When Anthony Casalena started Squarespace in 2004, it was to build himself a better website. As the company grew, its mission evolved into building personal websites for other people. Then websites for restaurants, and hotels. And musicians. And retailers.
With today’s launch of Squarespace 7, the publishing company will continue to chase as many different kinds of users as possible by creating more tools, one of which is a revamped editing interface that essentially deletes the backend and lets users edit in a true WYSIWYG format. The preview mode replaces the backend interfaces entirely. “It’s a reinvention of flipping between the abstract and concrete,” Casalena tells WIRED.
Content management systems (CMS) inspire a lot of vitriol. They ask users to create web pages through a visual cacophony of tabs, buttons, and boxes that don’t look like the finished product. To see that product, users go into preview mode. See a typo? Go back into edit mode to fix it, then click preview again. “It’s really, really hard to engineer a content management system,” Casalena says. “If you were to go out onto the street in New York and ask someone what’s a website, they’d say something different. Someone would say, ‘my website,’ or ‘eBay is a website.’ When you ask Squarespace what websites can we make, if you look at the wide array of things people try to do, it ends up being really, really vast. The technology behind that very quickly becomes complex.”
To streamline 7, Squarespace did away with most of the tabs and buttons, to instead let users edit in real time. I took the beta version for a spin: After jumping from Squarespace 6 to 7, my homescreen had a rectangular rendering of my site as it would appear on a screen. (You can view sites in smartphone and tablet layout too.) The main navigation tabs stay off to the left, but when I want to edit, say, the typography of a header, I click on that header and am presented with the necessary tools to tinker color and kerning. Before, you had to click your way through a trial-and-error process of figuring out which drop down tab applied to each graphic on the page, and then toggle back and forth between preview and edit to get the aesthetics just right. On 7, the changes appear instantly, true to format, before you exit.
Content management systems are most frequently used in publishing, where different outlets might have different systems custom-tailored to their editorial needs. Squarespace, on the other hand, has to serve many industries with one CMS. And while a lot of those businesses probably need a website, the website isn’t their product. The New York Times charges you to read its site. A restaurant charges you for your meal; their website is ancillary. It makes sense that the Times has employees trained to work in a CMS; for the restaurant, that’s a waste of valuable time, and therefore money.
The new Squarespace touts a suite of other new features too: access to Getty images, built-in Google Apps integration, splash pages, new templates. Some of these new tools are about democratizing good-looking design, and others are straightforward conveniences for users. But they also address a lingering problem with online publishing tools: even the simplest ones can daunt, and confuse, typical users.