Hexplanation Humpday: Content Management Systems

Posted by Matt Farmer on October 16, 2013 · 8 mins read

Back again, back again! Hexplanation Humpday is back again!

For those of you who haven’t been following my blog very long, you’ve probably never gotten the opportunity to enjoy / suffer through one of these posts. Essentially, the goal is to break down and explain some concept in the technology world in human language. So, please do respond with questions and feedback on how I can improve.

SO, without any further ado, this week’s Hexplanation Humpday topic is Content Management Systems . I figure it’s important that I enlighten anyone unfamiliar with this topic. Due to a new side project I publicly kicked off last week, you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me on this topic in the coming weeks. So, let’s get rolling!

What is Content Management?


The term content management  is one that’s made its way into the semi-professional sphere of vernacular such that most people know what it means, and those that don’t could probably guess, but content management as it relates to the web is essentially any processes that take the complexities of building websites, and makes them more friendly for The Average User™. But to understand why it’s needed, and why so many systems fall so short of the mark, it’s important to understand the importance of what  actually goes into building a web page.

For any given page on the web, there are a handful of things that are written by a human and loaded into your browser to display the page. These include:

  • The markup  (usually HTML ) which defines the structure of the document you’re reading and contains the actual readable content.
  • The stylesheets  that define the rules for how that content should look. (And can define different rules based on what type of device you’re viewing the page on.)
  • Usually some scripts  that may do things as you interact with the page.

So, take this blog post as an example. The markup is what tells your browser that the “What is Content Management?” text is a header, the stylesheets  are tell your browser how that should appear, and if you interact with the comment form at the bottom of the page the scripts  running on this page are responsible for making things happen when you press buttons.

The goal of content management has always been to abstract away all of the complexities involved in building a page like this. The truth of the matter is that all most users care about is that the markup correctly depicts the structure they intended and that the stylesheets depict the visual style they want that structure presented in. For the most part, when you hire someone to build your site for you – or use a solution like Squarespace or WordPress, most of the styling part is handled for you as well. The idea is that you should be able to focus on your content. Period.

To depict it another way, content management is taking something that looks like this: 

![The markup, styles, and scripts for the Anchor Tab landing page.](http://static1.squarespace.com/static/507ba2f9c4aa45dec4f03316/507ba4cee4b044d779f49a4b/525a099de4b0cb857152922f/1381632415652/Screen+Shot+2013-10-12+at+10.46.35+PM.png.35+PM.png?format=original)
The markup, styles, and scripts for the Anchor Tab landing page.

And making it look more like this: 

![Microsoft Word 2007](http://static1.squarespace.com/static/507ba2f9c4aa45dec4f03316/507ba4cee4b044d779f49a4b/525a09f1e4b0ef38087d93c2/1381632498730/MS_Word_2007.png)
Microsoft Word 2007

Because, be honest, the second picture looks a lot more inviting than the first if you’re The Average User™.

On Content Management Systems

So, now that we’ve had a primer on content management and how web pages work, you probably have a pretty good idea about what a content management system is supposed to do. But, it’s worth pointing out that almost all of them fall short somehow. I won’t bore you with all of the ways I’ve seen content managers screw up a page, but the first, and probably most pervasive, is the fact that WYSIWYG is a lie.

WYSIWYG (pronounced wissy-wig) stands for “What You See is What You Get.” It is a common name given to any content editing box that shows you what styling you’re going to have on the resulting page as you’re going. The more technical term for what they actually are is “rich text editors“. Take the editor I’m using on Squarespace right now as an example.

The Squarespace editor is a rich text editor because I can mash a button with a “B” on it in my toolbar, and get bold text  in my editor window. (Much like in Word.) Likewise, links appear underlined an in a slightly different color to indicate they are links. Here’s the problem: even though most content managers would consider this WYSIWYG, what I see and what I actually get are two different things. Sometimes, they are very different. For example:


![What I see](http://static1.squarespace.com/static/507ba2f9c4aa45dec4f03316/507ba4cee4b044d779f49a4b/525a0dcfe4b0ccf71c979717/1381633488952/Screen+Shot+2013-10-12+at+11.04.19+PM.png.19+PM.png?format=original)
What I see
![What I get](http://static1.squarespace.com/static/507ba2f9c4aa45dec4f03316/507ba4cee4b044d779f49a4b/525a0df2e4b018d723822419/1381633522913/Screen+Shot+2013-10-12+at+11.03.57+PM.png.57+PM.png?format=original)
What I get

Can you see the differences? They’re pretty minor for my blog, granted, but Squarespace is a pretty exceptionally good content manager and my blog is pretty plainly styled (intentionally). I’ve seen some cases where the difference is so drastic it makes you want to pull your hair out. (Not to mention the number of times I’ve gotten a call from my mother asking me to explain why pressing a particular button on her WordPress powered site caused something else to happen on the actual site.)

But, for all the frustration that the shortcomings of content management systems give us, we keep building them and we keep building them. I’m writing this blog post on Squarespace, which I honestly believe is the easiest blogging system to use on the market today (I wonder if I can get some free swag for that endorsement). It’s a delight to use their interface and for someone like me who has very little creative talent to build a design from scratch with, their templates that I can tweak to my heart’s content make them the perfect fit for my blog. And I think they are one of many players (myself included) in something that I’ve come to call the “Content Management Renaissance.”

Existing Content Managers have taken you as far as you can go in trying to imitate Word as closely as possible.  Tomorrow’s content managers are built by and for a generation with a more adept understanding of the web than those that came before us. And the goal of tomorrow’s content management systems is that managing all of this:


Should feel a lot like this: 

In Conclusion

Hopefully, Hexplanation Humpday is back for good! Leave me some comment love and let me know what you think! Cheers.