Goodbye templates, hello modular content.
Let me start by saying that there are certain circumstances when a template is need or best fits how we present information. But for web new publications, or if the content goes beyond text, into video, images, or data visualization it’s important to give writers and users creating content different options to tell their stories using these tools without having to call a developer every time.
Templating stories and communication sucks.
Dear, [name of Recipient]: (If unknown, use To Whom It May Concern:)
[Short introductory paragraph, stating purpose]
[closing information, summary or thank you as appropriate]
This is a templated message, if you’re like me you’ve seen and ignored more of these then you can remember. You wouldn’t send a message like to to your grandma (I hope), or write a love letter like this. Shoehorning your content into a template like this takes the soul out of it. Especially if we want our messages to be heard over the shouting of baity links and Facebook feeds.
Now there is a need for some structure, most stories are told in three acts and what would a fairytale be without “Happily ever after”. I’m not saying that we need to need to change the header or footer, just that we need more freedom in between. Some stories are better told with videos, images, graphs, or maps.
Templates are easy to design.
Choosing the best font, the correct size for that font, how much space between paragraphs, the best color to communicate your message, and hundreds of other decisions that make a good site good and a bad site suck. Once design decisions are made it’s easy to develop them. But once the site’s built it’s time consuming and costly to edit. We need something that is easy to change while being beautiful and well thought out technically. Maybe we should use a wysiwyg?
Nope, WYSIWYG’s suck.
Everyone has seen pages built with a wysiwyg, they can be great for formatting text, but beyond that they look horrible, and the truth is what you see is not always what you get. And to be fair it’s not fault of the user, they aren’t designers or developers they are just trying to publish some content. They aren’t planning for or aren’t aware of many things that developers and designers build into their plans like different size screens, mobile devices, cross browser compatibility We can’t expect every story teller and blogger to be fluent in every CMS much less HTML and CSS. And sure they can call their developer and get things changed but now we’ve just changed the template boxes around, not broken out of the box.
We need to be able to have modular content options so that we can wrap design around content.
Enter Modular content.
Modular content is where you create blocks of content that have been thought through and are designed to look great in the site. There are not unlimited options but all the modules of content play well together and give you freedom to switch up layout or mix and match layouts without worrying about clashing with the rest of the design.
Let’s look at some options.
Options: Wp wysiwygs.
Ya I know I just said that wysiwygs suck, but really we don’t have perfect solutions for this problem yet and in some cases with the right users a wysiwyg might be an okay idea, as long as you make sure that you format the content being output to match the rest of the design. And as long as the user doesn’t get overwhelmed by the options.
The nice thing about wysiwygs is that you do get to see (some version of) what you get.
The downside of this option is that you still end up with uglyish content, and the user is still designing and laying out the content themselves.
Visual Composer by wpbakery.
I’ve worked with this Plug-in a bit and it was buggy once WordPress updated to 3.9.
It’s one of the most popular WordPress wysiwygs.
This Plugin adds functionality to the editor that comes with WordPress, but it’s still just a tool that your have to teach users to use.
I think this is the best solution currently on the market.
Advanced custom fields is a plug-in with some sweet options:
Flexible Content fields allows you to design blocks of content that can be added in any order on pages or post. While there are not unlimited options like in a wysiwyg the learning curve is much smaller. And since you build all the modules yourself you can guarantee that everything will look and behave right. If you find that you need more options you can always add more without breaking anything.
ACF has a wysiwyg built in if you want to have that option as well.
The downside of this approach is that when a user first starts using ACF they don’t know what any of the modules look like. Perhaps there is a way to display a preview of the module before the user selects it, but I haven’t implemented that yet.
Need for more options.
I think we need some more options to truly give user a user experience with modular content since all the solutions either have a bit of a learning curve or aren’t very good at showing the user what they are building. There are people working on better solutions but they aren’t ready to be released as a plug-in yet
Maybe ACF can be modified or will change functionality in the future, since it’s doing a very good job solving many problems.
Templating your content is a something better left in the past, and while we don’t have perfect solutions yet we need to work with our clients to create more options. Building limited content modules that play well with each other and the rest of the design will give user flexibility to let the content be the center of communication.