UX Burlington 2015: Improving the Authoring Experience

by Sam Selikoff November 2, 2015

Here are my notes from this year's UX Burlington keynote by Eileen Webb.

We work hard to make our websites beautiful, intuitive and responsive. But backend content authors can break our designs! Long headlines, images with unexpected aspect ratios and non-complementary colors are just some of the things that can cause our bespoke layouts to break down.

One might be tempted to blame the authors, or even the layouts, but in fact the authoring tools themselves are often to blame. We spend weeks refining our site's ux for our end users, but we throw very little thought and energy towards building an intuitive and user-friendly CMS solution for our content authors. This is a huge problem. We don't user test and iterate our authoring tools - even though authors are the people who will be using our site the most!

A first step is to write content guidelines for your site. Content guidelines are simply instructions and suggestions to help your authors write good content. They could be suggestions about tone and voice, recommendations for an image size or dominant color, or reminders about the target audience.

It's also important to identify your content model. Think of a content model as a template for your content. For example, say you're building a cooking site where users can post recipes. Instead of thinking of a recipe as a big chunk of text, identify the common pieces:

  • a title
  • ingredients
  • the directions
  • serving size
  • difficulty

Having this structure is invaluable to building an authoring platform that will help authors produce consistent, high-quality content.


When writing help guidelines, don't write too much. Small hints are usually enough to nudge authors in the right direction:

  • Names give context. Instead of title, "Event Title". Instead of description, "Event information."
  • Editorial: what are we saying?
  • Format: how are we saying it? Field length.
  • Images. Format shape, size, art direction, how will it be used (e.g. as a thumbnail?)
  • Display. Where does this content go? Does it end up in a sidebar? In a "Related events" slider? Authors need this information to make good decisions.

Build content guidelines with your team:

  • Use designers and developers - good ideas often come from where you least expect it!
  • Marketers and your content team should also be involved.
  • QA and customer service teams know what frustrates users the most. This information is highly relevant to writing useful guidelines.

Where's the best place for these guidelines? Probably not a PDF. Ideally, right next to the content fields themselves. Essentially, apply the same UX principles you would if these tools were user-facing - because they are!

Ultimately, talk to your team, and build authoring tools with them, not for them. Iterate with your team early on and often. The fear of sharing work in progress is a valid fear - but it's holding you back.


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