Content Management 101, part 2: E-Commerce Systems

Editor’s Note: This article, part 1 of a 2-part series on content management systems, is excerpted from The Designer’s Web Handbook by Patrick McNeil. Check out part 1, which dealt with hosted vs. installed CMS options and systems for managing blog and static content. Like what you read here? Then you’ll want to add the book to your design library.

A content management system (CMS) allows an individual or a team to easily manage the content of a website. Some of the core functions and purposes of a CMS include:

Allow for multiple users to publish and manage content
Implement workflow permissions and rules to ensure business rules are followed (like editorial reviews and such)
Reduce repetitive tasks and automate basic features

Why Content Management Systems Matter

Content management systems allow site owners to update their own content, something that has become a basic assumption for most site owners. This often saves them money and keeps you out of the business of fixing punctuation and other minor things.

This is great for site owners, but why should designers care? The answer to this is simple: Most often site owners and content managers are not adept at web development, and quite often not skilled in the visual arts. This makes it almost a certainty that they will destroy the design with strange text styles or inappropriately sized images. This is where the CMS comes into play.

When implemented properly, a CMS can be set up to have multiple page layout templates (as you designed them). These templates serve as building blocks for your client to create new content. They also serve to isolate the structural elements from the content. The idea is to minimize the destruction site owners can inflict. This means that the CMS will help preserve your design’s integrity. Notice I said “help”; it will never fully protect it. But at least the problems will be isolated and hopefully you can train your clients to leverage the system in the best way possible, all with the hope of maintaining the design’s integrity.

Types of CMS Platforms

Content management systems come in all shapes and sizes. There are countless systems out there, some targeted at specific site types, some for small sites and still others made to run multimillion-dollar businesses.

In this series, we’re looking at a few of the most prominent system types available, so you can be sure to choose a CMS option that matches your needs. (See Part 1 of the series on blog and static content platforms.)

E-Commerce Platforms

Selecting a CMS is a critical step in building any website. But when it comes to building an e-commerce site, the selection of the right CMS couldn’t possibly be any more crucial. It is a choice that can either doom a project from the start or give it a chance to truly succeed.

Example of great e-commerce website design

Sites such as this one, and countless other e-commerce sites, are built on popular platforms that accommodate for the majority of needs in terms of functionality.core

My suggestion is that you pay very close attention to your client, their needs, their processes and the features that will help them the most. Here are some important things to consider:

How many products do they need in the store?
  • How does the system handle order processing?
  • Does the platform integrate with shipping services?
  • How do you go about generating shipping labels and packing slips?

These types of questions will serve you well when filtering down the vast array of options. Before I recommend a couple of e-commerce platforms for you to investigate, here are two key points:

First, I am focusing on what I consider smaller systems. While these platforms can handle very large businesses with a large quantity of orders, the list does not include what would be considered enterprise-level systems. Frankly, if the project requires a system on that scale, then as the designer you are most likely not a part of the selection process, and the choice will probably be made before you even get involved.

Second, I want to encourage you to carefully consider a hosted platform. I have come across many sites that do millions of dollars a year in business and are run on hosted systems. Don’t assume that a large business must be self-hosted. Keep your mind open to truly find the best solution for your client.

So, here are a few options to consider as you begin your research process:

Hosted platforms

Self-hosted options

Blended CMS Platforms

The truth is that most platforms are blended. Many systems can be made to behave like almost any other system. For example, three of the most popular free platforms (WordPress, Drupal and Joomla) can be extended in countless ways to fill almost any role imaginable. You can turn WordPress into an e-commerce store with the addition of a plug-in, for example.

In contrast, there are a number of platforms that set out to be complete solutions out of the box. Some of these will merge many feature sets into a single system to make overall maintenance and business operations easier. The only real downside is that these systems often have less optimal versions of various feature sets. For example, say the CMS includes an e-mail marketing system. It will probably do the job, but it will never be as robust as a tool like Mail Chimp or Campaign Monitor.

More resources for web designers

One thought on “Content Management 101, part 2: E-Commerce Systems

  1. Hemang Rindani

    Nice article Patrick. Content management system are very capable of handling large chunks of data that is uploaded over the website. It provides an easy to use interface and reduces the work of IT team to develop and manage the web content. Some CMSes supports large number of user accounts who can look after the website.

    It is important to understand business needs and select the right CMS that fulfills those requirements. E-commerce sites are difficult to handle especially when huge amount of data is maintained over the website. CMS can be a great choice for such websites.

    Thanks for the article.