If you’ve read through our published content, you know that all of our services are aimed at helping clients navigate the CMS journey. But something big occurred to us recently: We’ve never explicitly identified what that journey really is!
In a nutshell, the CMS journey takes you from A to Z when it comes to identifying a content management need, procuring a solution, designing and implementing said solution, and then iteratively improving the end product over time.
The journey is complex and involves many different disciplines, but it’s really just one part of a much bigger cycle that continues, sometimes seemingly forever. To best explain how we see this cycle laid out, we’ve created the graphical model below. In this post, we’ll walk you through what each stage of the CMS cycle looks like and how much commitment each takes on behalf of the client (most likely you) and the implementation partner (the agency you work with).
A quick note before we dig in: Our model is based on our experience with enterprise-grade clients. Timeframes for small to medium businesses may be faster. And keep in mind that not all steps will be applicable to every scenario, although these are the most common.
Why a “Cycle”?
First, it’s important to identify why we see the CMS cycle as being a repetitive process by nature. Is a CMS project ever completed? The right answer is no, yes, and no. Many companies have had a website running for many years. Those companies know, based on history, that each iteration of that website runs its course every 2-5 years, depending on their industry.
What causes this? Well, a few factors come to mind.
Technology has been evolving in the CMS space, meaning that in many cases, it makes sense when redesigning your website to re-implement your CMS as well. Either there is a new platform you are interested in or yours is so outdated that redevelopment makes most sense.
In other cases, the desire to redevelop or change CMS platforms has existed for a long time, and a redesign is the only opportunity one gets to pull the trigger. After all, it’s hard to sell management on new website software without a new look and feel for the end user.
Finally, the cycle also exists because of changes in business objectives and focus. As businesses change their approach to marketing and managing web traffic, so they will also update their web presence or underlying software to adjust to those changing initiatives.
In each case above, the cycle presents itself the same. It begins with an identification of a need. Then, it moves to a planning and procurement stage. From there, you focus on designing a user experience, developing the user interface, and implementing into the CMS of your choice. Finally, it ends with continuous improvement—a cycle within the cycle—where you will iteratively adjust and amend your platform and experience to enhance your own metrics or user experience.
The CMS cycle is common to an overwhelming majority of websites, web apps, and even mobile applications. Chances are, if you have been in business for more than a few years, you have already been through one loop of the cycle yourself.
Let’s move onto what the stages of the cycle are, and what each one entails.
Stage 1: Identify
The first stage is the simplest in that it is just identifying a need. This can start at any point in the previous cycle or be a standalone stage for a new property or project. I’ve seen website managers identify a need to rebuild the day their current site launches, which sounds crazy, but is actually quite common. For most, identification comes via a few different scenarios.
For companies with a massive corporate initiative, the turnaround, rebranding, or facelift is often so dramatic that a reimplementation of the CMS becomes a no-brainer. Others may see that their platform is old, outdated, and in need of overhaul. Or perhaps changing business requirements require a platform update, such as a need for clearer metrics, analysis, and the ability to iterate the website faster than before.
Who knows—there are literally hundreds of reasons that people rebuild their digital footprint.
Either way, the identification of a need is something that must be handled internally at first. No agency can identify that you need to pursue this type of project. Perhaps a management consultancy could be of assistance here, but no creative or implementation agency can help unless you’re already working closely with them.
You have to be able to identify your own need and work from there to devise the next steps, which could include a variety of things: internal working sessions to define scope, procuring an agency to assist, and further identifying potential areas that you want to impact with a project.
The good news is that identification can be as easy or as complex a step as you want it to be. Often, it is a decision made quickly by a C-level officer (“We need to redesign this site ASAP!”), especially a new one trying to make a splashy entrance. Other times, it comes as a request from technical or marketing personnel who are limited in their ability to accomplish their day-to-day tasks. Or it could be a board member concerned about the competition’s latest moves.
Whatever the reason, identification of a need can be arrived at quickly. It isn’t unusual for clients to reach out to us within a day or two of figuring out that they need to do something about their CMS.
Stage 2: Planning & Procuring
With identification out of the way, the planning and procurement stage can now begin. This is, in many ways, the most important step in the CMS journey. You have to plan your project out thoroughly to understand what it is you will be trying to achieve. Then, you have to design and develop the solution, in addition to finding the platform you wish to utilize.
