Vignette, Ajax, and Usability
By Tony Byrne at 2007-11-02 10:44:00 |
Enterprise-tier Web CMS vendor Vignette recently issued a substantial dot-release to its flagship "Vignette Content Management" (VCM) product. Version 7.4 sports several upgraded services, including tighter integration with Vignette's dynamic delivery application and portal products. But the snazziest part of the new release is an overhauled, Ajax-fueled, "control panel" interface.
A recent demo of V7.4 helped highlight for me the promise and shortcomings of dashboard interfaces in general, as well as the kind of in-page event model that Ajax affords.
A New Interface
We've noted elsewhere that it has taken a while for Web CMS vendors to add Ajaxy features to their contributor interfaces. Vignette was perhaps among the more motivated: our research has found VCM customers and prospects tending to find its user interfaces lagging the marketplace. Version 7.4 replaces a somewhat prosaic management interface with a more task-based, portal-like control panel.
|Vignette's New Dashboard|
In this respect, Vignette resembles several other players, large and small, in the WCM marketplace, including Interwoven and Ingeniux (see their default management interfaces, below), although they cannot yet boast all of Vignette's Ajaxy interactivity.
|Example of an Interwoven Dashboard|
|Example of an Ingeniux Dashboard|
As readers of our Enterprise Portals Report know, these sorts of dashboard interfaces are actually rather controversial. They can be difficult to learn and navigate, and few participants end up ever customizing and moving panels around, even when possible through a drag-and-drop interface.
Vignette and other WCM vendors argue that their interfaces can also be customized by administrators, and therefore made as rich and complicated, or simple and straightforward, as necessary.
VCM in Action
Hopefully the short movie below of V 7.4 has finished downloading and you can take a look at it in action. The call-outs are my comments. Here's what you'll see:
- Viewing the properties of a single content items within a list of items
- Searching the repository, seeing the results within a panel, and then adding a group of content items to a "shortcuts" panel
- Saving the query as a "saved search"
- Acting on a workflow task directly from within an in-box
- Configuring a "Quick Action," including binding categories to a content type
- Creating a new press release: opens a new window with a content input form
- Dragging a panel across columns, where it automatically resizes to available space
- Right-clicking on a content item to view available actions
Click play to begin
Some of this -- like configuring a "quick action" -- is pretty cool stuff. Other features, like the right-click action short-cuts, have been standard in many systems for some years now.
The bigger question I have is: does this interface make a content manager more effective? I think it depends. Let's look at some pros and cons.
Vignette's new control panel definitely includes some useful features and actions.
- CMS customers consistently tell us that shortcuts and common tasks are useful for busy managers who frequently need to perform the same tasks, or who have to tackle larger publishing projects over a series of days or weeks. When authors say they want an interface "as simple as Google," they mean one that anticipates the single important task they need to accomplish at that moment.
- Administrators can add and remove panels from the interface; I suspect remove will ultimately be more prevalent.
- Showing search results in same screen and enabling editors to perform some group actions on results certainly saves time.
- "Saved search" can become a poor-man's reporting and monitoring subsystem. Very handy for senior managers in particular.
- Reducing the frequency of full-page refreshes -- the main hallmark of Ajax -- can help keep an editor in the flow of her work.
- Putting core services on a single main screen can reduce clicking by a properly-trained editor.
There are some downsides here.
- Complexity is the handmaiden of power. This particular interface is rather complicated and you definitely need effective training to use it properly.
- Note from the demo that you still need to scroll within panes, and still have to scroll on the page. Of course, this will depend on the set-up, but it's not clear to me that out of the box, the system is giving me the right information and actions in the right panel, with the right affordances.
- Queries against a repository still take time in any content management system, and complex queries can take a lot of time, even if Ajax speeds up display.
- The small form factor of an individual panel limits what you can do in-place; for example, it mitigates against preview, without launching a second window.
- Most users never move portlets around, and typically forget how to customize them.
- Panels in VCM are not pro forma portlets and therefore not particularly interoperable or standard. Vignette says it is working on this. As a practical matter, the same manager who also works in Vignette's Portal (which the company so very much wants you buy along with VCM) will interact with a series of panels -- in that case real portlets -- that will likely look and behave quite differently than the panels in VCM.
Managing vs. Authoring
Did you notice in the demo what happens when you go to enter a new page? VCM returns you to its now five-year-old authoring interface. I find this very common: Web CMS vendors are upgrading managerial control panels, putting a nice veneer on top of underlying services, but frequently not enhancing the core authoring experience. Vendors counter that by providing in-context editorial interfaces they have indeed simplified a contributor's life. But typically this still means filling in a form, often in a new window, often in ways that are confusing to authors who don't remember their specific training, often with very finicky, non-Ajaxy editorial controls.
This gets to the heart of the matter. Control panels are power-user interfaces. They appeal to content managers who live in the CMS for a good part of their day. Vendors are not dumb. Power users tend to predominate in customer product selection committees.
And it must be said, power users often dominate contemporary publishing teams. In our research, we've seen a trend back towards re-centralization of the web publishing process, even on Intranets. Of course it varies from firm to firm and scenario to scenario. But on the whole, the onetime "webmaster" is getting replaced by a web manager who doesn't want to craft sites by hand and is looking for the sorts of right-clickable controls that this interface provides.
Nevertheless, it's easy to confuse form with function, especially since web application interfaces have traditionally set such a low bar that anything desktop-like can appear positively divine. I'll often see even the most wizened and skeptical content managers drooling over slick-looking interfaces in vendor demos.
Just remember that Ajax does not automatically equal more usable. Cramming a lot of services on a page does not inherently make you more effective. Usability is fitness to purpose. Ask yourself, what tasks is your team trying to accomplish? Let that analysis guide you to the right user interface.