launched:

Although it’s no enterprise level CMS we like to think it is the easiest you’ll ever use.