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Ecommerce, Deconstructed | #1 Rise of the Modular CMS

Sorin Despot By Sorin Despot

Let me state the obvious: online shops are websites.

We create and use websites to store, access, edit and showcase content. It has been like this and it will stay just so, at least in the conceivable future. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the history of ecommerce and web design will stay inextricably tied to the evolution of content management systems (CMS).

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With the proliferation of Cloud Computing and the leaps made by the IT industry toward the Internet of Things (IoT), and with the democratization of online retail brought on by the ecommerce platform market you would expect content management systems to have evolved tremendously in the last decade.

Unfortunately, as this article will imply, recently, not very much has been accomplished in this field. We are, however, on the verge of a brave new era in content management. The digital world is going “modular!”

What Should You Expect from a CMS?

Given the complexity of ecommerce websites and the lack of a standard model, a uniform definition of the CMS and its constituent parts is challenging. The boundaries between Portals, CMS, DMS (Document Management Systems) and ECS (Electronic Commerce Systems) are not always obvious and often overlap.

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Fortunately, you don’t need its precise definition to assess the usefulness of a content management system. When using a CMS for your online store, you should expect to benefit from the following minimum basic functions:

  • Create, transfer and display text and multimedia content
  • Assign key users and their role in managing content. Offer secure remote access
  • Assign roles and functions to different categories of content
  • Define work assignments, with the possibility to automatically alert content managers when relevant changes occur
  • Track and organize several versions of the same content asset
  • Store (and easily search for) content in libraries to facilitate access
  • Have sufficient templating solutions to fit all content requirements

These are the types of functions WordPress was promising even as far back as 2003, when it was first released, and these are still the main things to look for in a CMS.

Nevertheless, these functions seem inspired by the activity of a newsroom. While this sort of set-up will certainly prove useful for collective blogs or news sites, you will need to pull considerably more functionality and layout freedom out of a CMS if you are going to build an e-shop, or a wonderful online portfolio. Ultimately, even news portals and blogs could use numerous improvements.

Page-Oriented Template Concepts Are Nearing Obsoletion

Since the early days of the internet, when fitting texts and images into one-column layouts was more than enough, we have gathered an impressive collection of distinct content types. Each of them entails its own set of rules, from the information it should contain, to the way we need to showcase it.

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However, one could argue that most of these content types have the same few framing attributes. For example, whitepapers, blog posts, case studies, and product pages usually have an author, a title, body text, images, videos, and comments.

Why Care about Minute Differences between Content Types?

Keep in mind that the main difference between various types of content, apart from their distinct uses, is that they all have specific graphic formats. Consequently, to accommodate this extended list of content types, we were forced to create more and more custom page templates.

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So, What Is the Problem with Having Many Templates?

Having more templates implies that more complexity needs to be added to the CMS. More often than not, the effort to adapt to all these formats results in less stability, poor scalability and, paradoxically, a decrease in overall adaptability. Most importantly, the creation and maintenance of numerous page templates will slow down production and will negatively impact the bottom line.

Moreover, by designing websites around page-oriented template concepts, we are forced to make important layout decisions long before most of the content is even created. By the time the content is ready for publishing, we usually want to change the layouts. Here comes more work, more tedious customization and less profit at the end of the quarter. Feel free to quote me on this one:

The urgency of a breakthrough in content management systems derives from the realization that business environments are evolving so rapidly and so unpredictably, that page-oriented template concepts are no longer going to cut it.

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Any high-paced business environment will favor the companies that show adaptability. For this reason alone, being able to give website editors the power to customize content and layouts in place, without the help of programmers, is not only quite useful, but will actually prove crucial in the next few years. It will prove extremely efficient in terms of development, design, content management, ease of maintenance, and, most importantly, production costs.

Back to the Drawing Board

I stated earlier that providing a uniform definition of CMS is challenging. It is, but here is what I am going with:

A content management system is a software solution designed to fully automate the management of content, particularly within websites. The goal is to reduce or eliminate the interference of programmers in the editing and management of websites, so users with no programming skills can create, customize and manage content with relative ease.

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Apart from its main functions, there are other things you should expect from the CMS of the 21st century. Here are a few examples, derived from two common scenarios encountered by experienced CMS users:

Scenario

CMS Features

The content is scattered throughout the organization and/or is provided by numerous outside partners, resulting in the occurrence of similar or duplicate content. The content gets duplicated in multiple documents, making it tough to find and update all instances of that content.

