Jon Stewart, President

When selecting a Content Management System (CMS) or related marketing technology software platform, the user experience should dictate the vision and make sure the CMS helps enable that vision. When we try to pigeonhole the user experience into the features, and for that matter, limitations of the software it’s built on top of, the site or app experience is already starting on the wrong foot.  That’s why it’s important to pick a CMS platform, like Drupal for example, that has a highly customizable admin experience and modular code base for any web experience at scale.  One that has a clear roadmap for future scale and the ability to build in a way that not only solves the content challenges of today but that can pivot quickly to solve for those of the future.  


Regardless of what platform you choose, the success or failure of architecting a new CMS solution for a website redesign or web app implementation hinges on the usability of the admin experience. A user-friendly admin interface, similar to a front-end site experience, empowers authors to scale their content and optimize their brand strategy. Conversely, limitations in technology hinder authors, leading to a subpar user experience and potentially necessitating a costly and time-consuming re-platform in the future--something that could have been easily avoided with careful planning.  


In developing ZenCMS’s admin experience, we dedicated years to refining our authoring tools based on feedback from our clients and the day-to-day users of our products. We compiled website after website of positive and negative content author feedback. 

Our goal was to design a CMS admin that removed the friction points and increased retention for authors, and that’s exactly what we did.  

By integrating the best community modules and building custom solutions when needed, we established a best-in-class code base. This foundation allows authors to begin populating content immediately, while developers refine and customize based on project requirements. Below are the steps we take on any client implementation with ZenCMS to ensure the most usable backend experience for continuous improvement derived from real-time usability feedback. These facets apply to ZenCMS, however they can be leveraged for any CMS or relevant MarTech platform implementation.  


Baseline Mar Tech 101 Training: Providing Foundational Knowledge for a Customizable Admin Experience in CMS 

 Starting a re-platforming endeavor on a solid footing necessitates a shared understanding of the core authoring experience among client marketing authors and developers. ZenSource has a foundational training site experience installed at project kick-off.  This training site closely mirrors the code base employed to initiate a ZenSource custom build, encompassing fundamental page layouts, content modules, taxonomy, menus, and other elements developers will further build upon and customize during the bespoke implementation. While things will inevitably be designed as new and custom, installing this site and training the content authors during the discovery phase is a technique we use to orientate the team on what to expect.   


It helps level set the expectation of the build covering aspects such as login procedures, page creation, default help text, image addition processes, and the workflow for incorporating and repositioning modules. Even if the client has already worked in the chosen CMS for years, chances are the implementation of it will be at least a little bit different than what their current one looks like. Especially if it’s a build on a new version of the platform. For those clients that are brand new to the chosen CMS, it's essential to get them comfortable with what the tools look like, how they work, and where things are in the admin. Experience dictates that this early stage is where clients invariably begin to form opinions, provide feedback, and shape their expectations for a successful project outcome. This initial feedback is a valuable foundation for the subsequent creation of customer experience (CMS admin) documentation. 


Create a Project Playbook - Clean Documentation for Real-Time Usability Testing in CMS 

Stakeholder interviews are synonymous with website discovery. It’s where we learn about what’s working, what’s not, the goals of an organization, and what we need to do with this project to help deliver on those goals.  Typically, this is focused on ROI, marketing leads, new appointment requests, the vision for the brand, etc. We don’t always think about the content authors and the content they need to create, or the other functions they need to achieve in a CMS to drive the website success that will in turn help drive that ROI and related goals. This goes back to the above - for the site user experience to be successful, the tools powering it need to be scalable and incredibly easy to use.  


This process is simple but effective - during the stakeholder interviews talk to the content authors, the developers, and IT. Find out what isn’t working today and what is working that we don’t want to lose in the re-platform. Identify the biggest friction points and make them requirements for phase 1. Document aspects that need to be phased out with a plan for a year 2 and 3 roadmap. Define the business and functional requirements of the experience as part of this discovery and document all custom experience specifications. For example, how will the tier 1 page layout in the CMS? What are the fields, their order, their help text, and the types of selectors they use? What components will be on the page by default? Where do we add it to the menu? How do we add content modules and what visual editing tools are available? This ties back into the 101 training of your platform. If your clients have the frame of reference of the base tools, they will have much more input and feedback into how you document the architecture for the authoring experience.  


CMS QA - Use Real Content to Test 

Years ago, I delivered a client Drupal implementation which served as the foundation for what is now the ZenCMS experience. We tested the backend authoring tools inside-out. We built every content type, with every permutation of every module, taxonomy, menu, you name it. It was a perfect experience to deliver the first custom implementation training with the client. We didn’t test it with the real content that the client would be using to populate their site. This is a crucial step that we now integrate as part of our testing process on every project. When you start to pressure test the admin experience with the real content, you start to see things. You’ll see where you need to enforce character count limits, where the image cropping features need to be tweaked, where you need more flexibility in gallery slides, section layouts, etc. Using your admin QA cycle to populate real pages will pay for itself 10-fold in the client training sessions when real-world use cases accounted for and rock solid.    


Release Early, Release Often, & Prioritize - Strategies for a Customizable Admin Experience  

No matter how much you plan, the Big Bang release never works. It overwhelms client authors with too much information at once, making training long and painful as well as giving the implementation team much less slack when changes need to be made. Instead of a week of training the entire admin experience at once, break it up 2 hours a time over weeks and maybe even months of releases. That’s the most effective way for authors to retain what you’re training them and apply it.  


Release a few page layouts and key content modules for the first training. Start with the features your authors need to start the content population now. There’s no reason to prioritize site search when the authors don’t need to do anything with it to develop content. Not to mention, the best way to test search tools is to do so by indexing real site content once it’s populated. Train authors on how to build these pages using real content and do them in person when possible in small, focused groups. For bigger decentralized authoring teams, don’t stick them all in a 30-person session where they have to sit through hours of exercises that don’t apply to them. For example, rain the PR team how to populate news releases only.  And for the smaller, self-contained marketing teams that do it all, break up the training into digestible 90-minute sessions of a few key exercises. In either case, gather their feedback from these sessions. Figure out what isn’t working as well as it could and take that feedback to the development team to integrate as part of the next release. While authors now have a few key features to their liking, turn them loose to get ahead of the content population while working towards the next release. Rinse, repeat, and by the time you get to go live you can guarantee you’ll have a perfectly tailored, streamlined authoring experience designed for their specific workflows. This process will also help with retention for authors who aren’t in the system every day. By tailoring the experience to their needs and day-to-day workflow, they’ll more easily pick up where they left off the next time they log in. And moreover, it is an experience that enables them to optimize their brand and realize their digital strategy.  



In the pursuit of crafting an exceptional CMS, the outlined strategies form a cohesive roadmap for success. By fostering a unified understanding at the project's inception, providing meticulous documentation through stakeholder engagement, rigorously testing with real content, and adopting a phased release approach, the journey towards a streamlined and user-centric authoring experience unfolds. This meticulous process not only addresses current needs but lays the groundwork for scalable solutions, ensuring an optimized backend experience that resonates with the dynamic requirements of both experienced and new users. The result is not just a functional CMS but a tailored, refined platform that empowers authors, fosters brand optimization, and seamlessly aligns with digital strategy objectives. 

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