CMb 2008-04

In-context vs back-end authoring

Written by , published April 7th, 2008

Categorised under: articles, content management

Most modern content management systems provide two different ways of editing site content: in-context editing and back-end editing.

While in-context editing is often seen as ‘sexier’, each method has its strengths and weaknesses. This briefing will explore these two editing options, providing advice on when to use them in practice.

In-context editing

In-context editing allows authors to browse the published website, using site navigation in the normal way to find the desired page.

By clicking a small or hidden button (or some other equivalent action), they can switch into editing mode, updating the content of the page in place.

During editing, the author can see how the published page appears, including the formatting of the text. By updating the content ‘in context’, the author can immediately see the finished product, even as changes are being made. Depending on the vendor, this functionality may be called different things, including ‘live site editing’, ‘in place editing’ or ‘surf-to-edit’.

The big advantage of this method is its simplicity. Authors are familiar with the structure of the published site, and comfortable with navigating through it.

By hiding most of the underlying complexity of the CMS, this alllows authors to concentrate on updating the content.

For these reasons, in-context editing is often seen as the more usable authoring option. It is also commonly seen as a more ‘modern’ option for updating the site.

In-context editing is not without weaknesses. The very simplicity of the interfaces makes some tasks harder, or at least, less obvious.

Updating metadata is often hidden, as there is no natural place for it in an in-context editing interface. Likewise, workflow and other page-level options are less clear.

Even more problematic are tasks such as moving a page or creating a new page. These are very difficult to present without exposing the author to the back-end CMS interface.

The net result is that in-context editing is most effective for small updates of existing pages. It is also a better interface for less experienced or less frequent authors, allowing them to work on the site without being exposed to the full complexity of the CMS.

Skilled or frequent authors can find in-context editing to be inefficient and limiting, and may prefer to work in the back-end environment, as discussed below.

Back-end editing

The traditional way of editing content in a CMS is to log in to the system, and to use the back-end (administrative) interface to update pages.

This typically provides a ‘tree view’ of the site structure, allowing the author to find the desired page, update content, change metadata, and trigger workflow.

This is the more powerful of the two interfaces, and it gives authors access to the full functionality of the CMS. (Depending on security levels, individual authors may be limited in the capabilities that they are allowed to use.)

This is unquestionably a better interface to use when restructuring the site, creating new site sections, or doing other administrative activities.

It may also be a more efficient interface, better suited for more experienced or regular authors.

It is, however, a more complex interface. As discussed in the article, 11 usability principles for CMS products, the challenge is to ensure that the back-end interfaces are quick and easy to use despite the functionality offered.


Both in-context and back-end editing have their place, and each targets a different set of users.

Organisations selecting a CMS should research the needs of their authoring community, and then rigorously assess how well the products meet those needs.

In many cases, organisations will be best served by getting a CMS which supports both methods, but usability remains a key challenge regardless of the authoring method used.

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  1. The author forgets to mention another case where in-context-editing is important: User Generated Content. Wiki(pedia), Digg-alikes, Facebook and so forth, all have no real backend for the day-to-day users.
    So, in the more modern approaches, where your site is a tool, rather then an exposition (where one can only read/consume) you are probably better off with an in-context approach.

  2. Wilf commented on January 6th, 2010

    I’d argue that in-site editing has another disadvantage. If you have content/presentation separation then the author shouldnt really have to care where the content is being used, they should just be focused on making the content great. By making the words flow nicely on their browser, on the one page where they are editing their content, does not mean it will work the same on every browser and every place where that content is in use (e.g. on a different device).

    Personally I think that in-site editing discourages people to think about their content as a separate entity from the page in which it is displayed.