So, I want to begin telling you about one of my favorite features of Contentful by talking about one of my least favorite features of WordPress: Custom Fields.
There’s a classic problem that all content management systems suffer from. To create an article or upload one, there is a set number of fields you can use: you can add in a headline. Write the article. Upload a featured image. And, depending on the system, a bunch more – and it can get complex. Oh, you want to upload video content? Great: input the video URL here. Define these embed options here. Add in other images to use around there. With content types, you can have a lot of different fields, different ones for different types.
Here’s the problem: they will never be good enough for your needs.
You want to have a directory of people? Oh, you will need a field for each person that includes their LinkedIn URL, their Twitter URL, their Tumblr URL (oh wait, no one uses Tumblr anymore so you don’t need that one.) And their address. And their company name.
Their company name? Oh wait, you need a different content type for a company! Now for each company, we need a list of employees, a logo, a bunch of team photos, and so forth and so forth.
Do you see how quickly this can spiral out of control?
Now, let’s tie this in to my beloved long-term love, WordPress.
This is actually one of the Achilles’ heels of WordPress. You have to do frustrating back-end work to get your own “custom fields,” as they call it. And yes, there is a classic plugin that does it (Advanced Custom Fields Pro) but having recently upped their price massively, their usage will probably plummet. Uh-oh.
But WordPress here is just an example: this problem is endemic to all content platforms. From Drupal at one end of the scale to Adobe Experience Manager at the other, all have this problem, in one form or another.
Contentful came around!
Part of the reason why here at United Virtualities we love Contentful is that Contentful solved this problem by building in the ability for users – yes, non-developers! – to easily and powerfully create their own content types.
Are you creating a site with lists of cafes and want to have specific fields for “Number of couches” and “Edison lighting or not” and “Patron-to-table ratio” and “Seat comfiness level” and “Music style playing in the background” and “Hours of busyness” and so forth? Yup, you can add in all of those fields easily… with a click! (I may or may not be sitting in a cafe at this very moment which led me to think about this.)
While this is powerful, it might not be self-evident to the non-software developer or content management newbie why this is so powerful, so let me explain.
You may think: why not just write up an article and list the content within it? Every CMS today has a WYSIWYG editor, so why all the hoopla over this?
For a few reasons.
First, on the philosophical level, structure always helps – that’s really what it boils down to. The rest is details, standing on one foot.
Second, let’s say you want to do clever things like “List all cafes by what type of music they play in the background.” (Side-note: that would be an awesome site and I’d love to go and use that site now! Someone, please build that site!) If that is just mentioned in a big content blob on a site, then the software has no way to figure out what that means or what is being said.
But let’s say you have a structured field just for that. Then, suddenly, the software knows that list, and you can just tell it to list all the cafes with that field, grouped by musical style, and so forth!
Third is that additional structure forces clarity in the content creation: you don’t just have to write about X or Y or Z, but you have to make sure all 11 fields are filled out and you don’t miss any.
Fourth is that it allows you to create other types of sites. Maybe you don’t want blogs but lists. Maybe you want to extract the music data and put a new front and URL to it to have a different front-end site. And so forth. Many worlds open up from here.
A broader point, however, is that structure is deeply powerful. Yes, yes, and yes! And Contentful lets you leverage that power.
But it can also be overwhelming. Rather than letting someone belt out a creative article… oh, you need to fill out these 100 fields first. Argh. Who wants to do that? No one. This is where UIs go to die.
So, with great power comes great responsibility as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben has been reminding us since the early ’60s. So create the custom fields on Contentful easily and quickly… and do so with care.