From "faster" to "better": Elevating beyond efficiency through Contentful's developer experience
As digital builders, there's a sense of freedom that comes from working with a content platform such as Contentful for the first time, particularly if you've spent any amount of time with the types of monolithic legacy platforms that preceded it.
Gone are the rigid patterns and limiting paradigms that have plagued content management for decades, many of which defied best practices and industry advancements for the sole purpose of adhering to the status quo of their own creaking ecosystems. By contrast, with Contentful, you’re given a set of tools and philosophies that encourage you to build in whatever way maximizes flexibility and scalability for your specific project or scenario:
Instead of being forced into clunky, proprietary, single-channel templating systems, we’re empowered to use the frameworks and tooling that make sense in an omnichannel world.
Instead of content disappearing into the black holes of unstructured Rich Text editors, all content has structure and meaning, and can be easily pushed and pulled with confidence via robust APIs.
Instead of being locked into an inflexible interface that’s confusing for content authors and developers alike, the entire experience is intuitive, customizable and flexible enough to pair with other best-of-breed platforms.
There’s perhaps no better example of Contentful’s laissez-faire approach to building than in its “CMS as Code” guide. In it, Contentful prescribes an opinionated approach for developing, testing and deploying content alongside code in a continuous integration environment. The platform also supports this type of architecture through powerful features like environments and environment aliases, as well as providing low-level tooling such as migration scripting to correctly wire up all the moving parts.
But what Contentful doesn’t do — intentionally, I believe — is tell builders that they must use these features or follow these processes in order to properly use the platform. Instead, the platform trusts and empowers builders to create the kinds of accelerators and workflows that are uniquely tailored to, and best support, their own individual projects, processes and best practices.
That’s where I believe Contentful’s true power lies. At DEG, a Merkle company, it’s something we’ve leaned into with the creation of our own Contentful accelerator, affectionately known as CAKE.
A Contentful accelerator that takes the CAKE
CAKE (aka Contentful Accelerator Kit for Enterprise) was born out of necessity. Having a powerful API-driven content platform at our disposal — not to mention a bevy of first-party tools and documentation designed to help maximize our developer experience — was incredibly liberating.
But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also a bit daunting. To paraphrase a certain arachnid-starring comic and movie franchise: With great platform power comes great builder responsibility. Contentful gave us the tricked-out super-suit, but it was up to us to figure out how to become superheroes with it. We believe CAKE is our answer to that question.
CAKE certainly checks the basic requirements of a useful development accelerator:
It integrates well with our existing development tools and frameworks. For web projects, we love using Next.js as our production-grade React framework. At its core, CAKE is an extension of our existing Next.js starter kit, meaning any developer who’s familiar with our tools and processes can quickly and painlessly slot into a Contentful-based project, with minimal training overhead.
It takes the grunt work out of setting up the platform. At the start of a project, CAKE gives developers a command-line interface that lets them quickly configure a multi-environment Contentful setup with ready-to-go environmental aliases, API keys and webhooks, all of which can be easily added into any new or existing CI/CD and hosting platform. What can take days or even weeks to set up with other platforms now takes minutes with Contentful.
It makes our builders’ day-to-day lives much easier. We use Plop.js and Visual Studio Code snippets to quickly and consistently scaffold boilerplate code. CAKE adds to this with scaffolding scripts for GraphQL queries, migration scripting and component creation.
Moving beyond developer acceleration
If CAKE was nothing more than a development accelerator, it would still be an effective tool for efficiently spinning up new client projects at DEG. But we quickly realized stopping there would be a huge missed opportunity. What truly opened our eyes was realizing that we could build on the platform’s unique market differentiators to optimize our processes not only for our developers, but for our clients as well.
It all boils down to just one factor: the content model.
It may sound overly simplistic, but if you think about it, structured content is at the core of everything Contentful does. A well-structured model is the single most important key to leveraging the platform for maximum reusability and scalability in an omnichannel world. It’s what sets Contentful apart from the unstructured monoliths that preceded it, and what makes it stand out in a sea of supposed “headless” competitors.
It’s easy to think of a content model as a means to an end for technical implementation, but it’s important to think in the other, more business-oriented direction, too. A content model is the codified interpretation of how content can help a company meet its goals and aspirations.
Without giving away too much of the “secret sauce,” this is where CAKE goes beyond simple acceleration: it’s a bridge that helps translate our clients’ strategic vision into tangible models and, eventually, into manageable content and code. We make this translation in a variety of ways:
We use cross-functional content-modeling sessions that consist of business analysts, technical architects, designers, user experience and even client stakeholders to create models that reflect business requirements, optimized authoring experiences and maximum omnichannel technical flexibility.
We automate the process of translating visual content models into functional specs and, ultimately, migration scripts that can automatically create and update content models within Contentful itself.
Although every client and project is unique, there are inevitably many similarities across them all. CAKE keeps us from “reinventing the wheel” on reusable patterns and models, so we can spend more time focusing on what sets them apart.
By combining these processes and codifying them as part of our actual development accelerator, we’re able to significantly tighten the gaps between our clients’ content strategy and content implementation. This means our clients’ digital experiences are much more tightly aligned with their business goals, while the time it takes to iterate on and deliver those experiences to their customers drops dramatically.
You can go your own way, too
At DEG, we believe we’ve created something special in CAKE. With Contentful under the hood, we can go to market quickly, with higher quality, and with our clients’ business goals and strategies directly connected to our content-modeling and development processes.
It’s a winning combination for us, our clients and the types of work we do. But the important thing to remember here is that this strategy may not be right for everyone all of the time. That may mean specific projects at DEG need to be handled differently, or it may not be relevant to those reading this whose ways of working look completely different from those of a digital agency.
The beauty of Contentful is that everyone has the freedom to build in the ways that work best for them. Contentful provides the tools and recommendations you need to get started, but it’s up to you to shape them into your own elevated experience.