First, you have to get help. Website design and development is now much more complex than ever before. You need to decide how much of the initiative you can undertake in-house and how much assistance you will need from an outside agency. I’ve written before about the pros and cons of working on your website in-house, so I won’t dig too much into that now. But know that you can end up with three possible routes forward from that debate:
- Building 100% in-house;
- Building it with an agency;
- Finding a compromise to augment your team with outside help.
The solution that will work best depends on your particular situation.
Secondly, you have to decide on a platform. This decision is usually arrived at one of two ways. You may already have a technical preference. We’ve seen both marketers and technologists come to us with predetermined ideas of what they want their platform to be. If this isn’t the case and you are relatively technology-agnostic, then you will need help choosing the platform that works best for you.
Luckily, the next step can address that.
Regardless of preference, the best thing you can do at this stage (provided you aren’t doing this all by yourself) is work with an agency on an architecture and discovery phase. You can’t build a house without a blueprint. Likewise, you need the help of professionals to assist you in architecting a solution, devising a plan, and recommending the best pathway forward from a software perspective.
For those who are technology-agnostic at this stage, be aware of the agency you hire. Many work with just one platform, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. At this point, you need a source of impartial information, an agency that will recommend what is best for you based on factors such as the use case, corporate governance, compliance requirements, and so on rather than their own preferences. There is much more to this type of project than meets the eye, so be sure to hire a well-rounded group to assist you in the architecture and discovery phase.
When searching for a platform, it makes sense to determine your requirements via discovery, then devise a shortlist of possible platforms. From there, you can dig into getting product demos—either from vendors of commercial platforms or from agencies familiar with the open-source options available.
Finally, when it comes to planning, be sure to account for the future. You aren’t just planning for the next stage in the journey—you’re planning for the long term of your company’s digital future. Finding a platform that allows for iterative improvement in a safe, secure environment is key. Setting yourself up for a smooth transition into tackling future unknowns is essential. Your agency should be able to assist in this, provided they have the depth of experience necessary to dig in and understand your situation from a business perspective.
Overall, discovery should consist of a couple of days of involvement for your team, and the delivery of a comprehensive findings, architecture, or other planning material from the agency.
Stage 3: Design & UI/UX
Designing the user experience and user interface of your project can only begin after you have properly planned your approach and chosen a platform. For content-driven projects, planning is even more important because the development of an information architecture and content model will drive much of the UI/UX part of the project.
Design is an iterative step all to its own. Creativity is subjective. The best design agencies will realize this and work with you to reach a design direction you are supportive of. This means concepts, revisions, and approvals for each design will be essential to achieve any level of success.
But before you design, you need to develop blueprints. We call this stage wireframing.
Wireframing is an interesting step. For small teams, it doesn’t always make sense to build out wireframes of website pages and templates. People naturally respond better to actual designs. However, for large teams, wireframing is essential in that it is easier to build a consensus with layouts versus designs when so many people are involved. Of course, your mileage may vary, and don’t be shocked if one agency says this is essential and another says they can accomplish the project without this step. For enterprise, however, we would most likely recommend wireframing based on our experience working with large teams.
When wireframing is complete, design can begin. Good designers will take what they learned from the discovery session, your branding guidelines, and your overall design preferences to craft a new user interface that will accomplish your goals. Custom design, despite rumors to the contrary, is alive and well.
Design is the first place where you will begin to see your vision for the project come together. And it is the place where you can easily affect the process via revisions. It’s important to a custom designer to get feedback from you after each deliverable, especially early on. It’s harder to revise during development, so be sure to give thorough feedback throughout the design process before providing approvals.
How much time should you plan to spend through this phase? That is determined by how involved you wish to be. On one hand, if you quickly hand over revision requests and approvals, you could spend minimal time overseeing this process. Some clients choose to be much more involved, though, in which case, more time is needed to give feedback and thoughts for each deliverable.
It’s best to plan to be somewhere in between, so you can be involved and look for any potential roadblocks to designed concepts early, before they go into development.
Stage 4: Development & Deployment
Development is a scary prospect to many clients. For one, it’s because they don’t know how it works. And secondly, there isn’t much reassurance throughout because much of what is happening is happening behind the scenes. That makes it hard for clients to visualize progress and thus leads to a level of insecurity.
The first stage of development you actually CAN see. It’s front-end development—this is when pictures become code. Most agencies can make this work product available to you and you can typically preview it in an actual browser. The conversion of design to code is an area where you can be involved, check progress, and play with the actual output.
