9.4.2019 12.56

Headless CMS – a hit or a miss?

  • Content Management
  • Digitalisering

In its April CIO-issue, Tivi introduces and compares Headless content management systems. According to the article, Headless CMS has revolutionised the content management of online services, and the phenomenon deserves a closer inspection. Is Headless CMS the utmost, solve-it-all answer to everything, or just a new approach among others, which would require careful consideration and expertise when put into use, just as much as any traditional content management system?

In Tivi’s article, the Headless CMS phenomenon is approached from a slightly dicey angle. In contrasting monolithic systems with headless CMS, it slips into the common pitfall of blaming the system if something goes wrong with the implementation.

Is that really what happens?

In reality, the expertise of service designers and of those implementing the services plays an immensely significant role in whether the online service project succeeds or fails in achieving its goals.

The thing is, traditional CMS is not synonymous with monolithic online service nor monolithic CMS (which are very different things, by the way), as one might easily assume by reading the article. Of course, there have been monolithic implementations even before for sure. But when it comes to differentiating between content, metadata, distribution interface and the manner of presentation, and also to taking advantage of micro-service architecture in cloud environments, their use in implementing multi- or omnichannel services goes way back, to long before the hype around Headless CMS even began. The services where this was the case were probably just better designed to begin with.

Is pageless design owing to Headless CMS?

One of the pain points that Tivi’s article rightly addresses is that designing and implementing online services is still very much page-oriented, meaning that the prevailing trend continues to be creating pages, not multi- or omnichannel content.

However, the way we see it, Headless CMS does not by any means deserve the credit for the pageless implementation in online services as such. We were involved in creating structures, contents as well as channels making use of content, and online services with responsive outlook for more than 10 years ago already! They were built on top of the so-called traditional CMS, which was definitely not a monolith, and the same applies for the services using its content.

Therefore, we argue that technology is not to blame for failed digital projects and hardships in transferring to pageless implementation. Problems emerge when content management professionals have not been included in the design process of online services.

Because the simple fact is that content management is not just a system, but also expertise.

And that expertise is definitely not limited only to knowing systems or how to implement them.

Digital projects fail and hardships in transferring to pageless implementation arise when content management professionals have not been included in the design process of online services.

A content management professional can see the big picture from many angles

A content management professional has the ability to design on many different levels of abstraction – not just layouts and pages, that is, but also information architecture and how these data structures can be eventually modelled into views to the varied digital services and meeting points where relevant content is needed. When this level of expertise is involved, it is easier to break out from page-oriented thinking and move on towards a genuinely omnichannelled service design.

A content management professional understands that operative requirements vary from channel to channel. Where one channel may need simple guideline updates and other “micro-copy” content (e-service applications), with some other channel it is still important to regularly update editorial highlights (news and lifestyle websites).

A content management professional is also interested in the system itself and not only its interface. Working with content on a daily basis is namely carried out in the system, and every system has its own operational logic not only in terms of working with content, but creating and managing different types of content as well.

We know that without the help of a content management professional also Headless CMS can become a horrid tinkering project with no multichannel support and no scalability. What is more, you seem to be stuck with the service provider forever.

Without the help of a content management professional, also Headless CMS can become a horrid tinkering project.


Three tips for those considering Headless CMS

Is Headless CMS then a bad thing? Not at all, but going for Headless CMS calls for careful consideration from many different angles, just like with any other system.

If you are thinking of choosing Headless CMS as your content management solution, consider at least the following:

1. The operative model of content creation

In Tivi’s article, it is stated that “Headless CMS doesn’t contain any elements that represent the actual content.” True, and there are also many other elements missing, such as workflows related to creating content and monitoring its life cycle, automation, and various statuses of content. And for even a slightly heavier need, user management and user roles would be required.

Are these shortcomings critical or not, then? It depends on whether the operative model of content creation is decentralised or centralised. In the centralised model, you can manage and get by with guidance, whereas the decentralised model requires built-in restrictions in the system.

If restrictions are needed, with Headless CMS you need to code everything by hand. The thing is, the letter M in Headless CMS does not live up to what it stands for, as the actual “management” features are missing from it almost completely. For example, nowadays Contentful calls itself by the term Content Infrastructure, which is a less misleading term considering its capabilities to respond to the needs of content management.

2. Architecture – lots of channels or just one service in many forms?

Headless CMS is often brought up as an alternative when talking about multi- or omnichannel digital services.

It is, however, worthwhile to map out your own situation before choosing the system. If you have plenty of channels but they do not share content, Headless CMS won’t necessarily give you any advantage over a good, traditional content management system.

Then again, if a service has a desktop site, a mobile application and plans for bringing on other forms as well (a smart watch, an iPad kiosk in a store and so on), then Headless CMS is just as good an option as any cloud-based, more traditional CMS, which offers good content interfaces.

3. The in-house knowhow of an organisation vs the role of a solution provider and partners

Do you have a clear view and knowhow of how to plan modern content management inside your organisation? Does your implementation partner understand your needs? Are they experienced in omnichannel service planning, for example?

Implementation partners are not always alike. Some of them are accustomed to outlining the big picture by also looking outside the assignment at hand to make sure the planned solution is scalable during its life cycle and accommodates to changing needs. It requires experience, and seasoned professionals are not always available in the current market situation.

Then again, some partners do only what is needed and asked for and they lack the courage to challenge their customer in the right place, which should be as early as when identifying the customer’s needs. In particular, when flaws in functionality or technique are discovered only after the deployment, it incurs additional costs for the customer which could have been anticipated and avoided with professional planning.

With that said, finding the necessary knowhow both for the planning and the implementation is at least as important as the chosen technology that provides the foundation for the solution.

Headless CMS may be a good choice in all of the cases mentioned above, but when talking about content management itself – or should we say content repository – and everything built around it, it is worth remembering how crucial it is to identify and acknowledge what is actually needed. In the worst case scenario, Headless CMS ends up being a completely mindless investment. Unfortunately, we have come across a couple of such instances already.

Tuija Riekkinen

I am a pragmatic and experienced digital professional with a proven track record for getting things done.

I possess an excellent combination of the core skills needed to deliver successful digital solutions. Creating a great digital user experience and profitable online services requires that tasks are done well behind the scenes. Good structured data and content, streamlined and efficient processes and a well-designed technical architecture are all necessary and I have a great eye for each of these items.

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Mikko Mustakallio

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