CMS-free seed

When I was reading about the launch of the new Healthcare.gov site and the very GDS approach they have taken I found myself taking a closer look at the company credited with driving the development work. Development Seed are a particularly interesting company for me – not only are they deep in to data visualisation developments they also provided the front-end to the very popular statistics portion of the Worldbank website. The case study they provided about that work was a bit of an eye opener – especially as the work they did is already a couple of years old and yet feels like a decade beyond what we have at the moment.

As they talked about in relation to the Healthcare.gov launch they are also a team that has moved from being a very successful Drupal house to one that now advocates a ‘CMS-free’ approach.

Over the last couple of years I have become interested in this idea as I have become more and more frustrated with off-the-shelf CMS products – especially with their lack of attention to the user experience for authors/editors.

I remember Mike Nolan from Edge Hill University advocating his ‘anti-CMS’ approach a couple of years ago (though they have moved to a mix of that & WordPress now I think) and I believe that to all intents and purposes the GOV.UK and Inside Government publishing engines fall in to this idea of ‘CMS-free’ as well. [though I think it is freedom from a product as it seems to me what is being built is pure content management?]

It seems pretty much the approach that Hawaii.gov took as well where they coined the term stynamic (static+dynamic) for the way their system operated.

Performance is clearly a big plus of this approach as for the Healthcare.gov site they are talking about saving 10s of servers and it was clearly a major factor in the Hawaii thinking. Given the huge savings that GOV.UK is already demonstrating I have to assume that is the same there as well.

In all my years of trials and tribulations with CMS systems all I have ever really wanted was a system that was just complex enough to do what I needed it to do and just simple enough to do the same. Maybe this is a way of making that happen?

3 thoughts on “CMS-free seed

  1. Interesting concept, but it worries me in a couple of ways.

    First – I’d say that a CMS should be about the front-end user first and foremost, about the back-end user (= editor) second, and about the dev third.

    Having a starting point which says “let’s make this simpler” is a good place to start, but not (as per that article you linked to) if actually that starting point says “let’s make this simpler for the developer” and doesn’t mention (or seem to mention: I skim read it..) the important person in the equation – the bod doing the content changes on the site. So yeah, lovely idea to have some kind of beautiful framework behind the scenes that is terribly elegant and so on – but not if it does it at the expense of the user.

    This impacts on my second worry – which is that I kind of totally understand the web designer / developer “make it perfect” thing (mind-blowingly lovely CSS, html, semantic markup, all o that) – and this is important when it comes to page speeds etc. But I don’t think we as a community of webby people should ever lose sight of the fact that normal people *couldn’t give a shit* about what’s going on under the hood. We might laugh at CFM or ASP or .NET or ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NODE.JS or RAILS) but let’s not lose site of the fact that 99.9% of people using the site don’t notice any of this stuff. They just want to be able to edit or browse, and have a nice time doing it.

    I’m absolutely *not* saying the dev / design community shouldn’t be developing beautiful stuff – they should: this is where innovation of the best kind comes in, whether it’s responsive design or whatever the next big thing is going to be – but they are often IMO in danger of doing it in a bubble.

  2. Matt Jukes says:

    I agree with your main point – putting the visitor first and then author/editor a close second is something that is vital and given my entire lack of coding chops I couldn’t care less what it is built in (though I think everyone knows I’d prefer it to be open source for all sorts of reasons.) **but** I think the term CMS has come to mean so much more than the web publishing element – especially in the rather weird corner of the web that is the .gov. Making it simpler for developers and designers is important when you get charged 10s of thousands for the simplest change to the navigation or templates because (we are told) of the CMS and when seemingly simple functionality is out of reach or you are tied to a decade old browser ‘because of the CMS’. The idea of CMSs has become associated with the monolith IT suppliers (or in the US with Drupal) in Gov-land and breaking away from this needs people to try new things.

    It is also fair to say that the post I linked to was mainly selected for the title alone🙂 If you dig deeper in to the Healthcare.gov project you will find a lot of posts that reflect much more of a user centred process – including internal users of the system.

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