Guardrails and Content Authoring Flexibility: Finding the Right Balance

Content teams want landing pages to be dynamic and reflect the vision they have inside their heads. Organizations want brand consistency and standardization. How do we marry these desires together?

Content teams want the flexibility to publish content creatively. They want landing pages to be dynamic and reflect the vision they have inside their heads. Organizations want to encourage brand and writing-style consistency (sometimes across a whole network of websites). They also want to ensure their content is maintainable and meets web accessibility and security standards.

How do we marry these desires together? One way is with proper guardrails for the authoring experience. Putting guardrails in place can help keep content within certain parameters without feeling too restrictive for authors and editors.

Types of guardrails

What makes a good guardrail? For one, guardrails are there in case of emergencies. You don't want to make a habit of bumping into them because that would ruin the paint job on your car. Ideally, they aren't noticed unless people are looking for them. Guardrails are there to guide people along the way they are already going while offering protection if something starts to go wrong.

The content-authoring experience of a website should be akin to driving on a well-planned and maintained roadway. Here are different types of guardrails you can use:

  • Use good labels, help text, and task-based navigation. Similar to clear signage on the road, you don't want your editors guessing what goes in a field or what to do next. Labels should follow the voice and tone outlined in your organization's content style guide. Help text should provide clear examples of expected content for each field. Menus and other links in the user interface should be clear and contextual to the user and the task at hand. Don't confuse authors with extra options they might not even have access to.
  • Plan out the right amount of space. Have you ever driven down a road without a shoulder, where the lane feels too narrow, and you feel like the tires are about to fall off the edge? Don't make your authors feel like that while they are entering content. They need ample space to write what they need while following voice, tone, and style guidelines. But they also need those lines painted somewhere.
  • Provide the ability to write drafts, save progress, and view previews. Authors should feel not feel like they need to speed. Enabling them to enter content at their own pace, knowing that their progress isn't going to be lost or be published until it is ready, all contribute to a sense of safety.
  • Fix functionality bugs or user experience (UX) obstacles. Know the feeling of driving over a road with potholes and rough, uneven pavement? That's what content authors and editors feel like when they encounter functionality bugs and bad UX. Test your authoring forms and processes rigorously and with real content to ensure all components work as expected.
  • Optimize for page performance. Consider using automated image optimization so that pages on your site are performant and load quickly for visitors. A visitor trying to read an article that is slowly loading 50MB of pictures can feel like being stuck behind a garbage truck on a one-way street.
  • Limit external code in content. Put restrictions on what authors can put into WYSIWYG fields, like third-party embedded code or JavaScript snippets, for site security. Authors usually don't want to deal with raw code anyway, so talk to them about why they are trying to insert such things to figure out a better solution to their needs.
  • Prevent accessibility issues stemming from content entry. Like taking a driver's education class to get a driver's license, authors need editor training to understand and follow the rules of the road. Training can help authors feel comfortable behind the wheel by letting them become familiar with the different forms and authoring tools they will use in the system. Training is an opportunity to give guidance on how to correctly structure content with headings and list markup and to include well-written alt text for non-decorative images.

Structured content

We advocate for structured content, which requires planning and organizing content into discrete fields per thing, even for a simple content type like an article. Instead of one large field to hold everything, we recommend structuring content piece by piece based on what it is and how it will be used to convey information across the site or content system. For example, on an article content type, we would typically start with an article title field, a published date field, an author name field, and an article body field at minimum.

For certain use cases, the content can be broken down even more. Some content may be better served with discrete month, day, and year fields instead of a full date field that contains all three pieces or providing individual fields for a person's title, first name, last name, and suffix instead of a single name field. 

But you don't want to go too far. Otherwise, you risk complicating content entry for your content team. Over-structuring content can make content entry more tedious than is necessary and introduce complexity that impacts the site implementation and maintenance. However, content systems that aren't set up with enough structure can negatively impact how your content does in search results, which prevents site visitors from finding your content.

Authoring flexibility vs. rigidity

Finding the right balance between content authoring flexibility and rigidity is difficult because the perfect balance in one system can be lopsided in another one. It depends upon the CMS and the authors who use it.

Too rigid

If the authoring experience is too rigid, authors fight against the system's constraints and feel frustrated, defeated, or disenfranchised. For example, authors may not be able to complete tasks they are asked to do, like posting an alert to the homepage, if only the site administrator can do that. This is especially true for authors who previously enjoyed a lot of authoring freedom.

Too flexible

If the authoring experience is too flexible, the integrity of the design and content system can be compromised and the content's message is lost. The content system becomes difficult to maintain as the quantity of content expands without enough structure or oversight. Content quality becomes inconsistent due to too many options and, ironically, is inflexible to future innovations. Authors have a wide unmarked road without lanes or signage, but this also means they have no clear way to get to their destination. This can be a negative experience for authors who are used to doing something one way and one way only. They can become overwhelmed with too many options to do what they need to do.

