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People, Processes, and Change

Pamela Kostur, The Rockley Group

Incorporating Usability into Content Management

This article describes the importance of incorporating usability into all stages of implementing content management, including assessing your needs, assessing your users (of both the content and the content management system), and assessing your content. It questions the emphasis of technology in many of the current discussions about content management, and instead, advocates looking to the field of usability to form the basis of a content management implementation.

Back in 1990, I wrote a paper on “Incorporating Usability into the Document Development Process” [1] and it strikes me that many of the usability principles and processes that I advocated then remain relevant today, perhaps even more so with the push in many organizations to implement content management systems. In the past few years, as single sourcing and content management (as a requirement of single sourcing) have become more prevalent, so have the books and articles written about them. However, much of the current literature seems to focus more on the technology required to support content management than on the content itself, which is ironic, considering that content is what a content management system is designed to manage. Instead of focusing on a technology-driven content management implementation, those considering a content management strategy would benefit from incorporating usability into their implementation plan.

The current emphasis on technology

Look at the headlines in the professional journals/publications on content management and single sourcing. Some recent headlines in the CMSWatch newsletter's Recent Trends and Comments [2] read:
  • RedDot Tips and Tricks
  • CMS Vendors Down Under
  • Weaving WCM into SAP

Furthermore, AIIM (The Association for Information and Image Management) hosts “the largest conference and expo focused on enterprise content management. In operation for more than 50 years, this annual event attracts business professionals seeking the latest technologies to develop, capture, manage, and store documents and digital content to support business processes, comply with governmental regulations, drive down costs, and gain a competitive advantage.” [3]

While both CMSWatch and the AIIM Expo (and AIIM itself) are excellent sources of information about content management, their focus is a more technical one and they support that focus very well. AIIM promotes membership by stating that “[t]here's good reason why leading professionals and companies join AIIM, the international authority on Enterprise Content Management (ECM). AIIM is leading the way to the understanding, adoption and use of ECM technologies - the ones that help you capture, manage, store, preserve and deliver content in support of business processes.” [4]

Still, I find it disturbing that usability is conspicuously absent from their agendas. Other major sources of information on content management are equally focused on technology. Of the 32 articles listed on KMWorld, 29 focus on technology, while Seybold and Gartner appear to be all about technology. [5] Usability should be integral to the processes of adopting any system or technology, certainly one with the intent of managing content. After all, there's one reason that any organization creates content, in fact, there's one reason for content to exist—content exists for somebody, be it an internal user or an external one, to access, read, and use.

The usability perspective

Many usability professionals, on the other hand, see the relationship between usability and content management, or more specifically, between usability and all new product/service implementations:
  • Jakob Nielson recommends Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web because the “authors' emphasis is on the structure of the site and how to facilitate users' access to the information they need the most.” Nielson, along with Rosenfeld and Morville, advocates sound structure and access to information as goals of content management. [6]
  • Jarod Spool writes about “The CAA: A Wicked Good Design Technique”. The CAA (or Category Agreement Analysis), as Spool describes it, is a tool to help users designers arrive at a usable information architecture. [7] To Spool, it appears that usability and information architecture go hand in hand.
  • Likewise, Stephanie Rosenbaum, President of TecEd, a consulting firm specializing in usability, advocates strategic usability, “embedding usability engineering in the organizational processes, culture, and product roadmaps.” Rosenbaum writes that “In strategic usability, usability data contributes to corporate-wide decision-making, such as product priorities and make vs. buy decisions.” [8] Usability, in this sense, would certainly be part of the implementation of a content management system.

Indeed, because usability is their “product”, usability professionals incorporate usability into whatever project they are working on, whether they are evaluating a web site, working with developers on new software or hardware, creating documentation, or defining the requirements for a content management system. In fact, incorporating usability in a content management implementation makes sense, because many problems that impact the usability of information products include inconsistent content, misunderstood content, and poorly-defined information architecture, all issues that content management can and should address. Thus, content management can lead to usability and vice versa.

Even though content management can greatly enhance the usability of many information products, it appears that we have to look outside of the content management community for information on how usability fits within a content management implementation. Yet, content management and usability seem a perfect fit. After all, usability, according to the Usability Professional's Association (UPA) is “a quality or characteristic of products—software, hardware or anything else—that are easy to use and a good fit for the people who use them.” [9]

And, in spite of the focus on technology in many of the publications on content management, it appears that more usability practitioners and professional communicators are forging the relationship between usability and content management. A search through the Society for Technical Communication's (STC's) web site for presentations on “single sourcing”, “content management”, “information architecture”, and “information models” that will be given at their annual conference shows a pretty even split between presentations in the Tools and Technology stream and presentations in the Usability and Interface Design Stream. [10] The STC is a primary source of information for technical communicators and as such, has been key in promoting and publishing information on single sourcing and content management over the past few years. While much of the emphasis is still on the technological aspects of content management, it's encouraging to see more information on content management and information architecture in relation to usability, writing, and editing.

Also encouraging is that the UPA lists a number of different resources for related disciplines to usability, and among them are a number of resources for Information Architecture, the backbone of content management. [11] It's the information architecture, after all, that defines the structure of your information products, and also dictates how they will be managed in the content management system. It makes sense, then, that usability should be a key part of defining the information architecture on which a content management system is based.

What does “managing” content mean?

