What to Look for in a CMS from an End-User Perspective

As I've worked with clients over the years, their involvement with their own website has changed. When I first started, they wanted very little to do with updating the website. More recently, they want to edit their content, change the design, add pages, and more. With this change, the use of a CMS that works for the individual client has become paramount.

The variety of CMS's available spans from content-only editing to the ability to edit the entire website – including content and design. It begs the questions, “What is the right CMS?” The better question may be, “what does the end user want to do?”

Some CMS's are ‘plugged in' after the fact. The website is already designed and the CMS gives ‘behind-the-scenes' access to edit content areas and sometimes, to edit design and manage pages. Other CMS's require you to start using their CMS from the beginning, designing the site and adding content within their CMS.

Let's take a look at some of the questions to ask when it comes to selecting a CMS from the end user perspective.

How much control does the end user want?

I think this may need to be balanced with the question “How much technical knowledge does the user have?” If the technical knowledge is ‘I know how to use Word' – you'll want to stick to a CMS that offers a similar editor with access to only the content areas. If they want to do more – change the design of the site, add pages, etc. – then those options, along with their level of expertise – will help define which CMS works best for them. I have also found that sometimes it's a matter of educating a client on what is involved in updating a website and what's involved in keeping consistency across the website.

Can the end-user manage the pages on their website?

Some CMS options are edit-only. Others, let you add pages, move pages, and delete pages.
Although this has the potential of introducing more options than our client really understands, many CMS's let you add a page template that matches your current design. Be aware that along with this comes the need to also edit the menus. Again, many CMS's have a friendly intuitive interface to manage menus, as well as pages.

Can one easily add images, links, pdfs, etc?

Most CMS editors let you easily add assets to your website – whether it's images, videos, sound clips, pdfs, or other types of files. The issue becomes (especially from a developer's viewpoint) the organization of these assets. Some CMS's let you specify where to store the assets, others have a central repository where all assets are uploaded. So a second question might be how are the assets stored?

Can individuals be given different roles/permissions?

Will the client have multiple users accessing the CMS to update the website? If so, will they need access to only certain page/sections of the website? Or, maybe the client wants only designated users to add content, and other users only to be able to edit content already on the website. Many CMS's have options to assign roles and permissions for these types of scenarios.

Is it easy to use the editor?

Most people know Word, or a similar word processing program. I've found the editor within a CMS system needs to look pretty much like Word. Again, I have found that when a client wants to edit their content it includes educating the client on certain aspects of editing website content vs editing a Word document. The two main questions I get when it comes to a client updating their content is ‘why can't I place this picture where I want it?' and ‘how can I make this go down just one line instead of two?” There will be certain aspects we'll need to educate the client, but overall the editor should be very intuitive and be a similar as possible to a word processing program.

Can forms be easily added to my website?

Some CMS's include a form builder or a form wizard to easily add forms to a website. Additionally, some CMS's have the option to include storing the form information in a database or spreadsheet. Also, be aware that if a particular CMS doesn't have an option to build forms, there are online options for doing the same thing. One example of this is Wufoo. You an build a form on their interactive website and use it on your website.

Can I add social media?

Some CMS's lets one easily integrate with social media. They may have a widget or plugin that easily lets you add twitter feeds or facebook posts. Or, they may have icons you can easily add to link to your various social communities.

Is the admin interface easy to use?

This one can potentially easily overwhelm the end-user. If they see way too many options when accessing the admin interface, it can become difficult for them to see the easy options in the midst of the complexity. Not all CMS's have admin interfaces, but for those that do, it's best if it is a simple admin interface that shows only the options the end-user needs to use, or the admin interface can be customized to show the client only what they need to know. This can also be a protection to prevent them from doing things they really don't want to do.

This is not a complete list by all means. Other questions may include:

  • Will the CMS allow my website to grow with my business?
  • Does the CMS offer analytics or integrate easily with other analytic options?
  • Is there a good user community where one can go to find help?

Having posed all these questions, it's still sometimes difficult to know which CMS to use, or if it's even wise to give clients that much control. I'm happy to give some clients that kind of control and with other clients I cringe when they ask to be able to update their website. I love the idea of clients being able to update their website, but I'm not fond of the idea that clients could potentially really mess up their website. Maybe that's where selecting the right CMS comes in. I'm curious what steps you have found to help you define what CMS to use and how you decide how much control to give or not give your clients.