The CMS should be powerful enough to allow the reuse of content. Storing it once and in one place will facilitate the update and reuse of the content. Another thing you should consider is link management. Tracking cross-referenced content and being able to update it automatically will bring more precision and versatility to your website.

The content has a high degree of complexity, requiring unique editorial processes. Adding to the problem, the content is published in several formats, from multimedia to pdf and web, and some of the content is confidential, requiring extra security measures.

First of all, a good CMS should offer the possibility to manage access authorizations, minimizing security risks. Second, a powerful CMS should facilitate a reliable form of digital asset management. Apart from texts, editors should be able to organize graphics and multimedia files directly from the CMS, and search for them based on their assigned metadata. Streamlining complex editorial processes should be a breeze with a configurable CMS, and shouldn’t entail any extra help from the programmers.

The Future of eShops is Modular

The traditional building blocks of websites have been custom or one-size-fits-all page templates, which is what traditional CMS such as Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal have been offering for years. However, to truly bring content management into the 21st century, we need to overcome the limitations of page-oriented template concepts.

The vehicle of change, required to overcome these limitations, has turned out to be the widget. Widgets have been around for more than a decade, but they have always been viewed as add-ons, appendices to the fixed page templates. No more! Thanks to modular approaches to web design, widgets can easily become the constituent parts of the website, providing amazing scalability and full control over any digital endeavor.

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According to Webopedia, “Widget is a generic term for the part of a graphical user interface (GUI) that allows the user to interface with the application and operating system. Widgets display information and invite the user to act in a number of ways. Typical widgets include buttons, dialog boxes, pop-up windows, pull-down menus, icons, scrollbars, resizable window edges, progress indicators, selection boxes, windows, tear-off menus, menu bars, toggle switches and forms.”

Practically, any function of a website or application can be obtained by using widgets. The only limit is our imagination.

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On top of the functions of the traditional CMS, here are some of the most important benefits brought on by using a CMS which is based on widgets and favors a modular approach to web design:

  • Prototypes can be released and modified quickly and with ease
  • Businesses can gain full control and overview of their brand assets
  • Website editors can control, update, move, resize all widgets to fit their layout needs, even mid-project
  • Added intelligence to content assets; enables easy sharing, monitoring and avoids duplicates
  • Extensive metadata support
  • All widgets can be reused in future projects

So, Why Isn’t the Whole Web Switching to Modular? 

Since there are no major downsides and so many upsides to favoring modular design with widgets, the only reason I can think of derives from a concept called path dependence. Path dependence “is the idea that decisions we are faced with depend on past knowledge trajectory and decisions made, and are thus limited by the current competence base.” - Financial Times. Here is a comprehensive paper on Path Dependence, authored by two esteemed American Scholars. It can bring clarity to the subject, through examples just like this one:

“The archetypal case of path dependence has been, of course, the configuration of the typewriter keyboard. As Paul David (1985) presented this history, the standard QWERTY keyboard arrangement is dramatically inferior to an arrangement offered by August Dvorak, but we are locked into the inferior arrangement by a coordination failure: No one trains on the Dvorak keyboard because Dvorak machines are hard to find, and Dvorak machines are hard to find because no one trains on Dvorak keyboards. The process is said to be path dependent in that the timing of the adoption of QWERTY, and not its efficiency, explains its survival.”

The point is, no matter how good a product is in comparison to its competitors, the only way to encourage its broad acceptance is by making it available to as many people as possible. I know that a modular approach to e-business can bring major breakthroughs, but we will need your help to tell the world.

Let's Wrap Up!

A shout out to CMS platform providers: following a progressive fusion of widget and cloud technologies, scalability will become a problem of the past, much like the storage capacity of floppy disks or the speed of dot matrix printers. 

In the end, Twispay is determined to provide e-businesses with much more than a set of payment services. We are not a bank. We are a tech company with a banking license, and technology is our main focus. 

Understanding where technological breakthroughs are most likely to lead us is paramount in developing e-businesses that are both scalable and future-proof. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we are going to share with you the most valuable insights we uncover along the way. That is a promise.

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Sorin Despot Sorin Despot