The CMS Diaries: What’s your first step

I’m beginning the first in a series of posts call the CMS diaries. I’m a contractor for a very large and reputable organization which is launching a new website very soon. I was brought in specifically to serve as the business analyst for the web content management system. As exciting as that might sound, it isn’t.  In the wonderful, wide, world of the web – the CMS is the dullest part. The guy who does your CMS is the accountant for Greenday†. There’s no chance of being hip, cool, or creative. At best, he can say that he’s the reason American Idiot was 99 cents a song on iTunes. Regardless, I will sexify the incredibly boring and forgotten part of your web redesign: The Web Content Management System.

Hold on. What’s really wrong with your web site?

Design. That’s usually what people will tell you, because no one likes a design from last season. And that’s usually what lead to the redesign. And truthfully, design alone is an awful reason to redesign your site. Read through anything that Steve Krug and Jakob Nielsen have written and they’ll tell you it isn’t design, it’s usability. Page one of Ginny Reddish’s book, Letting Go of the Words, says that, “people come to web sites for the content that they think (or hope) is going to be there.” If design is what’s wrong, spend an afternoon with a designer and a CSS developer and fix it*.

Now, if brand and design isn’t the issue, then what I hope is that you’ve gotten user insights that have forced you to focus on usability. And to go back to my previous quote; that makes content top priority. So take your beret-wearing Über-Genius of a web designer out to the park and leave him there to draw pictures of auras. It’s time to bring in the accountant.

Numbers aren’t just your friend, they’re your FaceBook Friend

It’s called web analytics. Analytics is so boring and unsexy, right? Right. But you need someone to actually figure out the user behaviors. Unless you’re planning on doing formal user experience and usability testing, web analytics are your best bet. Google Analytics is free. Throw a few lines of Javascript on your web pages and you’re set. Get in your accountant, or other available nerds to study the numbers and tell you what’s wrong. Getting a committee to tell you what colors are hip won’t fix this. You need objectivity – which numbers can offer.

You want to figure out what people are really getting out of your site. So drop the emotions about how many hours your poured into that venn diagram in the shape of hearts to describe your HR department’s org chart*. No one saw it in two years. But if you’ve got 4,000 searches in the last month for your phone number, the problem is with how someone can find content. It’s time to rearrange your website. That is called Information Architecture.

What does Information Architecture have to do with a web content management system?

What does a stock broker have to do with Green Day’s next album? If it’s going to make a lot of money, you want to know what to do with the money. If you’ve realized that the way your content is arranged on the site is the reason users can’t use it – then your first step is to figure out how to architect your content.

How should the user be finding content?  Look at your numbers and figure out what isn’t getting activity. What is, but isn’t easy to find on the site right now? It isn’t time for a Content Management System yet. It isn’t even time for a design. It’s time to reconstruct your entire website, so that users can find what they want. There’s your first step in the CMS Diaries.

†A quote from a contractor, after I described my job to him. He described me as, “the accountant of the web”
*Unless your existing CMS or infrastructure actually prevents the ability to update stylesheets in a timely manner. If that’s the problem, you need a new CMS.
**Not a joke. I encountered a venn diagram in the shape of Balloons which was actually an org chart. It took three months for the marketing department to create it and despite that no one had seen it in two years, politics kept it coming over.