The Blogging Interface: Flexible vs. Focused

Decreased Clutter, Increased Productivity

When Six Apart launched Movable Type 4 last year with it’s brand new UI, I attempted to design my own user interface for it—partly to try out the new custom UI capabilities and partly because some folks were complaining that the new UI was script-heavy and slow. The Pep-o-mint UI (as I called it) I began last year was really little more than a makeover.

But something interesting happened that changed my perspective. After discovering that I could set up Movable Type as a dropdown on my desktop, I began blogging with more consistency and greater ease. The simplified iMT interface stripped away all the unnecessary clutter and reduced my blogging experience to three main options: New Entry, Manage Comments and Manage Entries.

Decreased Constraints, Decreased Productivity?

That led me to this conclusion: the more an application can do, the less specific its interface will likely become. Microsoft Access has very few constraints, which makes it very powerful but also very intimidating and difficult to learn. On the other hand, Twitter has thrived in large part because of its simplicity: 140 characters and an update button. Those limitations reduce the amount of mental processing that has to happen when using the application. Someone has limited the application’s focus beforehand (we call this design) and offers you a highly-specialized tool. You just decide if you need it (which is much easier since you can easily understand what it does).

A publishing system, however, is inevitably broad so it can accurately handle all types of published content. Almost all of the options available in MT4’s interface are useful to someone; they weren’t put there for no good reason. So the question becomes: how do we avoid this confusing and nondescript interface that sends average users screaming into the hills?

Handing Them The Right Tool

Focused interfaces. When someone wants to tighten a screw, don’t just hand them the toolbox; pick out the right size screwdriver and hand it to them. Today’s content management systems are ever-expanding toolboxes for websites, but most people usually just need a subset of the functionality not the whole thing. In fact, when we hand them the whole thing, show them every option available, they often end up spending more time sorting through the tools than actually using one.

I’ve come up with three different types of actions particularly for blogging systems: common actions, occasional actions and one-time actions.

Common Tasks:

Create Entries: Edit all entry fields (including custom fields); add/remove tags, add/remove categories; edit comment and publishing options

Manage Entries: Edit; move; delete; republish; change categories, tags, authors, dates, titles

Manage Comments/Pings: Edit, move, delete, republish, reply to, ban/trust commenters

Upload Assets: The file upload process take a lot of thought (as I’m sure Dan Wolfgang can tell you.) Should the assets be uploaded apart from an entry? Should each asset be available as a thumbnail or snippet of code for the user to place within the entry? Should the uploader be inline with the entry or should it be a standalone function that passes information to the entry page? I find myself drawn to the “masthead” model that many blogs are adopting these days: one image to be placed somewhere near the top of the entry.

View Site Statistics: Common metrics would be page views, comments, recently visited

Less frequent Tasks:

Manage Categories: Edit, move, merge, delete

Manage Tags: Edit, move, merge, delete

Manage Assets: Edit, move, merge, delete; my experience tells me that this section should be filed under Never Tasks—once I upload an asset, I generally don’t change it’s meta. Anyone else have experience to the contrary?

Change Styles: I was tempted to put this under one-time tasks, but it seems as though Happy Cog’s research into the WordPress UI redesign revealed that many users change the design of their blog quite frequently. I suppose the real question here is what kind of design change we’re talking about. I’m assuming color schemes and perhaps a banner image, but I could be wrong.

One-Time Tasks:

Create/Manage Users: Though exceptions are made for blogging networks, creating a user generally only happens once.

Create Pages: By their nature, pages are meant to contain non-recurring information; that and the fact that most blogging systems handle these differently makes me less inclined to make these a central part of a blogger’s UI.

Manage Plugins: This is another section which is highly subjective due to the individual nature of plugins. For the sake of our discussion here, I won’t include plugins.

Template Management: I debated where to categorize templates. As I mentioned earlier, I’m assuming that the frequent design changes Jason Santa Maria was referring to are primarily cosmetic. I’m willing to bet that massive template changes don’t happen very often. (Twice a year on average.)

Your Experience?

These are obviously my own observations, informed by the hundred or so clients I’ve worked with since launching Plasticmind Design in 2005. I approach this as a web architect, as someone who creates a publishing framework for clients to use to update their site. I also should mention that most of what I do for clients usually falls under One-Time Tasks and most of what they do for themselves falls under Common Tasks.

I’d love feedback on this.

To those of you who have complained about the new Movable Type interface: Are you simply struggling with learning a new interface or do your complaints have legitimacy?

To those who have used multiple CMS’s extensively: Who gets it right? Why? What are some common failures?

To other web designers/developers/architects: Do your clients share the same limited needs? Would you be in favor of a more focused interface? Do you think that would make support more difficult or less difficult?

I’m especially interested in feedback from full-time bloggers: What would you add or take away from my Common Tasks list? Are there common tasks that no CMS you’ve come across makes it easy to accomplish? What are they and do you have any thoughts on how to tackle them?