If you’ve ever been in a brainstorming session, you’ve probably seen post-it notes strewn along walls and desks, loosely organized thoughts and wireframes scattered about, all in the hope that users will enjoy, appreciate, even share the experience they had using your app or website.
Too often, there is one user persona left out of this analysis: Site Administrators themselves. These users are on the front lines each day, they probably interact with the platform more often than any other user. And yet, they are routinely deemed not important enough to consider in ease-of-use exercises; worse yet - expected to deal with bad interfaces because they are the unfortunate ones who’ve been requested to lead what many consider a mundane task. Despite this, you can be sure that ignoring these individuals has real repercussions that will affect your bottom line.
After spending some time designing and developing for the web, more often than not you’ll come across projects that have a staggeringly complicated or difficult to process Content Management System (CMS). When given the opportunity to inquire about these systems, the response is often “this is the back-end, it’s not in the way”, or “it’s not client-facing”. I’m not sure how either of these responses hold water in reality. The truth is that if you’re building an administrative interface for someone, in that moment they are the client, and for all intensive purposes this is their front-end interface. Therefore, your CMS is definitely client-facing and it’s definitely getting in the way.
I’m sure many will be quick to respond to the above with “well, we have a set budget, and we can’t make everything nice”. The fact is that if you start your admin interface with User Experience in mind to begin with, the total time it adds to your build process is negligible. The real cost/time sink is trying to apply these updates later on, after the process has already been completed.
“Difficulties in updating online content has been consistently rated as a top reason for companies to remake their website. Your project won’t last long online if it’s not easy to maintain.”
Earlier we mentioned repercussions for ignoring Administrative staff during the planning phase, but how bad could those repercussions really be? Well, a shortlist might look like this:
1. Difficulties in updating online content has been consistently rated as a top reason for companies to remake their website. Your project won’t last long online if it’s not easy to maintain. A quick Google search for “reasons for a new website” deliver countless list pieces, many of which feature items like these:
2. Many digital agencies consider “referral” revenue as one of their most valuable streams, as it has a very high chance of closing in comparison to regular leads. Since referrals generally come from businesses (the admins), not business customers, the chances of your team being referred again with a bad administrative interface is low.
So the next logical question becomes: what makes for a good experience for site administrators? The answer will depend on a number of factors, but in general, the following list serves as a strong starting point:
Organizing your fields logically can come in many forms. What might seem like an obvious first step in creating strong admin interfaces is often overlooked. It is by far the easiest way to help your administrators locate the content they want to change. In general, provide a separate section with its own title indicating the context of the fields below. Here is a shortlist of common organization approaches:
“It can be easy to assume that [admins] possess the same ability to onboard themselves and the thought that - gasp! They might abandon it altogether - never crosses our mind.”
As someone who has internal knowledge of a product/website, we (developers) can quickly forget that administrators may not have the same level of understanding as us. It can be easy to assume that they possess the same ability to onboard themselves and the thought that - gasp! They might abandon it altogether - never crosses our mind.
Similar to item #1, this organization approach should allow the admin to collapse/expand or show/hide various areas to help them locate the content they want to change (and not be overwhelmed by the areas they don’t care about). From the #1 list, the “Tabs” and “Accordions” approaches are the most effective for this.
This methodology runs in the same vein as the UX of customer-facing forms. There has been plenty of research into the correlation between form length and form abandonment. The more fields present, and the more complicated they are, the higher the chance the customer will not complete it.
Page Building tools often fail to address this concern, offering customers the ability to customize every single attribute of every single item. The result is oftentimes one of the following:
The key to success here is to present administrators with only the relevant fields for their custom needs. If the designs have set up recurring patterns in margin and padding, codify those in the website CSS and remove them from custom options. Or at the very least allow the user to “activate” these options only when needed.
This is one of the more time-consuming items to perfecting the UX of Admins for your site or product, however it’s arguably one of the most important. I’ve always been surprised at the number of professionals that skip or gloss over this aspect. The consequences of not providing verbal and written instructions are severe. The idea that anyone should have to learn your system by trial and error when they’ve paid you to develop the product specifically for them is a tough pill to swallow.
The first item is Training. This should almost always be done first in-person or over the phone, as it allows the participants to ask questions and acquire clarity. Oftentimes these questions reveal missing components of the Training, and allow for completion of the Documentation.
I recommend bringing Documentation to the Training session so that participants can follow along with your presentation. After the Training, the Documentation can be finalized with any missing items and delivered to the client in final approved format. Documentation helps ensure a few things:
Lastly, including Annotations in your system can lend immediate context to fields and processes. Even though you may have extensive Documentation, providing inline Annotations to the Administrators allows them to cut down their search time down by a huge amount. You are also helping ensure they use the field as effectively as possible. Particularly if there are special rules and conditions that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious by looking at the field, Annotations are especially helpful.
Considering the User Experience of Administrators is not something that should be an after-thought, it should be front and center with the rest of your project goals. Ignoring it could lead your company to fewer referrals, more client friction, and overall poor client relationships. Worse still, it could lead to a lackluster front-end experience where admins haven’t leveraged all the tools available to them, or admins could ignore your system altogether and develop workarounds for the mess you’ve created.
If you’re able to start considering Admin interface structure at an early stage, you’ll find that it becomes a natural part of your process, and that the time it adds to your overall build is paltry in comparison to the benefits you’ll begin seeing. Focusing on the 4 items suggested in this article (Logical Organization, Reduce Clutter, Less Fields, and Training) is a great place to start, although there is a lot more that can be done. Whatever you do, you can look forward to seeing and hearing the happy testimonials of your Administrators as they become ambassadors and advocates for your easy-to-use Content Management Systems.
If you're interested in building great admin interfaces, we'd love to chat! Crowdlinker has helped ideate, design, and develop some of the most admin-friendly interfaces you’ve ever worked with, and we’d be happy to share our learnings with you. Get the conversation started here.