Finding the right balance

You don't want narrow, rigid guardrails because they hinder creativity and frustrate content teams. Authors can feel like they are part of an assembly line instead of an important part of the creative process. You also risk content getting locked into dated trends. A content authoring system with guardrails works best when

  • the authoring functionality matches the author's expectations and level of experience, 
  • enables authors to complete the tasks they need to, 
  • allows for content creativity while avoiding chaos.

Media asset management is an example that illustrates the importance of finding the right balance. Content managers often want to ensure that all media assets added to the site, like images or videos, meet rigorous content, style, copyright, and resolution quality standards. They may also want to encourage content authors to reuse images or videos already in the media library to reinforce branding with approved imagery. 

However, for authors to find images in the library to use, the image and video assets need to be created with metadata about them included. The metadata enables browsing and filtering on aspects of the media asset, like what is pictured, the image aspect ratio, file size, or the year the image was taken. For this to be possible, authors need to completely fill out the metadata fields each time they add a media asset to the library. By accounting for this additional work, you can evaluate if media asset reuse will benefit your organization or create more burden on the authors than the value it adds.

How do you find the right amount of guardrail structure to guide your content authoring experience? First, embrace the idea that it may need to change over time. The balance of authoring flexibility and constraints will need to adjust as your organization's content maturity level increases and new content goals are set. To get started, meet with people at your organization to talk about your current content system.


Interview site stakeholders and content authors to learn more about the current content process. Ask questions to figure out the current state of your content, what your organization's goals for the content are, who the audience you want to reach with your content is, and what the practical limitations on the content creation lifecycle are. Some questions to ask in these interviews:

  • Who is the primary audience of the site?
  • What are the most important kinds of information currently on the website?
  • What does the current content authoring process look like? Can you talk through it? 
  • Who creates and manages content? Is it a particular role held by one person or a team?
  • What are some pain points you have when authoring content?

You may uncover that the content system does not match the skill level of most content authors. There may be competing priorities for target audiences and content messaging. These valuable findings can inform which guardrails to put in place or even remove. 

Even with guardrails, some authors will need guidance and training on using the content system. Other authors will be limited in what they can achieve themselves, even though they are capable of doing more. Achieving that balance is necessary to deliver content that consistently meets your organization's content guidelines.

Saying "no" to requests for more flexibility

Sometimes authors will come to you asking for more flexibility. The current content structure isn't working for them; they feel they can't realize some of their goals. They want you to take down some of the guardrails.

First, you need to get to the root of their need. Gently asking "why" will allow you to understand the request better. There are three possible outcomes:

  • The flexibility they want is aligned with content goals and will provide value, but it requires development work. Discuss what the feature requirements are, and prioritize the work with your development team.
  • The flexibility they want is already achievable within the existing system. If this is the case, you need to surface it to content authors more clearly by including it in the content training, doing a demonstration, and writing documentation. 
  • The flexibility they want goes against the stated goals for your organization's content. This doesn't mean a hard "no." It just means you must facilitate further discussions to reach a resolution.

However, rejecting a request is harder if your organization has no unifying mission or goals set for its content.

The importance of a clear destination

It's easy to end up driving in circles if you don't know where you are going. How do you prioritize anything related to content if you don't have clear goals to work towards? You are left to personal preferences. Any change, any guardrail, any attempt at more or less content system flexibility is easier to evaluate if there is a central and shared mission.

The American Booksellers Association's new IndieCommerce™ e-commerce platform had a clear mission driving all interface decisions: to provide "the tools for indie bookstores to create unique, content-rich, and easy-to-operate, fully transactional, e-commerce-enabled websites." 

In practical terms, they wanted to allow for content creativity while still having guardrails to enforce standards. This mission was the through-line for the entire project. It allowed them to dedicate resources to the platform's user experience. This focus resulted in providing a custom administration dashboard, task-based pages for managing the bookstore site and commerce settings, and flexibility to style a site's look and feel while meeting WCAG AA. Their mission prioritized strategy and development work that enhanced the user experience and ensured that the experience was maintained with comprehensive testing and iterative feedback from start to finish.

Having a mission in place makes your decisions around guardrails much easier. You can prioritize work that furthers the mission, which gives you clarity about what the content authoring experience needs.


With a commitment to optimizing the content authoring experience, organizational agreement on a mission, and willingness to talk to people about content authoring, you can establish the right balance between flexibility and rigidity in your content system. Setting up guardrails that fit your content process empowers content authors to bring their content to life while ensuring that content meets brand and style guidelines. Research, test, iterate, and repeat.

If you'd like help finding the right balance for your content teams, we can work with you to create an authoring experience that makes content authors happy and gets your content to the right audience.

Get in touch with us

Tell us about your project or drop us a line. We'd love to hear from you!