To bring usability into your content management implementation, it's critical that you first define what content management means to you. Ideally, the purpose of content management is to unify content so that it is consistent wherever it appears (e.g., on the web, in the brochure, in the user guide) and is maintained in one place instead of several. Remember that the goal is to “manage” the content; the system is just the tool that allows you to manage it in the way that best suits your needs. Managing content can mean many different things, in varying degrees of detail, including:
  • writing and structuring content consistently (considering that applying a consistent structure is, in itself, a way of managing content)
  • customizing content for different uses/users
  • customizing content for different media
  • delivering content dynamically
  • storing content and accessing it in a central place
  • reusing content (either opportunistically or systematically)
  • retrieving a piece of content you've already written for use later on
  • automatically updating reusable components
  • notifying other users of content when updates are available

Content management may also include all of the above. So, to manage content, you first need to understand your particular needs. It's only after you come to an understanding of what it is that you want to accomplish that you can decide how you are going to accomplish it. In fact, there are many ways to improve how you manage content, short of implementing a new system, especially considering that the “system” in “content management system” does not necessarily refer to the tools. “System” also refers to the way in which authors create content (their writing and editing processes, not just their authoring tools) and to the way in which users access and use it.

Implementing a content management system with an emphasis on usability

Content management does not begin with choosing the technology; rather, it begins with a solid analysis of your needs, your users, and your content. Accordingly, the phases of implementing content management should look something like this, and at each phase, you develop usability criteria against which you analyze all your content management decisions:
  • Needs assessment
  • User assessment
  • Content assessment

Needs assessment

Why do you need content management? What are you hoping it will do for you? During the needs assessment you assess both your own needs for content management and the organizations' so you can determine what content management will mean for you. Will it include dynamic delivery, or will it mean simply reusing similar content elements within your department? Will it include designing a standard authoring process for creating reusable elements? Once you define what your implementation of content management will include, you can assign usability criteria to your definition. For example, if your content management implementation means reusing content elements within your department, then what criteria will make reusing content elements a usable process? Having reusable content elements auto-populated into document templates?

User assessment

How will your users benefit from content management? What are you hoping it will do for them? In this phase, you will need to assess users (both internal and external) of your information products, as well as potential users of the content management system. When doing user assessment, it's useful to create a user/task matrix to identify your users and the tasks they want to accomplish. Then, your content management strategy can be designed to support those tasks, for each of the user groups. Just as you create usability criteria for your own content management needs, you should create usability criteria for the users of content, as well as usability criteria for the users of the content management system. For example, usability criteria for content users may be that procedures are always structured the same way, so that users always see similar types of information presented in similar ways. And, usability criteria for users of the content management system may be that they have a template that guides them through the correct way to write a procedure.

Content assessment

How will your content benefit from content management? It's critical to assess what constitutes usable content, because reusing content does not necessarily make it usable. Implementing a unified content strategy is an ideal time to examine your content for usability, then to create usability criteria that defines what makes content usable for each of its intended audiences.

When designing new structures for content, you base structured on usability criteria (i.e., on how your users access and use information, as determined in your user assessment), and when you reuse content you further enhance its usability simply by reusing it. After all, when content is reused, it is consistent, eliminating the issue of “do I have the right content?” For example, when designing a new structure for a product description, you design the description based on the usability criteria for its intended audiences. Usability criteria may inform you that users prefer to know the product's function (i.e., what it does), then its price, followed by its availability. Accordingly, you would design its structure in that way. And, by reusing the product description, you ensure the structure is always the same, so users get used to seeing information presented in the same way--function, price, then availability.

However, usability goes beyond structure. When you are writing the content that goes into the product description, you also need to make sure that the content itself is usable. Simply reusing content ensures its consistency, which can facilitate usability, but if that content is poorly-written or is open to interpretation, it is not usable, regardless of how well it conforms to the structure or how frequently it is reused. In this case, unusable content is being reused--consistently structured, but unusable. Therefore, in addition to determining which content is usable and defining consistent structures for it, it's critical to look at the content itself to ensure it is accurate, readable, and not open to interpretation. That, combined with consistent structure and reuse will greatly enhance the usability of your content.


So where does usability fit? Usability fits in every phase of your content management project, from the time you determine your needs, up to when you implement your strategy, including selecting tools that support what you want your organization and authors to be able to do with content and defining what your content should “look like”, what information it should contain, and how it should read. I'd like to see more emphasis on establishing usability criteria for every component of the content management system—certainly on the content itself—so that every decision related to content management, including how to write a usable reusable content component, is informed by usability. Usability criteria, by its nature, defines what makes “stuff” usable. Let's step up to the challenge and start shifting the focus from the technology to incorporating “strategic usability [and] gathering usability data [that] contributes to corporate-wide decision-making”. [12]


  1. Kostur, Pamela. “Incorporating Usability into the Document Development Process.” In Proceedings: IPCC (International Professional Communication Conference), 1990.
  2. CMS Watch:
  3. AIIM Expo:
  4. AIIM International:
  5. KMWorld:
    Seybold Seminars:
    The Gartner Group:
  6. Nielson, Jakob.
  7. Spool, Jarod. “The CAA: A Wicked Good Design Technique.”
  8. Rosenbaum, Stephanie. “A Toolkit for Strategic Usability: Results from Workshops, Panels, and Surveys.”
  9. UPA Resources:
  10. STC:
  11. UPA Resources:
  12. Rosenbaum, Stephanie. “A Toolkit for Strategic Usability: Results from Workshops, Panels, and Surveys.”

Copyright 2004, The Rockley Group, Inc.