How Responsive Web Design is Pressurizing CMS Best Practices

March 19, 2014 | John Berndt


The runaway freight train that is Responsive Web Design has many obvious benefits for users—but for web developers and clients, there are a slew of other secondary effects that are both positive and destabilizing. One such fracture with the past can be summed up as follows:

The pressures on CMS implementations and structured content have just gone straight through the roof!

Of course, for more than a decade, there has been a big issue with CMS (content management platform implementations) where many developers and their clients get less than 10% of the value of their platforms because they choose not to do the work necessary to model structured content (or they simply don’t know how to, or that it is needed).

This is the largest of many embarrassing disasters in the CMS market—the ton of wreckage in the road where expensive platforms have been bought and then deployed in ways that make the back-end unusable, automated content-reusage impossible, future content migration manual, and redesigns a complete and painful re-do.

Well Structured content is ultimately what allows CMS, and by extension user experience, to really shine. Some of the low-hanging benefits:

  • Allow for automated re-use of content: featuring, related links, list pages, and many other non-manual features that go beyond being time savers—for larger sites they may be literally the only way these things can ever get done.

  • Truly separate design from presentation, so restructuring content trees or redesigning your site’s look-and-feel isn’t total hell.

  • Tune and facet search results—and provide smarter display on search results pages.

  • Create a clear path to publishing content in a good way on social media and to extracting entities for other purposes (like having a telephone number be callable on a phone device, or having hours of operation pop in Google.)

For years it has been cause célèbre for TBG (The Berndt Group) to convince clients to put the work in that will get the value out of their CMS and avoid these disasters. This can be difficult because a deeper CMS implementation with tons of moving parts and decision points takes more resources and therefore money, and generally doesn’t jibe with clients typical must-be-agile, we have zero-timeline realities.

The arguments—based on sustainability, features and usability—are all very strong and the ROI is there, but it is all very hard for clients to hear and sometimes out of sync with management’s expectations. Further, it skews the competitive landscape of web design towards firms who don’t stress these difficult realities with clients—or do so, but sneakily don’t deliver. (You know who you are—tsk tsk).

But something has changed, and it isn’t coming from special pleading by good developers. A change in computing is driving greater need for modular, “atomized,” multi-use content and forcing a true separation between content and presentation. And that chance is a stream roller through our industry—hard to get right—and flattening those who ignore it or can’t figure it out fast enough.

The imperative of Responsive Web Design is pushing this discussion about structured content to the next level, intensely raising the stakes for customers who are on the fence about making the investment, and leading to failed projects for those that don’t even recognize the issue.

This is because Responsive Web Design radically devalues “unstructured” content in rich text areas that currently exist in CMS sites. There are three main implications to this:

  1. The Death of the One-Off
    Semi-layouts, inline graphics, financial tables, one-off-weirdness, and all of the other things that have gotten dumped into such unstructured HTML CMS fields are very hard (in many cases impossible) to make “Respond” via CSS—because they are not correctly linked to appropriate responsive coding.

    So, as your otherwise well-constructed Responsive-templated site is viewed on smaller devices, those pages that have such elements stick out as non-Responsive sore thumbs, scrolling horizontally, or otherwise breaking the experience. If your site is all that—that means none of it will be truly Responsive—and of course, all of the cases in between.

  2. Fine Interaction Design Fail
    Truly good Responsive Web design involves a slew of carefully tuned interactions per page element and page type—defining the way elements change as the screen-size changes. (This is why, incidentally, that tools like Twitter Bootstrap, nice as they are, fail for professional grade, big brand work). If all of the responsive elements in a page are made up of ad hoc loosey-goosey styles and layouts held in rich text areas, there is no question of being able to control and fine tune these interaction design elements. In other words, even if your Smartphone view sort of works—how it changes when you turn your phone may look, well… terrible.

  3. Extra Fields For Alternative Versions
    Although the principles of pure “Mobile First, Full Responsive Design” are based around the idea of refactoring just one set of content without change, in actual fact, the better implementations salt +5% new fields into content types that account for various edge cases. Sometimes this is because you want to show slightly different content on mobile to meet “mobile use cases” and sometimes it’s because at smaller form factors, some pieces of content need really different treatment, which goes beyond having a “short title” in the content item or whatever. (An example would be content links that collapse to custom icons at a small size). This all makes a lot more sense in the context where content is already structured to begin with.

So, all the benefits of Responsive—and the impossibility of delivering on it without this work—are driving a deeper conversation with clients. In many ways, this is the leverage the industry has needed to get clients aligned with their best interests. At the same time, these requirements often clash with financial or timeline realities, leading to an increased potential for failure, as Responsive plans may unfold without the right understanding, leading to sites that are Responsive in name only. There will be many bad paths and future pains avoided for every organization that bites the bullet and builds the infrastructure right the first time—and it will be very immediately evident in the experience delivered to users.

All in all we think this is all a positive trend, since it forces a deeper conversation with clients and management, since one can honestly say “If you need a truly responsive site—then you need to do this!” It may also lead to a situation where, for clients who come to understand the relationship between Responsive and good CMS practices, Responsive projects begin to be thought of more in the context of careful, multi-budget-year efforts.

To the extent web developers and clients approach Responsive with the right mind set, the benefits are not just Mobile and Tablet support, but rather getting all of the lost value from their platforms that can truly be the basis for a sustainable (and potentially multi-channel) digital strategy.

About the Author

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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