However, the next stage is a bit more obscure as it happens entirely on the back end. The integration of the developed templates into the CMS of choice happens mostly without much client interaction. In fact, it can be frustrating at times because during this implementation, parts of the pages can break, making it seem as though things are moving backwards.
Fear not! This is all progress.
Content migration is an area we call attention to in our CMS journey. Often overlooked but essential, content migration is more of a requirement these days as almost every CMS implementation project is a reimplementation of an existing site. We get fewer and fewer new website projects these days, as clients are usually entering their second (if not third, fourth, or even fifth) CMS journey for the same site. During content migration, a rather tedious process, you’ll begin to see the site come to life with the content you are already accustomed to.
Finally, development concludes with thorough testing. This happens with both live users and automated techniques, and also involves the client’s involvement in acceptance testing. Testing must ensure that all use cases can easily be accomplished, all functionality is working to spec, and all client environments (browsers on the Web, for example) are working properly. Testing happens throughout development, of course, but we like to have another thorough round after the bulk of development has occurred just to be sure that everything works perfectly.
The last step in this phase is deployment. Deployments these days should be seamless. This means zero downtime. If your case is complex, it could be different, but with some planning, your deployment should be smooth and stress-free.
Stage 5: Continuous Improvement
The last stage of the CMS journey isn’t really a stage so much as it is a cycle within a cycle.
Continuous improvement is the ongoing, iterative changes you make to your website on a regular basis. Naturally, the success of these improvements depends on the quality of your implementation. If the site was coded to match best practices, the website design was made modular in nature, and you have continuity from the implementation agency to the team performing the ongoing improvements, you have a better chance of ongoing success and ease of management.
Site owners and agencies often overlook ongoing improvements when they are building out the original project. In the interest of speed and budget, many developers will cut corners by “hard-coding” sections of the site, making future updates difficult. Remember that any opportunity to cut corners in the beginning will eventually turn into an issue at the end. It’s always better to do things right the first time during implementation. Technical debt accumulates on nearly ALL development projects over time, so it’s better to reduce that risk from day one.
Ongoing continuous improvement is known in Japan as “kaizen” and has its roots in the industrial changes in Japan after World War II. There is no better medium for the practice than the Web, where changes are quick, easy, and relatively affordable for small businesses and enterprises alike. But it is a system that requires two things: a foundation and a process.
The foundation is the proper implementation of the project in the first place. And the process is how you approach ongoing changes. Changes for the sake of change make no sense, but changes based on requirements or statistical evidence are what make the Web such a powerful medium.
So, the first part of an improvement process is much like the first step of the CMS journey—identifying the need and opportunities for improvement. From there, you can initiate the required improvements and analyze their effectiveness before restarting the process.
There is no “finished” product on the Web. The medium allows for this iterative improvement cycle, unlike other mediums such as application development, real estate, or similar industries where a final product is built and “released” to the public. The one caveat is that working too quickly and iterating changes without much thought can lead to the problem of technical debt, as mentioned before. So, proper planning, execution, and analysis are the cornerstone of a successful cycle of kaizen.
Kaizen is also dependent on a true partnership between client and agency, if you are utilizing outside resources. You want an agency that is less of an order-taker, but more of a partner. It must be a two-way street with both teams making suggestions for improvements and amendments to further the success of the project.
The Cycle Restarts
A cycle, by definition, is…well, cyclical. I know this sounds silly to say, but it’s true. All software projects come and go, live and die, much like anything else in life. How do you know it is time for the cycle to restart itself?
Well, it all comes back to identifying a need. Over time, as software ages, business requirements change, competitors evolve faster than you, or other pressures present themselves, you’ll find yourself back at square one.
That isn’t unusual, nor is it something to work hard to avoid—just work to delay it with proper planning and a smart execution of the cycle in the first place.
Can the Cycle Be Eliminated?
This question can be a whole other post unto itself, as I believe the cycle cannot be completely eliminated, but rather can be severely mitigated. I believe that as CMS software simplifies, the possibility to lessen the need for redevelopment and reimplementation of CMS platforms will present itself as a viable solution.
Today’s newer CMS architectures are somewhat more “future-proofed” in that they store content with multi-channel distribution in mind. When implemented properly, it is feasible to say that the cycle could be whittled down to just focusing on design and development within the cycle of continuous improvement.
However, I feel that given the popularity of CMS platforms with older architectures, such as coupled systems, this may be further away than many would prefer. Only time will tell.