WYSIWYG Round Up

The conversation surrounding what content management systems and their accompanying WYSIWYG editors do, could do, and should do is a complex one, with myriad potential solutions. This week, Marli Mesibov brings us up to speed on the arguments for - and against - the next generation of WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG editors, structured content, in-line editing… lately, these words are everywhere. The conversation surrounding what content management systems and their accompanying WYSIWYG editors do, could do, and should do is a complex one. Rather than offer a clear solution—and trust us, if one existed we would share it—we’re following the conversation so that other UX designers can see where it all began, and hopefully join in.

It’s a conversation that’s going on, predominantly led by Karen McGrane, and I think it would be interesting to lead readers down the path: who said what when, and where you can read what they said to follow the discussion.

Your WYSIWYG Editor Sucks, by Rachel Andrew

Like any conversation, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it segued, but July 2011 is a good starting place. That’s the month Rachel Andrew, managing director of edgeofmyseat.com, the company that created the CMS Perch, put down her thoughts on WYSIWYG editors in no uncertain terms.

“WYSIWYG Editors suck because they promote thinking about style rather than content” Rachel wrote, a precursor to the many arguments for adaptive content.

Inline Editing and the Cost of Leaky Abstractions, by Jeff Eaton

18 months later, in December 2012, digital strategist Jeff Eaton added his thoughts to the mix. Where Rachel might have been thrilled a year earlier with an inline editor, Jeff pointed out its flaws — inline editors are only contextual for one page at a time. Jeff had no solution to offer, but his perspective helped open many eyes to the possibilities.

WYSIWTF, by Karen McGrane

In May 2013 hundreds of content and digital strategists became suddenly aware that WYSIWYG editors had flaws that might be solved by a mindset shift. No, it wasn’t the singularity that caused this sudden awareness, it was an article written by Karen McGrane, championing semantic markup and a view of content as “chunks” rather than “blobs.”

One sentence in particular is striking, for its focus is not on a new CMS or some other new product. “Defining what goes in a field and what goes in a tag requires a tighter collaboration between content authors, CMS architects, and front-end developers. It’s time we started having these conversations,” Karen told us.

WYSIWYG and In Place Editing for Structured Content, by Dries Buytaert

That same month, this past May, is when Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, joined the conversation. In addition to highlighting Karen McGrane’s DrupalCon keynote, Dries added his own thoughts to the mix, particularly around Drupal’s authoring system.

“We’ve been talking about the advantages and disadvantages of WYSIWYG for more than 10 years now, and we still haven’t figured out better approaches. The best we’ve been able to do is to evolve WYSIWYG editing and in-place editing to apply to individual chunks instead of the entire page, to generate clean markup and to better guide authors to make them aware that their input may end up in many forms of output.” Even as Dries disagreed with elements of Karen’s keynote, he began to embrace the language of blobs and chunks.

Many more content creators, editors, and strategists began to join the conversation, many of them responding to Karen’s anti-WYSYWIG battle cry. Slowly but surely the lines were divided: between WYSIWYG and in-line editing supporters, and between structured and unstructured content supporters. The Truth about WYSIWYG Editing in Your CMS, by Tom Wentworth is a good example of one such article, responding to Karen while also offering additional perspective.

WYSIWTF, by Rasmus Skjolden

Then, in August, Rasmus Skjolden, the creative lead of the team that built the CMS TYPO3, wrote his own ranting battle cry. Rasmus summarized much of the summer’s debate, and suggested we come together to create something better.

“I think much of the criticism in the content strategy community against inline editing has been based on the premise that inline editing is synonomous only with WYSIWYG editing,” Rasmus said. Most of the summer of 2013, the discussion was concerned with mindset shifts, but Rasmus brought back the possibility of a solution by way of a software change. Instead of changing the editors or choosing between in-line and WYSIWYG editors, Rasmus suggested a change in the way “preview” works, to better preview adaptive content. Once again, the conversation shifted.

Responsive Design won’t Solve your Content Problem, by Karen McGrane

Now, in December, the conversation continues, and we hope readers will share their own experiences or articles in the comments. But if there’s one more article to read to bring us up to speed, it’s another by Karen McGrane, from just last month, November 2013.

As the blobs-and-chunks discussion progressed over the summer, so did the responsive design and adaptive content discussion. The two are linked, to the point that some strategists began suggesting that responsive design would automatically result in structured content — a myth that Karen quickly laid to rest.

Where to next?

In our rapidly shifting world of technology, the conversation on WYSIWYG, inlined editing, and structured content is far from over. Come join the conversation!

About the Author

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a love of education and games. Her work spans game design, web applications, and mobile. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, literature, and Muppets.

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2 Comments

  • Randy Carey Reply

    Thanks. I’ve been trying to follow this conversation in pieces as I find them, and it is very helpful to have this summary that ties them together. I experiment by prototyping interfaces to a CMS, and this is an area worthy of experimentation.

  • Jeff Marlon Reply

    Well, about WYSIWYG editors, I want to say that I have also the same issue like Rachel Andrew. The editors should concentrate on content rather than styles otherwise they can’t survive in the market.

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