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Striking the Balance: How Much Design Control is Enough?

By John West on 09-11-2023

Navigating the spectrum of design control in website management is a journey unique to each organization. From the rigid structure of templating systems to the creative liberty of page builders, the choice profoundly impacts both the tool selection and the user capabilities. In this exploration, we dissect the trade-offs between consistency and creativity, the role of developers versus content experts, and introduce Perfection - a solution that harmonizes control with creativity, offering a tailored approach to design within the guardrails of your brand standards.

The amount of control people managing a website should have over page design is a philosophical decision that varies by organization and even by project. This factor can have a significant influence on the selection of tools used to build the site as well as the capabilities enabled for users and how developers implement the solution.

At one end of the spectrum are “pure” Content Management Systems (CMSs) that do not inherently grant users any control over page design. This blog post will refer to such solutions as “templating systems”, where “templates” define page characteristics. At the other end of this continuum are tools that grant users complete control over page design, which this blog post refers to as “page builders”. Many solutions provide capabilities somewhere between these two extremes.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Templating systems that significantly constrain users' options for controlling page design force content contributors to focus on their subject matter expertise rather than the visual presentation of data. These systems typically result in highly consistent websites that optimize usability for visitors. Because developers manage all markup, sites built this way can have a high level of code quality, which can be advantageous for Search Engine Optimization and otherwise.

A major disadvantage of the templating approach is that users have limited control over page design. Any necessary design variants typically require developers. While the required development effort itself may be relatively minor, requirements definition, handoffs between teams, build/test/deploy processes, and other aspects of the implementation process present friction and bottlenecks, increasing time-to-web for relatively trivial changes.

The implementation team can enhance templating solutions to provide some level of relevant capabilities, typically in the form of limited design control options while editing content. Organizations often provide data entry fields in the CMS that let users control specific aspects of page presentation while entering content. This approach requires pre-consideration of all possible page variations and can lead to usability concerns as data entry forms become unwieldy, mixing metadata, content, and options to control page presentation.

Page builders and other solutions that give users a great deal of control over presentation can satisfy internal users and allow instant publication of design changes. Unfortunately, these solutions can result in sites that are visually inconsistent (which reduces predictability and hence usability), do not enforce brand standards, and do not conform to accessibility and other markup requirements. Page builders also typically result in content that is less reusable than solutions that better separate design from presentation. Additionally, they can increase the tightness of coupling between the content management system and the front-end, which works against the intentions of CMS and especially headless/decoupled/composable CMS.

Templating systems may best fit large enterprises and sites that have strong requirements around code quality and page performance, especially where the organization reuses content across multiple channels (website, mobile apps, and otherwise). Page builders may be more appropriate for solutions with fewer pages that have less need for visual consistency. A hybrid solution may be appropriate for projects where some significant percentage of pages are consistent but users need flexibility to create some unique designs, such as landing pages.

Perfection sits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum between templating systems and page builders, between systems that significantly or completely constrain user options for controlling page design and those that grant too much freedom. With Perfection, designers and developers can configure exactly what options users have for controlling presentation, eliminating the constraints of restrictive systems without creating the free-for-all capabilities provided by page builders. Users can control page presentation, but only within branding and other design guardrails defined for the project, and without the risk of generating suboptimal markup.

Perfection is well-suited for hybrid scenarios where the templating approach is appropriate for a large percentage of the pages or components that should have a consistent look and feel but some pages or components must allow greater flexibility. With Perfection, the implementation team can specify exactly what level of control users should have over the presentation of each page and component. Depending on the project's unique requirements, the scope of users' control over design may range anywhere from including only certain aspects of specific presentation components on a subset of pages to complete control over all aspects of all pages.

Additionally, to meet requirements for different projects, Perfection provides two techniques that let users control web page presentation. The most flexible approach allows users to define the layout and styling of individual presentation components or groups of presentation components manually and explicitly. The alternative is to use presets, where users can apply presentation options predefined by others (such as designers) to individual components and groups of components, resulting in a greater degree of visual consistency.

Perfection can also be a great fit for organizations that realize the need for greater control over page design after implementing a templating system. Because it requires no back-end coding and has almost no impact on front-end coding, it's easy to add Perfection to an existing solution.

Perfection has numerous other advantages. Because it works in the site preview environment rather than directly with the CMS, Perfection lets users style data from any system, not just managed content. For example, many websites include commerce back-ends, and can apply the same techniques used to style content from the CMS to data from those systems as well.

Before implementing a web project, consider the level of design control to allow for users. Choose technologies accordingly. Consider tools such as Perfection that provide flexibility without an adverse effect on usability but also allow for precise control over user design capabilities. Also think about adding perfection to existing solutions that do not provide users with enough control over page design. Balance the objective of visual consistency and site usability with the need for user control over page design.

Get in touch today! Interested in exploring a composable approach tailored to your specific needs? Connect with us today to discover how Perfection can help you avoid vendor lock-in and create a flexible, cost-effective digital experience. Book a demo to see our solutions in action.